Thursday, 2 December 2021

Always Winter and Never Christmas?


Just a quick post. If you feel like snuggling under a blanket with a glass of mulled wine to listen to writer Julia Golding, poet, priest and writer Malcom Guite, and myself discussing Christmas in Narnia and Midwinter in Middle-Earth, please draw your armchair closer to the fire and click on the link below! 

Under the aegis of the Oxford Centre for Fantasy, we cover the presence of Father Christmas in Narnia, tales of Russian frost spirits, CS Lewis's Nativity poems, 'The Father Christmas Letters' written and illustrated by JRR Tolkien for his children - and much much more, in a really enjoyable session during which each of us learned something new.

 


 

The link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zk2Y0IQebu4

 

 

 


Thursday, 25 November 2021

LOVING MAD TOM

 



The first place I came across the extraordinary old ballad known variously as Loving Mad Tom or Tom o’ Bedlam’s Song was in Rosemary Sutcliff’s delightful children’s book Brother Dusty-Feet, which I must have borrowed from Ilkley Public Library when I was nine or ten. Set in Elizabethan times, it tells the story of orphan Hugh Copplestone who runs away from his unkind aunt’s West Country home with his dog Argos, and joins a band of travelling players. In the middle of Chapter 5 a ‘tall wild figure’ looms up out of the dusk and joins the players’ campfire. He is a Tom-o’-Bedlam, a Bedlam beggar, who sings softly to himself a magical verse which (Sutcliff explains) ‘was a song that all the Tom-o’-Bedlams sang as they came and went along the roads’:

With a host of furious fancies

Whereof I am commander,

With a flaming spear and a horse of air,

To the Wilderness I wander.

With a knight of ghosts and shadows

I summoned am to tourney

Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end;

Methinks it is no journey.

 Soon after, in a firelit ritual, the Tom-o’-Bedlam gives Hugh ‘seisin of the road’.

 Not all very tall people look like kings, but this one did, at least to Hugh; the king of a lost country. […] He leaned down suddenly to stare into Hugh’s face, his mad dark eyes blazing in the firelight. ‘Have you kept your vigil?’ he demanded. ‘Have you kept it alone, with none but the stars and the Ancient Ones for company?’

Hugh assents, and the Tom-o’-Bedlam uses his dagger to cut a small square of turf which he places in Hugh’s hands.

 ‘Now swear fealty to the Brotherhood. Swear by the white dust of the road, and the red fire at the long day’s end, and by the thing that always lies over the brow of the next hill.’

            The turf felt crumbly and damp in Hugh’s hands, and faintly warm from the fire; and rather breathlessly, he swore fealty.

            ‘So,’ said the Tom-o’-Bedlam. ‘That is your Seisin. Seisin of the Road; Seisin of the Brotherhood.’

            He drew himself up to his full splendid height, and stood looking down at the gatherine round the fire. Then he dropped the dagger on the trampled turf, where it stuck point down, quivering and gleaming in the light of the flames.

            And before it had stopped quivering, he turned away, flinging up his arms to the night sky with a strange wild gesture that made his ragged sleeves seem like wings; and als though he had suddenly lost interest in the whole thing, wandered off into the darkness. As he went, they heard him singing again:

                        ‘With a knight of ghosts and shadows

                                    I summoned am to tourney

                        Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end;

                                    Methinks it is no journey.

 


I loved Brother Dusty-Feet, and Tom-o’-Bedlam’s song was a strong enchantment. I had a good memory for verse, and it stuck. A few years later in my teens, I came across the whole poem in English and Scottish Ballads edited by Robert Graves, and around about the same time, the folk-rock band Steeleye Span released an album Please to See the King containing a song called Bedlam Boys which name-checked Tom-o’-Bedlam and sounded very similar, yet didn’t have the verses I remembered so well from Brother Dusty-Feet. Of course I knew ballads were found in many variants, so I assumed this was the reason – but it seemed odd that Steeleye Span would choose one that left out such wonderful lines. 

