12.02.20, Haydock, Situational Poetics in Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid

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R. James Goldstein

The Medieval Review 12.02.20

Haydock, Nickolas A.. Situational Poetics in Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 379. ISBN: 978-1-60497-766-0.

Reviewed by:
R. James Goldstein
Auburn University

Readers may well be excused for wondering how it is possible to write such a long book about a poem of only 616 lines. The short answer is that although the fifteenth-century Scottish writer's masterpiece remains the constant point of reference in this provocative and erudite study, Nickolas A. Haydock's book is in many ways a postmodern exercise in decentering Henryson's short masterpiece. Although his account of the poem and its afterlife is often convincing and at times even brilliant, this reviewer sometimes found the effect of reading the book a frustrating experience, akin to navigating a nonlinear hypertext. It is as though Haydock decided to include every conceivable link to Henryson's poem without worrying about old- fashioned expectations like coherence. Yet the disorienting effect is deliberate. As he explains in the introduction, his "analysis of the array of orientations implicit in this work [i.e., the Testament]...does not privilege a single context or perspective" (2). As he "traces the itineraries of the Testament of Cresseid as an 'intercultural text'" (3, quoting Mary Louise Pratt), there is no limit to the "situational poetics" of Henryson's poem. Later we are told that the book offers an "anamorphic reading" whereby "the multiple, even contradictory manifestations of a text" are "thrown into sharp relief by the transformative power of perspective" (23). This is a risky strategy, one that in my judgment does not always succeed. Yet the book offers enough fresh insight to make it worth persevering through this meandering and often exasperating text. Indeed, few scholars have had so many interesting things to say about Henryson's variegated poetic corpus. Haydock is fully in command of the scholarship on Middle Scots literature and draws on an eclectic body of contemporary theory. As one of the seven (count them!) blurbs included in the book suggests, "Haydock gives us a Henryson for the twenty-first century." Indeed he does. Emulating Zizek, he is fond of making comparisons to popular culture, including science fiction and Alfred Hitchcock. Although the book deserves a wide audience, both its price and the relative obscurity of the publisher may discourage individuals and libraries from purchasing it. But this would be a shame because, despite its flaws, the book makes a major contribution to Henryson studies.

The book, which comprises a long introduction and five chapters, starts slowly with a rambling introduction, "Transcultural Intertextuality and the 'Vther Quair.'" Some of the topics in the introduction include Henryson's contribution to a "minor" literature (in Deleuze and Guattari's sense rather than T. S. Eliot's) that reshapes the adjacent major literature; the confusion of Henryson's identity with Chaucer's in early-modern English editions of the poem; Kinaston's Latin translation of the poem (c. 1639) and Seamus Heaney's recent modernization; a critique of the last three decades of scholarship on the "Chaucer tradition"; and an analysis of the recently completed mural illustrating Henryson's Testament and Fables in Abbot House, a tourist attraction in Dunfermline (the town associated with Henryson since the sixteenth century). Although he makes intelligent points about each of these topics, he tries the reader's patience by frontloading all this material in the introduction while holding the poet and his work at some distance for over fifty pages.

Despite some references to literary theory, chapter 1 ("'Lyke to ane poeit of the auld fassoun': The Scottish Virgil") for the most part pursues fairly traditional philological goals, such as literary biography, genre criticism, and stylistics. The centerpiece of the chapter is Haydock's novel claim that Henryson was the first poet in the British Isles who deliberately set out to imitate the Virgilian model of a tripartite poetic career. Part of this argument depends on accepting his contention that Henryson composed his three major works in the order Moral Fables, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Testament, though there is no solid evidence to support this or any other chronological sequence. It must be said that his argument for Henryson's Virgilian poetic career is highly implausible on its face. How could a poet think he was imitating Virgil's poetic career if his final work (assuming the Testament was his last poem) weighs in at a mere 616 lines? Stylistic markers alone (high style, pagan gods, etc.) offer insufficient evidence that Henryson was imitating the Aeneid. The argument looks desperate indeed when, for example, he suggests that Virgil's use of the same verse form (hexameters) in all three works is comparable to Henryson's "almost exclusive use of rhyme royal" (72). By the way, Chaucer did not use rhyme royal in the Monk's Tale as Haydock blithely asserts (73), nor does the seven-line stanza receive its name from James I's "Kingis Quhair" [sic] as he asserts (294 n.99), repeating an old chestnut while inventing a novel misspelling for the Scots word (I will comment on Haydock's errors later). If we want to identify the earliest poet in Britain to model his career on the Virgilian canon, the prize still must go to Edmund Spenser.

