See edition of his work by H. H. Wood (rev. ed. 1958, repr. 1968); study by J. MacQueen (1967).
Robert Henryson was a poet who flourished in Scotland in the period c.1460 – 1500. Counted among the Scots Makars, he lived in the historic city of Dunfermline and is a distinctive voice in the northern renaissance at a time when Scotland was on a cusp between medieval and renaissance sensibilities. Little is known of his life, but evidence suggests that he was a teacher and canon lawyer in the Church, that he had a connection with Dunfermline Abbey, and that he may also have taught for a period in Glasgow University. His poetry is one of the most important bodies of work in the canon of early Scottish literature.
Henryson's works are vivid, subtle and multi-layered poems, mainly of narrative poetry, which are highly inventive in their development of story-telling techniques, and written in Middle Scots at a time when it had become a language of state. He was a superlative rhetorician and remains one of the finest in the language. His poems express a consistent world view which seems standard, vis a vis the major ruling power of the church, yet contains critical and questioning elements. He achieved a canny balance of humour and high seriousness, and his themes and tone convey an attractive impression of essential humanity and compassionate intellect. Some passages appear to contain autobiographical inferences.
Although his writing uses medieval idioms with outwardly didactic purpose, in substance it has more in common with artistic currents of northern Europe which were working to transcend medieval stylisation, such as in Flemish painting, with which it bears analogy; for example, in his subtle use of psychology to convey individual character in carefully dramatised, recognisable daily-life situations that tend to avoid fantastic elements.
His surviving corpus of work amounts to almost exactly 5000 lines.
It is generally accepted that Robert Henryson lived in Dunfermline, one of Scotland's royal capitals, and was attached to its abbey, the burial place for many of the kingdom's monarchs, situated adjacent to the Royal Palace of Dunfermline. There is no record of him as a court poet, but the proximity of the palace makes it likely that he was at least acquainted with the royal household. He was active during the reigns of James III and James IV, who both had interests in literature. References to Henryson as a schoolmaster is usually taken to mean that he taught in the abbey's grammar school.
It is not known where or when Henryson was born or educated. The first probable reference to him, from 1462, suggests that he was given a post as a master in the newly founded University of Glasgow. This would indicate that he had already completed his studies by that date. With no record of him as a student in Scotland, he is usually thought to have graduated in a university furth#Scots the land, possibly in Leuven, Paris or Bologna. It is not known when he came to Dunfermline after his time in Glasgow, but evidence for his presence there in 1478 exists. It has been suggested that he may have died in the years 1498 or 1499 but William Dunbar certainly gave the terminus ad quem in a couplet from the Lament for the Makars (c. 1505) in which he wrote that Death in Dunfermline
Almost nothing else is known of him outside of his surviving writing. It is not known if he originated from Dunfermline, nor is a suggestion that he may have been linked to the Fife branch of the Clan Henderson possible to verify.
Henryson's surviving works include three major long poems all in narrative genre, each highly regarded for excellence in storytelling, beauty in language and subtlety of intellect. They are major works of Scottish literature. The longest is his Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian, a tight, intricately structured set of thirteen fable stories in an integrated sequence of 424 stanzas (2975 lines). It is one of the most original and intriguing works in European literature. In addition there are a number of short poems, of which Robene and Makyne, a pastourelle with a ballad-like quality and a theme of rejected love, has often been considered the best. Like much of his other writing, it works enigmatically on a number of levels. The Preiching of the Swallow (from the Morall fabillis) and his Testament of Cresseid, another long narrative poem, are among the works by Henryson that have probably received the greatest critical regard to date. The third of his long poems is a dynamic and inventive version of the Orpheus story.
Henryson generally wrote in a first-person voice using a familiar tone that quickly brings the reader into his confidence and gives a notable impression of authentic personality and beliefs. The writing stays rooted in daily life and continues to feel grounded even when the themes are metaphysical or elements are fantastic. His language is a supple, flowing and concise Scots that clearly shows he knew Latin. Scenes are usually given a deftly evocative Scottish setting which can only come from close connection and observation. His detailed, intimate and realistic approach strongly suggests matters of personal experience and attitudes to actual contemporary events, yet the specifics remain elusive in ways that tantalise readers and critics. No concrete details of his life can be directly inferred from his works, but there are some passages of self-reflection that appear to be autobiographical, particularly in the opening stanzas of The Testament of Cresseid. Much of the sense of intrigue is a result of his cannily controlled use of the philosophy of fiction which is a self-proclaimed feature of his work.
Constructing a sure chronology for Henryson's writings is not possible, but his Orpheus and Erudices may have been written earlier in his career while he was teaching in Glasgow since one of its principal sources was contained in the university library.
Internal evidence has been used to suggest that the Morall Fabillis were composed during the 1480s.
Individual fables 01 The Prolog and The Taill of the Cok and the Jasp 02 The Taill of the Uponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous 03 The Taill of Schir Chanticleir and the Foxe 04 The Taill of how this foirsaid Tod maid his Confessioun to Freir Wolf Waitskaith 05 The Taill of the Sone and Air of the foirsaid Foxe, callit Father Weir: Alswa the Parliament of fourfuttit Beistis, haldin be the Lyoun 06 The Taill of the Scheip and the Doig 07 The Taill of the Lyoun and the Mous 08 The Preiching of the Swallow 09 The Taill of the Wolf that gat the Nek-hering throw the wrinkis of the Foxe that begylit the Cadgear 10 The Taill of the Foxe that begylit the Wolf in the schadow of the Mone 11 The Taill of the Wolf and the Wedder 12 The Taill of the Wolf and the Lamb 13 The Taill of the Paddok and the Mous The 20th century Henryson scholar Matthew P McDiarmid also makes reference to another (lost?) poem which begins: On fut by Forth as I couth found.
Robert Henryson is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. Selections for Makars' Court are made by The Writers' Museum; The Saltire Society; The Scottish Poetry Library.