Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Henryson, Robert
HENRYSON or HENDERSON, ROBERT (1430?–1506?), Scottish poet, was probably born between 1420 and 1430, but neither the family to which he belongs nor the place of his birth has been discovered. Sibbald's surmise (Chronicles of Scottish Poetry, i. 88) that he was Henryson of Fordel, Fifeshire, father of the justice-clerk, James Henryson, who fell at Flodden, is not supported by evidence, nor is there any proof that he is related to the Fordel family. His name is not on the university register of either St. Andrews or Glasgow, the only two university seats then in Scotland; and Dr. Laing, in the introduction to his complete edition of Henryson's ‘Poems and Fables,’ thinks it likely that he may have completed his studies and graduated abroad. His common appellation, ‘Master Robert Henryson,’ indicates that he was a master of arts. When he was admitted, 10 Sept. 1462, as a member of the recently founded Glasgow University, he was called ‘the Venerable Master Robert Henrysone, Licentiate in Arts and Bachelor in Decrees.’ Attesting three separate deeds (March 1477–8 and July 1478) granted by the abbot of Dunfermline, he is described as ‘Magister Robertus Henrison, notarius publicus.’ As at that time notaries were commonly clergymen, Henryson was probably in orders, and as on the title-page of the ‘Fables’ of 1570 (Harleian MS. 3865, p. 1; Morall Fables, 1621) he is called a schoolmaster, it is probable that he held a clerical appointment within Dunfermline Abbey. The abbots elected the schoolmaster of the grammar school, which was within the precincts of the abbey, and this may have been Henryson's post. Lord Hailes (Ancient Scottish Poems, p. 273) supposes his office to have been ‘that of preceptor of youth in the Benedictine convent at Dunfermline.’
In the fifth stanza of the prologue to his ‘Testament of Cresseid’ Henryson calls himself ‘a man of age,’ and Dunbar's reference to his death in his ‘Lament for the Makaris’ (written before 1508) seems to indicate that the event was comparatively recent. There are only three after him on the melancholy roll (not including Kennedy, who ‘in poynt of dede lyis veraly’). It is probable that Dunbar knew Henryson, and that if he did not live into the beginning of the sixteenth century, he died very late in the fifteenth. Sir Francis Kinaston [q. v.], who about 1635 appended Henryson's ‘Testament’ to a rhymed Latin version of Chaucer's ‘Troylus,’ embodied in his introduction a tradition, derived from ‘divers aged schollers of the Scottish nation,’ that the author was ‘one Mr. Robert Henderson, sometimes chiefe schoole-master in Dumfermling,’ adding that he died at a very great age. It is quite possible that Henryson wrote his poem ‘Ane Prayer for the Pest’ when the plague, known as ‘Grandgore,’ was in Edinburgh in 1497, but there is nothing to support the surmise (Henderson, Annals of Dunfermline) that he was one of its victims, when, as shown by the burgh records, it raged in Dunfermline in 1499. Henryson is the most Chaucerian of the Scottish ‘makaris.’ The ‘Tale of Orpheus’ and the ‘Testament of Cresseid’ alone amply exemplify this. The latter, indeed, despite Charteris's Edinburgh edition of 1593, was given as Chaucer's, along with the ‘Troylus,’ until Urry distinguished it as Henryson's in his edition of Chaucer, 1721. Its descriptive writing is vigorous, and it has passages of strenuous impassioned verse, the complaint of the leprous Cresseid, in particular, being a rapid and impressive outburst. Henryson is abreast of the culture of his time, and loftily moralises (both in the ‘Fables’ and the philosophical lyrics) on the troubles of his fatherland. His ‘Abbey Walk,’ ‘Garmond of Gude Ladeis,’ ‘Ressoning betwixt Aige and Yowth,’ and the like, show him as a strict didactic philosopher and Christian optimist. He is the first pure lyrist among Scottish poets. His ingenious rhymes and his mastery of pause and cadence, as seen, e.g., in the quatrain of the ‘Garmond’ and the octave of the ‘Abbey Walk’ and ‘Robene and Makyne,’ betoken a correct and disciplined ear. Besides giving special direction to the ballad, Henryson introduced into the language the moral fable and the pastoral. His ‘Bludy Serk,’ ‘Morall Fables of Esope the Phrygian,’ and ‘Robene and Makyne’ are all distinct and valuable additions to English poetry. Despite the tediousness of which Lord Hailes and others complain, there are no better fables in the language than the thirteen written by Henryson, and his pastoral—the love story of a Scottish lad and lass, with its wayward freaks and fancies, its happy dialogue, and its critical close—holds a unique position.
The following collections include poems by Henryson: The Asloan MS. of 1515, the Bannatyne MS. of 1568, the Maitland MS. of 1585, the Harleian MS. 3865, and the Makculloch MS. in Dr. Laing's collection. The ‘Orpheus’ appeared in the miscellany of Chepman & Myllar, 1508. In 1593 Henry Charteris printed in 4to at Edinburgh ‘The Testament of Cresseid, compylit be M. Robert Henryson, Sculemaister in Dunfermeling,’ and Andro Hart [q. v.], in 1621, printed in 8vo at Edinburgh ‘The Morall Fables of Esope the Phrygian, compyled into eloquent and ornamentell Meeter, by Robert Henrisoun, Schoolemaster of Domfermeling.’ Dr. Nott considered that Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) might have been indebted to Henryson's ‘Taill of the uponlandis Mous and the burges Mous’ for the idea of his first satire, and he therefore quoted the fable from the Harleian MS. in an appendix to his edition of Wyatt's ‘Poems.’ Henryson is fairly well represented in Lord Hailes's ‘Ancient Scottish Poems, published from the MS. of George Bannatyne,’ 1770; in Pinkerton's ‘Ancient Scotish Poems,’ 1786, and ‘Scotish Poems reprinted from scarce editions,’ 1792; and in Sibbald's ‘Chronicle of Scotish Poetry,’ vol. i., 1802. George Chalmers [q. v.] edited and presented to the Bannatyne Club in 1824 a quarto volume, containing ‘Robene and Makyne’ and the ‘Testament of Cresseid;’ and the Maitland Club published in 4to, 1832, ‘The Moral Fables,’ reprinted from Andro Hart and edited by Dr. Irving. Dr. David Laing, in 1865, published, in 1 vol. 8vo, ‘The Poems and Fables of Robert Henryson, now first collected, with Notes and a Memoir of his Life,’ and this seems likely to be the standard edition.
[Dr. Laing's volume, as above; Irving's Introduction to the Moral Fables, and his Lives of the Scotish Poets and History of Scotish Poetry.]