Robert Henryson  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Robert Henryson (alternative spelling: Henrysoun) was a poet who flourished in Scotland in the period c. 1460–1500. Counted among the Scots makars, he lived in the royal burgh of Dunfermline and is a distinctive voice in the Northern Renaissance at a time when the culture was on a cusp between medieval and renaissance sensibilities. Little is known of his life, but evidence suggests that he was a teacher who had training in law and the humanities, that he had a connection with Dunfermline Abbey and that he may also have been associated for a period with Glasgow University. His poetry was composed in Middle Scots at a time when this had become a state language. It is one of the most important bodies of work in the canon of early Scottish literature.

His writing consists mainly of narrative works highly inventive in their development of story-telling techniques. He generally achieved a canny balance of humour and high seriousness which is often multi-layered in its effects. This is especially so in his Morall Fabillis, in which he expresses a consistent but complex world view that seems standard, on the surface, vis a vis the major ruling power of the church, while containing critical and questioning elements. This range is further extended in his Testament of Cresseid with its more tragic vision. Overall, his themes and tone convey an attractive impression of humanity and compassionate intellect. He was a subtle rhetorician and remains to this day one of the finest in the Scots language.

Although his writing usually incorporated a typically medieval didactic purpose, it also has much in common with other artistic currents of northern Europe which were generally developing, such the realism of Flemish painting, the historical candour of Barbour or the narrative scepticism of Chaucer. An example is his subtle use of psychology to convey individual character in carefully dramatised, recognisable daily-life situations which tend to eschew fantastic elements.

His surviving body of work amounts to almost exactly 5000 lines.

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