            But there I left the puzzle – if it was a puzzle – for more than twenty years until, married and living in America, my husband and I were invited to a regular folk-music session hosted by friends in their home. One evening I asked if anyone there could perform Tom-o’-Bedlam and lo and behold! a couple of very good musicians promptly gave a great rendition of Steeleye Span’s Bedlam Boys.

            ‘You know,’ said I as they finished, ‘I’ve always wondered why that version doesn’t have the wonderful lines about the host of furious fancies and the knight of ghosts and shadows. I know it exists; I remember reading it in Robert Graves’ book of English and Scottish ballads.’ The two guys who’d performed it grinned, and one of them suggested that Graves had probably written those lines himself, as they were obviously far too good to be true!

            I was rather cast down. I couldn’t argue, having no proof, but although he might have had the poetic power to do it, and even the urge – Graves sometimes did rewrite other poets’ work in order to ‘correct’ their ‘faults’ – I didn’t think he would have meddled with an old ballad and passed it off as original. Still, there again it rested, only now whenever I thought of Loving Mad Tom, there was this question mark hanging over it.

            Move on another couple of decades. I’m reading one of Rudyard Kipling’s collections of short stories, Debits and Credits. One story, The Propagation of Knowledge, concerns the schoolboy characters of Stalky & Co. in whose exploits Kipling exaggerates and glorifies the events and characters of his own schooldays. In this particular tale the short-sighted and bookish Beetle (based on Kipling himself) discovers an old book in the school library called Curiosities of Literature.          

 This evening he fell upon a description of wandering, mad Elizabethan beggars, known as Tom-o’-Bedlams, with incidental references to Edgar who plays at being a Tom-o’-Bedlam in Lear, but whom Beetle did not consider at all funny. Then, at the foot of a left-hand page, leaped out on him a verse – of incommunicable splendour, opening doors into inexplicable worlds – from a song which Tom-o’-Bedlams were supposed to sing. It ran:

With a heart* of furious fancies

Whereof I am commander,

With a burning spear and a horse of air

To the wilderness I wander.

With a knight of ghosts and shadows

I summoned am to tourney,

Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end –

Methinks it is no journey.

       

He sat, mouthing and staring before him, till the prep-bell rang…

There can be little doubt that this is the genuine experience of the young Rudyard Kipling, for the Tom-o’-Bedlam poem itself serves no further purpose in the story. Instead, Beetle and his friends ransack the book for other fascinating scraps of information – such as the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare – with which they can tease, provoke and distract their teachers.

Curiosities of Literature is a real book written by Isaac D’Israeli, father of Benjamin Disraeli, published in several volumes between 1791 and 1823. I went hunting online and found the lonely second volume of a three-volume set published in 1881 by Frederick Warne, going cheap. I snapped it up, and there at the foot of a left-hand page, just as Kipling describes, is the whole poem with that magical final verse. And more! D'Israeli introduces the ballad with a lengthy essay in which he describes this ‘race of singular mendicants’ whom he claims ‘appear to have been the occasion of creating a species of wild fantastic poetry’ (my italics). The resources of Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital for the insane, founded 1247) were so limited that if the friends and relations of those it sheltered could not pay to feed and clothe them, they were released to wander abroad as beggars, ‘chanting wild ditties and wearing a fantastical dress to attract the notice of the charitable.’ The Acadamy of Armoury, compiled by Randal Holme prior to 1688, describes this costume in more detail and with some scepticism:

The Bedlam has a long staff, and a cow or ox-horn by his side; his clothing fantastic and ridiculous; for being a madman, he is madly decked and dressed all over with rubins [ribbons], feathers, cuttings of cloth and what not, to make him seem a madman, or one distracted, when he is no other than a wandering and dissembling knave.

 


Numbers of ordinary rogues adopted this ploy. In a coney-catching* pamphlet, English Villanies (c. 1608), Thomas Dekker complains of those who pretended madness to ‘work upon the sympathy … or terrify the easy fears of women, children and domestics’ who ‘refused nothing to a being who was as terrific to them as “Robin Goodfellow” or “Raw-head and Bloody-bones”’ that came ‘whooping, leaping, gambolling, wildly dancing, with a fierce or distracted look.’ And he records the canting patter of these real or pretended Tom-o’-Bedlams:

‘Now dame, well and wisely, what will you give poor Tom? One pound of your sheep’s-feathers to make poor Tom a blanket? or one cutting of your sow’s side, no bigger than my arm; or one piece of your salt meat to make poor Tom a sharing horn; or one cross of your small silver, towards a pair of shoes; well and wisely, give poor Tom an old sheet to keep him from the cold; or an old doublet and jerkin of my master’s; well and wisely, God save the king and his counsel.’