The second chapter, "Genre and Poetics in Henryson's Tragedy," attempts to reconstruct Henryson's "idea" of tragedy. Haycock's wide learning is especially impressive in this chapter, as he takes us through a variety of medieval understandings of tragedy. For example, he focuses attention on a morally ambiguous phrase in Boethius's famous definition of the tragedy of fortune, indiscreto ictu, which Chaucer translates as "unwar strook." The unexpected or indiscriminate blow could either be morally neutral or a just punishment, an ambiguity that famously plays out in the Monk's Tale. In typically hypertext fashion, the topos of the sudden blow leads Haydock to pursue the byways of the motif in an excursus of several pages that considers such works as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Miller's Tale, Beowulf, Hamlet, and even Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" (113-16) before returning to Henryson. He demonstrates how Henryson uses this idea in all three of his major works, including the arrow that kills the fox in the fifth fable, Orpheus's loss of Eurydice, and Cresseid's unexpectedly sudden affliction with leprosy. Similarly, Haydock focuses attention on Lady Philosophy's association of tragedy with clamor or noise and suggestively links the "clamor of tragedies" with the sound of bells and clappers in the Testament, as well as with the boisterous genre of complaint. Haydock, however, believes it likely that Henryson had formed much of his understanding of tragedy as an epideictic genre for praising virtue and blaming vice from Herman the German's Latin translation of Averros's Middle Commentary on Aristotle's Poetics, a claim that I seriously doubt. Oddly, he neglects to consider Horace's Ars poetica as a much more likely source of Henryson's imperfect understanding of classical tragedy, an omission that is especially surprising given the attention he devotes to Horatian satire as lying behind the poem's treatment of Cresseid.

Chapter 3, "'Weddir richt feruent': Scapegoating and Sacrifice," whose argument seems at best only loosely connected with the concerns of other chapters, draws on historian R. I. Moore's notion of a "persecuting society" as Haydock considers the extreme cruelty and "inquisitorial style" (157) with which Henryson torments his protagonist. "The form of Cresseid's subjection in Henryson's poem," as Haydock suggests, "reproduces the structure of a society keen to render sublime its mechanisms of persecution and to transform its victims into willing spectacles of instruction" (156). In pursuing this theme, he draws extensively on René Girard's theory of scapegoating as a practice that has its mythological origins in human sacrifice. Although some readers will resist Girard's speculations, they do enable a bold new interpretation of the poem that takes a strong stand on the poet's "case against Cresseid" (158). He has no truck with critics who question whether Cresseid became a prostitute after her abandonment by Diomeid (160-61; see also 135). I came away from this discussion convinced that line 77, which tells us that Cresseid came "into the court commoun," should indeed be read as implying that she was a prostitute, in part because of evidence he cites from Ruth Mazo Karras, who demonstrated that for medieval understandings of prostitution, "what marked these women...was not the fact that they took money for sex but rather that they were generally available to men for sexual purposes" (Karras qtd. 159). The poem's "libelous charges" (158) against Cresseid (prostitute, blasphemer, leper) set her up as a sacrificial victim, and thus the parliament of the gods "mythologizes the process whereby mimetic rivalry is transformed into the deadly unanimity of the mob around a sacrificial victim" (189). Again, one does not have to agree with every detail in this argument to agree that it provides a fresh perspective on Cresseid's suffering. For example, one may remain unconvinced that the "wedder richt feruent" with which the poem begins "recalled very specifically the episodes of 'purification' by human sacrifice which end the medieval Troy narratives" (179); nonetheless, his account of Cresseid as homo sacer in Agamben's sense is striking (186-88).

