Poetry by Robert Henryson

Some Practices of Medicine


To live by medicine is to live horribly.

There are some remedies worse than the disease.
*****–Publilius Syrus



Good day, sir, cuckoo, (1) please lend me a minute;

Spill me your sorrows, or may health keep you shod.

You distrust me, I know, for I sound like a halfwit,

Ruffled by rhymes–no sir, by our god,

I’ve heard of your efforts, and found them unfit

For preserving your person; they are foolish and flawed.

As for this myth you call medicine–I’ve met it,

And count all you’ve crafted as curative fraud.

I offer these letters in good faith, nothing obscene;

For let my ears run aft

And I go addled and daft

If I can do naught with the craft:

Here be it seen.



Because I know your knowledge for cures

Is clumsy and rustic and not very schooled,

My apothecary practice, you may trust, is pure,

For like you, I avoid fancy frauds and fine fools;

I’ve never met a fever nor fracture too rare,

Not sickness nor soreness nor suffering too full,

But I can steer them and leech them, the lame and impaired,

And with salves make them sound: it rests on your soul

If you become sicker from these schedules I send

From the trustworthy folk

Who mix herbs and yolk

With drugs to invoke

                                                Your malaise to mend.


3. Dia Culcakit (Prescription for the Colic)

Gather dung-grubs and an arsesmart leaf’s edge,

A medicine for mothers, easy to bequeath,

With wine dregs and gallstones, the sap of the sedge,

The crumbs from my buttocks, cracked with your teeth,

Laurel and flaxseed, and leaves of the lovage,

The hair of a hedgehog not split from its sheath,

With the snout of a seal, the swelling to assuage:

This cure in our craft is called “Colic’s Wreath.”

Put these in a pan with pepper, vitriolic,

Then sit by till this:

The count of a sow’s kiss.

There’s naught better, I promise,

For curing the colic.


4. Dia Longum (Prescription for Soothing the Lungs)

Recipe: three rags from a red rook,

The yawn of a gray mare, the cluck of a goose,

A drink from a drake’s dick, the dive of his duck,

The gall of a green dove, (2) the leg of a louse,

Five ounces of fleas’ wings, a flounder’s fluke,

And fresh kelp on ice, that grows in the sloughs:

Mix all these together with the moon’s crook.

This ointment is perfectly safe for your use,

Once you add nettles set in stale piss to steep.

Bathe this on your bed

When you nap and nod;

There’s naught better, by god,

To summon your sleep.


5. Dia Glaconicon (Prescription against Foolishness)

This remedy’s right dear and dainty in detail,

Because it’s tried and true; therefore, you must take:

Seven tears from a seal, the spout of a whale,

And the ear of a limpet you must not forsake,

Nor the horns of a halibut, sea-snake, or snail,

And a boxful of blood from a she-bat or crake,

With a simmering cauldron full of hot coal,

For softer and sweeter you must let it bake.

There is not such a treatment from Lothian to Fife:

It is called in our canon

“The Idiot’s Potion,”

For it keeps men from fooling

Where fools are rife.


6. Dia Custrum (Prescription for the Cough)

The fourth physic is fair fancy, and of formidable price,

Good for hoarseness, and coughing, or heat at the heart.

Recipe: three spoonfuls of the black spice,

With two great fistfuls of the cuckoo’s fart,

The ear of a lion, a piglet’s pink anus,

An ounce of oyster, pocked at the nether part,

And anointed with nurse’s dung, for it is right nice,

Equally mingled with mouse-turd and mustard.

You may add to this cure, though the price will get rough,

A badger’s bollock,

Three crows of a cock,

And the shadow of a cabbage stock:

All good for the cough.



Good night, cuckoo, for so I began;

I have no time to tarry longer;

But learn by my practices, if you can,

The faculties of pharmacy from this letter:

Sir, administer these medicines at evening to some man,

And ’less their prime be past, my powders I’ll wager

Shall bless you, or else be bitterly banned,

For all woes shall flee them from this mortal sphere.