These beggars were also known as Abraham men. In a second pamphlet, The Belman of London, also 1608, Dekker has another shot at them: 'Of all the mad rascals (that are of this wing) the Abraham-man is the most fantastick: The fellow (quoth this old Ladye of the Lake unto me) that sat half naked at table today, is the best Abraham man that ever came to my house, and the notablest villaine: he sweares he hath beene in Bedlam, and will talk frantickly of purpose; you see pinnes stucke in sundry places of his naked flesh, especially in his armes, which paine he gladly puts himselfe to [...] he calls himself by the name of poore Tom, and comming nere any body, cries out Poore Tome is a colde...'



 

D’Israeli quotes from ‘a manuscript note transcribed from some of [John] Aubrey’s papers’:

‘Till the breaking out of the civil wars, Tom-o’-Bedlams did travel about the country; they had been poor distracted men, that had been put into Bedlam, where recovering some soberness [sanity], they were licentiated to go a-begging; ie., they had on their left arm an armilla, an iron ring for the arm, about four inches long… They could not get it off; they wore about their necks a great horn of an ox in a string or bawdry, which, when they came to a house, they did wind, and they put the drink given to them into this horn, whereto they put a stopple. Since the wars I do not remember to have seen any one of them.’

All this led me (and D’Israeli) to consider the character of Edgar in King Lear, a play that first appeared in print in 1608 about the same time as Thomas Dekker’s coney-catching pamphlet English Villanies. Edgar, the true son of the Duke of Gloucester, accused by his illegitmate brother Edmund of contemplating parricide, disguises himself as one of the Bedlam beggars:

                     … who, with roaring voices

Strike in their numbed and mortified arms

Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary

And with this horrible object from low farms,

Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes and mills

Sometime with lunatic bans, sometimes with prayers

Enforce their charity. ‘Poor Turlygood, poor Tom.’

                                    King Lear, Act 2 Sc. 2

Appearing to Lear in the storm, he goes into floods of lilting, frenzied, poetic prose:

‘Who gives anything to poor Tom, whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart to ride a bay trotting horse over four-inched bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor. Bless thy five wits, Tom’s a-cold! Oh, do, de, do, de, do de. Do poor Tom some charity, whom the foul fiend vexes. There could I have him now, and there, and there again, and there.’

King Lear, Act 3, Sc. 4

An itinerant lunatic,’ says D’Israeli, ‘chanting wild ditties, fancifully attired … a mixture of character at once grotesque and plaintive …It is probable that the character of Edgar … first introduced the conception into the poetical world,’ and he claims that the composition of Tom-o’-Bedlam songs became for a while fashionable ‘among the wits’ of the later 17th century. This one however, the subject of his essay, is of more ancient date and ‘fraught with all the wild spirit of this peculiar character’:

 

                        Tom-o’-Bedlam’s Song

 

From the hag and hungry goblin

That into rags would rend ye,

All the spirits that stand by the naked man

In the Book of Moons defend ye!

That of your five sound senses

You never be forsaken,

Nor travel from yourselves with Tom

To beg your bread and bacon.

Chorus:

Nor never sing any food any feeding

Money, drink or clothing,

Come dame or maid,

Be not afraid,

For Tom will injure nothing.

 

Of thirty bare years have I

Twice twenty been enragèd;

And of forty been

Three times fifteen in durance soundly cagèd.

In the lovely lofts of Bedlam

In stubble soft and dainty,

Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips, ding dong,

And a wholesome hunger plenty.

And now I sing, etc

 

With a thought I took for Maudlin

And a cruse of cockle pottage,

And a thing thus tall, sky bless you all,

I fell into this dotage.