Chapter 4, "'Ane wraikfull sentence geuin on fair Cresseid: Anamorphosis and the Other Book," draws heavily on Lacanian theory to explore how Henryson's poem "looks awry" at Chaucer's Troilus. Here the central concept is anamorphosis, or the stain in the field of vision (Lacan's famous example is the distorted death's head in Holbein's "The Ambassadors") as the traumatic kernel of the real that both constitutes and disrupts subjectivity. The chapter offers a strong Lacanian interpretation, teasing out the marks or stains that emerge in the literary history of Cresseid's flaws (joined eyebrows, changeable heart), which he connects with Henryson's pun on makeles/maculait (211) and even with the little "spot" of earth that Troilus gazes down upon after his death. What's more, he interprets Cresseid's "behavior leading up to the sentence she receives from the gods in terms of the Lacanian passage to the act, which designates the attempt, often suicidal, to escape out of the symbolic order into the real" (222). In a real tour de force, he draws on the later Lacan's matheme for the "discourse of the hysteric" to trace her trajectory in the poem (225-27). Obviously, this kind of reading is not for everyone. Nonetheless, his discussion of the mutual misrecognition scene between Troilus and Cresseid (227-29) is especially illuminating, and he concludes "that Henryson's 'vther quair'" (the fictional source for his revision of Chaucer's ending) "functions like an anamorphic stain on the whole of Chaucer's poem, smearing and reframing the reader's perception of it in a way that drastically alters its meaning" (236). In his memorable formulation, "Henryson's text emerges from Chaucer's, but it fouls its own nest, leaving behind traces that are indelible" (244). Yet it remains curious how little the Lacanian reading makes use of the previous chapter's Girardian interpretation of Cresseid's sacrifice, and how little either chapter seems to recollect Henryson's allegedly Virgilian career (for example, should we view the entire Henryson corpus as an anamorphic stain on Virgil's?).

The final chapter, "Was Cressid Here? Remediating Shakespeare's Henrysonian Chaucer," reopens the question of the influence of Henryson's poem on Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. I am not competent to judge whether Shakespeare scholars have neglected the influence of Henryson's poem to the degree that Haydock claims, but I am willing to take him at his word, and I find his reading of the play to be one of the best parts of the book. Yet one can only assume that his revisionary reading is destined be ignored by Shakespeare specialists, though it might have stood a better chance of making an impact had he chosen to publish it separately in a more prominent venue. As Haydock memorably suggests, Shakespeare's "ambient metaphor for cultural translation in the play is neither piety nor genealogy, but rather contagious infection: the past bequeaths modernity its diseases" (248). Many of his previous concerns finally come together nicely as both the Girardian concept of mimetic rivalry and the Lacanian notion of anamorphosis are used to good effect in the chapter. At his best, moreover, Haydock is an attentive close reader. When Shakespeare's Troilus tells his lady "there's no maculation in thy heart" (4.4.63, qtd. 263), Haydock suggests that the Shakespearean hapax "maculation" clearly "descends from Henryson's usage ('maculait'), proleptically confirming the very fears Troilus denies so unconvincingly" (263).

Despite the false starts, unnecessary digressions, and occasional dead ends, the reader should search out the many gems scattered throughout this book instead of imitating the cock in Henryson's first fable who would discard them. Appreciating the book is especially difficult because it is riddled with errors both trivial and substantive. For example, Henryson's memorable description of Cresseid as giglotlike is repeatedly quoted with the first l missing. Names of scholars often get misspelled or worse: the Shakespeare scholar cited in n. 299 and the bibliography should be Hugh not Frank Grady, and Jamie Fumo (not Jaime) is a she not he (20). The fourteenth-century Dominican is Nicholas Trevet, not "of Trevet" (72). The Scottish humanist author is George Buchanan, not John Buchannan (103). The second i is routinely omitted from the ablative plural of somnium when he refers to Aristotle's De somniis. His claim that the rebels responsible for the death of James III in 1488 were motivated by his "pursuing an alliance" with England (3; cf. 176) is incorrect. Contrary to Haydock's assertion (208), we are not told that Criseyde "sews" Diomede's wounds in Chaucer's poem (5.1044-50); this is not a trivial error, since Haydock makes much of pricking points in parchment and points de capiton. It is misleading to claim that the wounded bull with which Chaucer compares Troilus in 4.239-41 is "a sacrificial victim" (183). Nothing in Chaucer's description specifically makes that identification, nor does Boccaccio or Dante specifically identify the bull as a sacrifice. It is only Virgil who does so (Aeneid 2.222-24). At best Haydock's argument requires us to believe that Chaucer's reader retained the memory of the altar from reading the Latin poet, a dubious proposition. It would be cruel for me to list any more errors. Although the book must be read with caution, it is not my wish to sacrifice Haydock on the altar of scholarship because, despite its many flaws, I am grateful for his provocative book and have learned much from it. But the author has been extremely ill served by his publisher. The book deserved better editing to tighten the argument and more careful copy-editing to reduce the disturbing number of errors. Although I have no idea why the book was placed with a relatively unknown press and do not know what kind of peer review the manuscript received, that the back cover provides hyperbolic praise by three prominent medievalists for a book that is so uneven is nothing short of astonishing. Yet if the book manages to inject new life into the field of Middle Scots (as I think it should) it will have achieved its purpose.

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R. James Goldstein

Auburn University