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This review is taken from PN Review 193, Volume 36 Number 5, May - June 2010.

A CRIB FOR A MAKAR ROBERT HENRYSON, The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables. Translated with an introduction by Seamus Heaney (Faber) £12.99

Faber have produced a handsome two-dialect hardback edition of Henryson’s masterpiece and Seamus Heaney’s version together with seven of his fables, of which two have Henryson’s very own Fantastic Mr. Fox five hundred years before Roald Dahl. But this may be Seamus Heaney’s least necessary book. Apart from previous publication with artwork by Enitharmon in 2004, there is the issue of Robert Henryson’s accessibility to the average reader of poetry, if indeed there is such a beast as an average reader of poetry. Henryson was the closest to Chaucer of the poets once known as the Scottish Chaucerians, but wrote in Scots in a formal alliterative mode. The Testament of Cresseid, his masterpiece, is explicitly a sequel to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:

I tuik ane quair - and left all uther sport -
Writtin be worthie Chaucer glorious,
Of fair Creisseid and worthie Troylus.

In his introduction Heaney attempts to pre-empt the objection that ‘the Scots is not, in fact, so opaque’ by suggesting that ‘people who are neither students nor practising poets are unlikely to make (the) deliberate effort’ of reading the original, ‘eyes to-ing and fro-ing between text and glossary’. I imagine that ‘patronising’ would be probably the mildest retort to this north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Heaney cites Eliot Weinberger on his reasons for translating Henryson. However, given the relative accessibility of Henryson’s Scots, the first, ‘advocacy of the work in question’ can surely be achieved by ...

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