I slept not till the Conquest,

Till then I never wakèd,

Till the roguish boy of love where I lay

Me found, and stript me naked.

And now I sing, etc

 

When short I have shorn my sow’s face

And swigg’d my hornèd barrel,

In an oaken inn do I pawn my skin

In a suit of gilt apparel.

The moon’s my constant mistress

And the lovely owl my marrow

The flaming drake and the night-crow make

Me music to my sorrow.

While I do sing, etc

 

The palsie plague my pulses

When I prig your pigs or pullen [hens];

Your culvers [doves] take, or matchless make

Your chanticleer and solan [gander];

When I want provant, with Humphrey

I sup, and when benighted

I repose in Pauls with waking souls

And never am affrighted.

But I do sing, etc

 

I know more than Apollo,

For, oft when he lies sleeping

I behold the stars at mortal wars

And the rounded* welkin weeping.

The moon embraces her shepherd

And the Queen of Love her warrior;

While the first does horn the stars of the morn,

And the next the heavenly farrier.

While I do sing, etc

 

With a heart* of furious fancies

Whereof I am commander,

With a burning spear and a horse of air

To the wilderness I wander,

With a knight of ghosts and shadows

I summoned am to tourney;

Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end;

Methinks it is no journey!

 

So there it is! There’s the song and there is the verse I read and loved as a child* in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Brother Dusty-Feet: proof that whoever wrote them, it wasn’t Robert Graves and the suggestion that he might have passed off some of his own lines as Jacobean poetry can be completely dismissed. (He did dive down a rabbit-warren of alternative versions and speculative reconstructions in a 1927 essay, Loving Mad Tom, published in The Crowning Privilege, 1955: but he was up-front about it.)

D’Israeli’s source was ‘a very scarce collection entitled Wit and Drollery (1661). Graves attributes the title Loving Mad Tom to a 1683 edition of the same collection – which I’m unable to verify. However, the version Graves published in English and Scottish Ballads is subtly different from D’Israeli’s. It contains two extra verses, sourced from the earliest known version of Tom-o’-Bedlam: a manuscript book belonging to Giles Earle, a friend of the musicianThomas Campion, dating to 1615.

Nothing much seems to be known about Earle other than that he was an enthusiast who collected songs, music and lyrics in his commonplace book, Giles Earle His Booke, which was edited by the composer Peter Warlock and post-humously published in 1932. Here indeed are the two verses missing from D’Israeli’s version. They come directly before and after the verse about the host of furious fancies.

The gipsies Snap and Pedro

Are none of Tom’s comradoes,

The punk I scorn and the cut-purse sworn

And the roaring boy’s bravadoes.

The meek, the white, the gentle

Me handle, touch and spare not

But those that cross Tom Rhinoceros

Do what the panther dare not.

***

 I’ll bark against the Dog-Star,

I’ll crow away the morning,

I’ll chase the moon till it be noon

And make her leave her horning,

But I’ll find merry mad Maudline,

And seek whate’er betides her,

And I will love beneath or above

The dirty earth that hides her.

Stepping back a little – and taking into account the role of Tom-o’-Bedlams in King Lear – it’s worth wondering who wrote this song; or possibly touched it up. Robert Graves believed it had ‘obviously been rewritten by an educated person: hence the references to Venus’s love affair with Mars, when she was unfaithful to her husband Vulcan, “the Heavenly Farrier”, and to the Moon-goddess Selene’s love affair with Endymion, the shepherd of Mount Latmos … though already married to Phosphoros, the Morning Star.’ More intriguingly, Graves suggests that the ballad ‘was probably sung in a Bankside theatre, because “Sky bless you all” is substituted for “God bless you all”; the Lord Chamberlain having forbidden God’s name to be taken in vain on the stage.’

            I checked: and this statute ‘for the preventing and avoiding of the great abuse of the Holy Name of God in Stage plays’ dates from 1606 but was not strictly enforced until Sir George Buck became Master of the Revels in 1610 – a period which neatly brackets the 1608 date of the first printed ‘Quarto’ edition of King Lear.

