March 27, 2014, by Nicola Royan
A chilly spring?
Ane doolie sessoun to ane cairfull dyte doolie: doleful; dyte: story
Suld correspond and be equiualent. Suld: should.
So begins Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid, a story of what happened to Cresseid (or Criseyde or Cressida, depending on your preferred version) after she left Troy. Henryson’s tale is indeed a ‘cairfull dyte’, for Cresseid is rejected by Diomede, and, after being condemned by the gods for alleged blasphemy, she contracts leprosy, thus losing first her beauty and then her life. Dismal as that sounds in summary, however, it is a complex, compelling and potentially redemptive poem: that complexity is embedded from the very beginning, even in the description of the weather.
Seasonal settings in medieval verse are often evocative. Many people – even T.S. Eliot – are familiar with the spring opening to The Canterbury Tales, and its references to new life and the desire to be out and about. A late spring setting, commonly May, is often found in dream narrative and love poetry. But medieval poets do not just offer conventional images of spring, but use the seasons to create atmosphere, just as much as any other writer. I maintain that my experience of the Old English poem The Wanderer is much enhanced by the experience of waiting at a lonely Scottish bus stop in driving rain in the middle of November: I certainly recognised the writer’s depiction of chilly isolation. Although Chaucer’s London was apparently warmer than Henryson’s Dunfermline, nevertheless, Henryson’s evocation of a Scottish spring is very familiar, and not just to Scots. Over the last few days in Nottingham, we too have seen ‘in the middis of the Lent/ Schouris of haill gart fra the north discend/ That scantlie fra the cauld I micht defend’ (5-7).
But there is more to Henryson’s description than that. The first hint of something more comes in the identification of the time as Lent. A period of repentance and fasting important in the medieval church, it ends with Good Friday and Easter, a time of acute trial and then a rebirth and a redemption. Like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, to which it is a response, The Testament is not an overtly Christian poem, and there is no sense whatsoever that Cresseid will be redeemed in an after-life. For that reason, then, the choice of Lent is striking. Its significance seems developed by the third stanza:
The northin wind had purifyit the air
And sched the mistie cloudis fra the sky; sched: cleared
The froist freisit, the blastis bitterly froist: frost; freisit: froze
Fra Pole Artick come quhisling loud and schill, quhisling: whistling;
And causit me remufe aganis my will. (17-21) remufe: remove
The key word is ‘purifyit’: like its season, the weather is an agent of change and of self-examination. If the sky is purified by the loss of clouds, then the temperature drops, unpleasantly, but it makes visibility much, much clearer. Although Cresseid dies at the end of the poem, she dies with some understanding of who she is and how she got there, including her own faults and misjudgements. She does not forgive herself, nor does Troilus – or anyone else – forgive her: the Arctic wind is still whistling. However, she reaches the point where ‘[n]ane but my self as now I will accuse’ (574).
Such a self-understanding (I don’t think it really matters if we as readers don’t agree with her view) puts her in direct contrast with the narrator. The narrator, the one suffering from the cold, is a further layer of complexity. Although he is sometimes identified with Henryson himself, most critics seem him as at the very least a distant projection of the poet. While his propensity to curl up with a book and some wine on a cold night makes him a very attractive figure, his refusal to recognise his old age and unsuitability for love makes him both idle in self-understanding and judgemental in his depiction of Cresseid. I think the poem suggests that it would better for him to endure the cold and recognise himself for what he is. The hail, then, might not simply be important atmospheric effect, but also for interpretative understanding. Leaving the demands of self-knowledge aside, however, I think I’ll keep the central heating on a little bit longer.
If you would like to know more about Robert Henryson’s poem, you can read in Robert Henryson: The Poems ed. Denton Fox (Oxford: OUP, 1987) or you can read it in Seamus Heaney’s translation, The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables (London: Faber and Faber, 2009).