“listening to a river in the trees..”

As noted back in May 2006, Seamus Heaney has been working on a modern English account of the work of the 15th-century Scottish makar Robert Henryson [c 1420-1490]. Here’s a link to the Guardian interview at the time. And one of his translations from Henryson – “The Toad and The Mouse”. What was intended as a tale of Four Fables and a Testament has now been published as The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables And back at the Guardian website, along with a new [partial] translation from Henryson – from The Preaching of the Swallow, Seamus Heaney relates what little is known about Robert Henryson and what started him “on this retelling”.

The work was enjoyable because Henryson’s language led me back into what might be called “the hidden Scotland” at the back of my own ear. The speech I grew up with in mid-Ulster carried more than a trace of Scottish vocabulary, and as a youngster I was familiar with Ulster Scots idioms and pronunciations across the River Bann in Co Antrim. I was therefore entirely at home with Henryson’s “sound of sense”, so much in tune with his note and his pace and his pitch that I developed a strong inclination to hum along with him. Hence the decision to translate the poems with rhyme and metre, to match as far as possible the rhetoric and the roguery of the originals, and in general “keep the accent”.

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