The Testament of Cresseid
The Testament of Cresseid is a narrative poem of 616 lines in Middle Scots, written by the 15th-century Scottish makar Robert Henryson. It is his best known poem. It imagines a tragic fate for Cressida in the medieval story of Troilus and Criseyde which was left untold in Geoffrey Chaucer's version. Having been banished from the company of Diomedes, the Achaean hero to whom she had transferred her affections after being separated from Troilus, Cresseid is left destitute. After wandering for a while amongst the Greek soldiers, seeking their company, she returns to the home of her father Calchas, a keeper of the temple of Venus. Though Calchas welcomes her heartily, Cresseid desires to hide away from the world and encloses herself in a private oratory, where she weeps and rages against the cruelty of Venus and Cupid in, as she sees it, leading her on. The gods take offence at this blasphemy, and assemble to pass judgement on her, and the poem features graphically-realised portraits of the planetary pantheon of gods in the dream vision at its heart. They remove her youth and good looks, leaving her ill and ugly. Her symptoms being similar to those of leprosy, she is thus considered a social outcast, and decides she must join a leper colony. There she laments her fate until a fellow leper woman encourages her not to sigh over things which cannot be changed, but instead to take her cup and clapper and seek help from any kind passers-by. In time, however, cold and hunger wears her down and she is forced to beg for a living. One day, whilst she is begging, Troilus and the garrison of Troy pass by. Recognising Cresseid, Troilus is greatly moved, and he gives up a great deal of wealth to the lepers before riding off, almost fainting for grief when he reaches Troy. Upon finding out her benefactor's identity, Cresseid is also overcome with emotion and her health takes a turn for the worse. She berates herself for her treatment of him, before sitting down to write her will, dying soon after. However, despite Cresseid's ultimate disgrace and tragic end, Henryson is not without pity for her misfortune, as seen in the lines:
Yit nevertheless, quhat ever men deme or say
In scornefull langage of thy brukkilnes,
I sall excuse als far furth as I may
Thy womanheid, thy wisdome and fairnes,
The quhilk fortoun hes put to sic distres
As hir pleisit, and nathing throw the gilt
Of the, throw wickit langage to be spilt!
Henryson's cogent psychological drama makes the poem one of the great works of northern renaissance literature.
- Cresseid, daughter of Calchas, who is punished for breaking her vow of love to Troilus
- Troilus, one of the sons of Trojan king Priam, and former lover of Cresseid
- Calchas, Cresseid's loving father. In the Testament, he is a priest of Venus and Cupid.
- The gods Cupid, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Phoebus, Venus, Mercury, and Cynthia.
- Throughout the poem, Henryson makes use of the rhyme royal, a rhyme scheme introduced and popularised by Geoffrey Chaucer, and set out as follows- ABABBCC. The stanzas are generally seven lines each in length, and in iambic pentameter. However, in the section in which Cresseid laments her fate from the leper colony (a Complaint), the stanzas are nine lines in length, and with the rhyme scheme AABAABAAB
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