But take care when you gather the herbs, seeds, and grass,

Either savory or sour,

That it be in a good hour:

For it is a dark mirror,

Another man’s ass. (3)


A Prayer against the Plague (4)


O Eternal God, of infinite might,

To whose high knowledge nothing is obscure,

Who is, was, and shall be, and by whose sight

This world is granted the grace to endure;

Have mercy on us, indigent and poor;

You do no wrong to punish our offense:

But O Lord, mankind’s strength and succor,

Preserve us from this perilous pestilence.


We beseech you, O Lord, Father of all,

Incline your ear and hear our poor plea;

We seek solace from you in general,

To ease our suffering and lift our misery;

And you, with mercy, set our hearts free;

We are dead except by the gift of your grace:

We humbly exhort you, upon prostrate knee,

Preserve us from this perilous pestilence.


We will gladly accept your punishment, O Lord,

By any other possible kind of pain,

But alas, is it truly your will, O God,

That we should be so hastily put down,

To die as beasts without confession,

Breathing our last without family or friends?

O blessed Jesu, that wore the thorny crown,

Preserve us from this perilous pestilence.


Use dearth, Lord, or sickness, or starvation’s pain,

But slake your plague that has sunk us in strife.

Your people are pressed: who can heal us again

But you, who for our sake gave up your life?

Supposing our sins to be past your reprieve,

Our death will put nothing toward their recompense.

Have mercy, Lord; don’t leave us to grief:

Preserve us from this perilous pestilence.


Have mercy, Lord, have mercy in your judgment!

Have mercy on your people’s penitence;

Have mercy on our piteous punishment;

Revoke the meting of your fair sentence

Against us sinners; we have no defense

Except mercy; we beg you for lenience.

O merciful Jesus, remember your own expense;

Preserve us from this perilous pestilence.


Remember, Lord, how dearly you bought us;

Recall how for sinners you shed your blood.

Where is the redemption you bravely brought us,

So barren of virtue, and of glory nude?

Have mercy, Lord, on your own similitude;

Punish with pity and not with violence.

We know it is for our gross ingratitude

That we are punished with this pestilence.


O grant us grace, God, and let us repent

And evade this death that demands our distress.

We know for our sins this sickness was sent,

And against sin there is no forgiveness;

Punishment is the proper Divine justice,

And the only kind God will universally dispense:

Where justice fails, there is eternal contest–

But Lord, preserve us from this pestilence!


If only our leaders, who should maintain order,

Would punish the people for each small transgression,

There would be no need for this heavenly slaughter:

But they are given so plainly to oppression

That God will not hear their intercession;

All men are punished for their disobedience

By the sword or the scourge without remission,

And God has just cause to send us this pestilence.


O Divine Design, resign this pestilence;

Preserve and serve; let us reserve our time.

Restrain our pain; refrain from all but prudence;

Delight, O Light, in our respite, not our crime.

Our gaze always we turn away in shame;

O never sever whoever seeks you out.

We embrace your grace, and trace your holy name;

Let none be lost that you so dearly bought.


Relent, O Prince; let us convince you:

By grace, erase these quotidian woes.

Bereft, the theft of death is a dense slough

To deceive believers from the truth we know.

But you are wise! Devise a cure; forego

This mischief; relieve what you have wrought,

For penance only wins our sins a grave blow;

Let none be lost that you so dearly bought.


Now for our vice, may your justice save us;

O King most high, please pacify your feud:

Our sin is huge; refuge you rightly waive us;

But as you are Lord, afford us life renewed.

Assent, relent, or we’ll be rent and rotted;

We repent our time misspent; we are distraught;

Therefore, forevermore, we glorify your godhead:

Let none be lost that you so dearly bought.


