The Three Dead Skulls

In spare moments this week I’ve been rootling around in more “minor poetry”, more “shorter works”, looking at different verse forms.  This time I’ve been reading the shorter works of Robert Henryson.  Robert Henryson was a notary public and schoolmaster living in Dunfermline, born perhaps about 1430 and dead by 1500.  The extracts below are from a poem called ‘The Thre Deid Pollis’.  The poem is attributed to Henryson in one manuscript, but to Patrick Johnston, another notary public, in another manuscript.

A Vanitas tableau from the Wellcome Image Collection

The poem is spoken in the collective voice of three skulls.  As many of the poem’s editors have pointed out, this is a variation on the Three Living and the Three Dead motif found in art and poetry, in which three young noblemen are warned about mortality by three skeletons whom they meet while out hunting.  This poem reworks that motif, presenting the reader with the collective address of three skulls, perhaps sitting on a shelf in a charnel house or even in a painting (if this was also perhaps a visual motif), addressing the reader.  The poem begins by demanding that mankind look directly at the skulls’ eye sockets and fleshless scalps in order to fully accept that  “Such as thou art, sometime was I, such as I am, such shalt thou be” as the old rhyme has it:

O sinfull man, in to this mortall se,
Quhilk is the vaill of murnyng and of cair,
With gaistly sicht behold oure heidis thre,
Oure holkit ene, oure peilit pollis bair.
As ye ar now, in to this warld we wair,

[O sinful man dwelling in this mortal realm which is the vale of sorrow and of care, with ghastly eyes look at our three heads, our hollow eyes, our skinned bare skulls: as you now are, in this world we were.]

After this beginning the skulls address wanton youths and beautiful ladies, and a little later there is a really ingenious stanza (which you can find below with a translation).  The skulls pose a question, one which even the cleverest examiners of the flesh, practitioners of physiognomy or palmistry, could not answer.  In defiance of these pseudo-sciences, the skulls point out that nothing can be divined from a bare skull about the identity of the person to whom that skull belonged.  Instead of these pseudo-sciences of the flesh, study of these skulls is the only science worth undertaking, and nothing but the inevitability of death can be found therein.

This questioun, quha can obsolve, lat see,
Quhat phisnamour or perfyt palmester –
Quha was farest or fowlest of us thre,
Or quhilk of us of kin was gentillar,
Or maist expert in science or in lare,
In art, musik, or in astronomye?
Heir sowld be your study and repair,
And think as thus all your heidis mon be.

[Let’s see who can answer this question, which physiognomer or expert palm-reader [could even attempt it]: who was the fairest or foulest of us three, or which of us was from a nobler family, or most expert in knowledge or in learning, in art, music or in astronomy? Here always must be your efforts and your aim, and remember that just like this all your heads must inevitably be.]

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