            Graves comments further that ‘No other play of that period, except King Lear, is known into which Loving Mad Tom could have been introduced’ – and speculating that it may have been sung by Edgar after his decision to disguise himself as ‘Poor Tom’, he adds that ‘if it does indeed come from King Lear (though not necessarily written by Shakespeare), it will have given the scene-shifters time to prepare the stage for:“Before Gloucester’s castle: Kent in the stocks.”’ But this cannot be the case; Kent is put in the stocks well before Edgar makes his entrance. A more likely moment for it to be sung would be in Act 3, between scenes 3 and 4. Scene 3 is a brief exchange between Gloucester and his wicked son Edmond, indoors in Regan’s castle. In contrast, Scene 4 is set outside in the storm on the blasted heath, as Lear, Kent and the Fool seek shelter in a hovel – likely placed at the back of the deep Jacobean stage. In his Tom-o’-Bedlam guise, Edgar is already concealed in the hovel and frightens the Fool, who cries: ‘Come not in here, nuncle! Here’s a spirit. Help me, help me!’ 

 


 

But this is Edgar’s first appearance as Poor Tom; wouldn’t it be more effective to have him come on to the empty stage in his mad rags, and sing Tom-o’-Bedlam’s song before disappearing into the hovel as Lear and his companions arrive? It would give the audience a good sight of him in this guise, and then – knowing where he’s hidden – they could anticipate the shock of his discovery.  

            Impossible to say it ever happened. Still, no less a personage than the American professor and literary critic Harold Bloom believed that this hauntingly strange ballad has something of Shakespeare’s touch. In his book How to Read and Why (2000), he called Loving Mad Tom ‘the greatest anonymous lyric in the language’, and of the verse which begins, ‘I know more than Apollo’ he writes:-

 To know more than the sleeping sun god, Apollo, is also to know more than the rational. Tom looks up at the night sky of falling stars … and contrasts these battles to the embrace of the moon, Diana, with her shepherd-lover Endymion, and of the planet Venus with her warrior, Mars. A mythological poet, Mad Tom is also a master of intricate images: the crescent moon enfolds the morning star within the crescent horns, while the Farrier, Vulcan, husband of Venus, is horned in quite another sense, being cuckolded by the lustful Mars. …The stanza is magical in its effect, adding strangeness to beauty…

Bloom adds, ‘I think I hear Shakespeare himself in the extraordinary transitions of the next stanza, in the sudden tonal drop into tenderness of the fifth and sixth lines, followed by the defiant roar of lines seven and eight’

 The gipsies, Snap and Pedro

Are none of Tom’s comradoes,

The punk I scorn and the cutpurse sworn

And the roaring boy’s bravadoes

The meek, the white, the gentle

Me handle, touch and spare not;

But those who cross Tom Rhinoceros

Do what the panther dare not…’

 Who could this poet be, he wondered, but Shakespeare? (Here is Harold Bloom talking about the poem in an interview on Youtube.)

For after all, so much of King Lear is about madness and sadness, and poverty and beggars and fools, and the companies of ‘poor naked wretches’ who, in Lear’s self-accusatory words, must ‘bide the pelting of this pitiless storm’ –  

 How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this.Take physic, pomp,

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just.

 The persistent relevance of these words should give us all pause… Anyhow, I too like to think it’s at least possible that Shakespeare touched up – transformed – a street ballad about Tom-o’-Bedlams for a performance of King Lear.

            But what about the Steeleye Span song, to which they gave the title Bedlam Boys? Well, it turns out not to be the same song at all. Remember Isaac D’Israeli’s claim that Shakespeare’s Edgar/Poor Tom prompted a whole fashion for songs written in his mad character? If true, it only adds to the likelihood of Tom-o’-Bedlam’s Song having been sung in the play; why should so many people imitate the ballad otherwise? For imitate it they did.

 

 

Many more can be visited at this link. Isaak Walton mentions William Basse (c.1583-1653), a minor poet known chiefly for an elegy on Shakespeare, as having written a ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ song; this one, published by Bishop Percy in his influential Reliques of English Poetry (1765), may be his. It begins:

 Forth from my sad and darksome cell,

 

Or from the deepe abysse of hell,

 

Mad Tom is come into the world againe 

 

To see if he can cure his distempered braine. 