“The Lament of Orpheus” from Orpheus and Eurydice


“O dismal harp, with many a sad string,

Turn all your music and mirth to mourning,

And silence all of your sweet subtle airs;

Weep with me now, your lamentable king,

Who has lost to the earth his heart’s darling;

Change all your pleasure to bitter despair,

Oil your golden pins with a flood of tears,

And share with the world my full misery,

Crying with me, through every thoroughfare,

‘Where have you gone, my love, Eurydice?’”


To cheer himself up he played a gay tune,

Which even the birds in the air could croon,

And all the trees danced with their leaves of green

To divert him from his terrible gloom;

But all was in vain; solace found no room;

His heart was still fixed upon his young queen;

His eyes bled from the force of his weeping;

Nothing could lessen his tears’ surging sea;

He cried always, with sorrow cold and keen,

“Where have you gone, my love, Eurydice?”


“Farewell, palace; farewell, pleasures and play;

And welcome, wild woods and wandering way;

My poor fate is in the wilderness’ care;

My royal robes and all my rich array

Shall be changed to rude russet and grim gray,

My diadem into my own poor hair;

My bed shall be with the beaver and bear,

Bothered by many a boisterous bee,

Without song, only a sigh of despair:

‘Where have you gone, my love, Eurydice?’”


“I beseech you, my father, fair Phoebus,

Have pity on your own son Orpheus;

Don’t you know me, Calliope’s poor child?

Hear my complaint, painful and piteous:

Guide me through this gloom, so grim and grievous,

To where my love waits, whom death has beguiled;

Let not your bright brow with cold clouds be veiled;

Lend me your light, keep out obscurity,

That I may find her, on whom gods once smiled,

My lady, queen, and love, Eurydice.”


“Jupiter, lord over heaven and hell,

And my own grandfather, hear too my call:

Mend my mourning, heal my miserable moan;

Give me the strength to neither faint nor fall

Till I find my love; for seek her I shall,

And neither swerve nor sway for sea nor stone.

Through your godhead, tell me where she has gone:

Let her appear; calm my heart’s urgency.”

Thus sang King Orpheus, child of the sun,

Weeping for his dead wife Eurydice.




(1) The original text’s “guk guk,” seems to reference the cuckoo (“gowk” or “gowkoo” in Scots), suggesting that the speaker of the poem is not quite as honest as he claims.

(2) According to the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c. 630 AD), doves possessed no gall (nor were they green). In the same vein, a rook–a notoriously all-black bird–would have been hard pressed to produce red feathers.

(3) A slight variation on an existing proverb: “A mirk [dark] mirror is a man’s mind.”

(4) The plague pandemic known as the Black Death ravaged Europe most heavily during the fourteenth century, though recurrent outbreaks continued to be reported for the next four hundred years. During Henryson’s lifetime, major outbreaks occurred from 1438-9, 1456-7, 1464-6, and 1481-5. In the 1380s, John of Fordun wrote in his Chronica Gentis Scotorum (Chronicle of the Scottish People) that “…by God’s will, this evil led to a strange and unwonted kind of death, insomuch that the flesh of the sick was somehow puffed out and swollen, and they dragged out their earthly life for barely two days…. Men shrank from it so much that, through fear of contagion, sons, fleeing as from the face of leprosy or from an adder, durst not go and see their parents in the throes of death…. Nearly a third of mankind were thereby made to pay the debt of nature….”


Robert Henryson

Robert Henryson (1420-1490) was one of the great “Makars” of medieval Scots literature. As brilliant an interpreter of Greek myths and Aesopian fables as he was a satirist and elegist of his contemporary culture, Henryson could shift from bawdy barb to poignant pathos with a dexterity unrivaled by his contemporaries. Henryson served most of his professional career as a schoolmaster in Dunfermline.

Kent Leatham

Kent Leatham’s poems and translations have appeared in dozens of journals, including Ploughshares, Fence, Poetry Quarterly, and Able Muse. He holds an MFA from Emerson College, and served as an associate poetry editor for Black Lawrence Press. He currently teaches at California State University, Monterey Bay.

English translation copyright (c) Kent Leatham, 2016.