Scots Poet of the Week: Robert Henryson

Whatever the merits of Burns’ verse, I think that its main purpose nowadays is to help Scots annoy the English. On these occasions of national display I try to exempt myself on the grounds that though I was born in England my parents were Polish and a lot of their friends were Scottish. But if you want to read Scots poetry for pleasure, go to Robert Henryson. There are no such things as Henrysoun Nichts, because we don’t even know the year he was born, or when he died (most likely c.1420-1505). We can’t even be sure he didn’t call himself Henderson.
He was one of the great makars (makers, i.e. poets) of the age after Chaucer. The surviving relics of Scots poetry from the fifteenth and early sixteenth century far outshine most contemporaneous productions from England. Their usual language is an easily intelligible variety of late Middle English and they only lapse into gross dialect by choice – for example when taking the mickey out of doctors:
The ferd feisick is fine, and of ane felloun pryce,
Gud for haising, and hosting, or heit at the hairt;
Rx Recipe, thre sponfull of the blak spyce,
With ane grit gowpene of the gowk fart;
(from Sum Practysis of Medecyne R. Henryson, Bannatyne MS)
Well, you may understand the last word, if not the rest*. But although Henryson is said to have died (at a great age) making similar jokes, most of his poetry shows a subtler wit, especially his delicious versions of the Fables of Aesop. He also had a strain of unaffected piety and wrote perhaps the finest poem inspired by an epidemic, Ane Prayer for the Pest.
(*Translation: The fourth medicine is fancy, and criminally expensive – good for hoarseness, and coughing, or heat around the heart. Rx three spoons full of black pepper with a great double-handful of cuckoo fart -&c)