Monday, March 01, 2010

What We're Reading: The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables

The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables, by Robert Henryson. Translated by Seamus Heaney.

This book will not find a wide audience, but hopefully an appreciative one where found. Robert Henryson was a 15th century Scottish poet who wrote a dozen or so very inventive and largely original fables (presented as retellings of Aesop) He is best known for his major work, The Testament of Cresseid, which picks up where Chaucer’s story of Troilus and Criseyde ends, recounting the sad demise of the faithless Criseyde after she leaves Troilus for her Greek lover Diomede.

The poem is written in Middle Scots, a distinctive northern version of English, a language that because of unfamiliar orthography and arcane word choice as become largely inaccessible to modern readers without constant reference to an extensive glossary, something that of course rather destroys the flow and poetry of the work. Heaney has attempted to “translate” the poem into modern English, as he did most famously with his translation of Beowulf, while preserving its essence and vitality.

This is Heaney’s element, and I can think of no poet better suited to the task. Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Poetry, has produced a body of work that among its many virtues conveys meaning and delight by his use of language that references the root or essence of words; words are chosen because in their sound and core meaning they come most close to the thing itself. It results in a modern poetic idiom that extends and refreshes the language of modern English poetry by a recovery of its distinctive sounds and tropes.

The success of these selections in translation is due not only to Heaney’s skill and poetic predilections but also to the pull of the world that Henryson has here created, one that like Chaucer’s world bridges with broad sympathy and humor the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and that juxtaposes the culture of Medieval Christianity with folk traditions.

If you are intimidated by the landscape, Heaney’s introduction to the works he has translated is succinct and superb literary criticism, providing an orientation to the reader that will enable an understanding and appreciation that both Henryson’s original and Heaney’s translation well deserve.

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