 

Feares and cares oppresse my soule;

 

Harke, howe the angrye Fureys houle! 

 

Pluto laughes, and Proserpine is gladd

 

To see poore naked Tom of Bedlam madd.

 

Through the world I wander night and day,

 

To seeke my straggling senses, 

 

In an angrye moode I mett old Time,

 

With his pentarchye of tenses; 

 

When me he spyed, away he hyed,

 

For time will stay for no man:

 

In vaine with cryes I rent the skyes,

 

For pity is not common.

This is pretty bad verse, but you can see how in the second stanza the poet has reverted to the swinging rhythm and internal rhyme-scheme of the older poem. The same is true of a deliberately satirical version written by the ‘witty Bishop Corbet’ (1582-1635) which is called The Distracted Puritan: 

 Am I mad, O noble Festus, 

 

When zeal and godly knowledge 

 

Have put me in hope to deal with the pope, 

 

As well as the best in the college? 

 

Boldly I preach, hate a cross, hate a surplice, 

 

Mitres, copes, and rochets; 

 

Come hear me pray nine times a day, 

 

And fill your heads with crochets.

 

In the house of pure Emanuel

 

I had my education, 

 

Where my friends surmise I dazel'd my eyes 

 

With the sight of revelation. 

 

Boldly I preach, &c.

 

They bound me like a bedlam, 

 

They lash'd my four poor quarters; 

 

Whilst this I endure, faith makes me sure 

 

To be one of Foxes martyrs.

 

 Boldly I preach, &c.

 And so on. Both these ballads are clearly modelled on the original Tom-o’-Bedlam’s Song: evidence that it was well known enough to act as the template and reference for other versions. Basse’s ballad (if it’s his) is a poor imitation, while Bishop Corbet means merely to amuse his audience by likening a Puritan to a madman. There are so many other derivative versions that something must have set it all going! Let one final anonymous example stand for all. It can be found in Wit and Drollery; joviall poems: a collection compiled by one John Phillips between 1631-1706 and it too approximates the original scansion.

 From forth the Elizian fields

 

A place of restlesse soules,

 

Mad Maudlin is come, to seek her naked Tom,

 

Hells fury she controules:

 

The damned laugh to see her,

 

Grim Pluto scolds and frets,

 

Caron is glad to see poor Maudlin mad,

 

And away his boat he gets:

 

Through the Earth, through the Sea, through unknown iles

 

Through the lofty skies

 

Have I sought with sobs and cryes

 

For my hungry mad Tom, and my naked sad Tom,

 

Yet I know not whether he lives or dies.

 

My plaints makes Satyrs civil,

 

The Nimphs forget their singing;

 

The Fairies have left their gambal and their theft

 

The plants and the trees their springing.

 It goes on (and on, dragging in most of the Olympian pantheon) and concludes:

 Stormy clouds and weather,

 

Shall call all souls together.

 

Against I find my Tomkin Ile provide a Pumkin,

 

And we will both be blithe together.

The voice in this rather lame attempt is that of Tom’s lover Mad Maudlin, but a much better version was chosen by Steeleye Span. It is Mad Maudlin, to find out Tom of Bedlam and was written by the playwright Thomas D’Urfey for his collection of songs and ballads Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy, published in various volumes between 1698 and 1720. D’Urfey, too, closely follows the rhythm and rhyme-scheme of the earlier ballad. I imagine that the song’s female perspective must have increased its appeal for Steeleye Span’s vocalist Maddy Prior, and I’m rather sorry they decided to rename it.

 


So at last I know why there’s no knight of ghosts and shadows, no burning spear and no horse of air in the Steeleye Span song. Mad Maudlin is not an imitation but a response to the older ballad. There’d been a fashion for poets to write responses to other poet’s songs. The best known is Walter Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd (1600) which answers Kit Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (1599). Marlowe’s poem received other replies too, right down to John Donne’s The Bait (1633). D’Urfey may even have been mocking the tradition with this exchange between two mad beggars; the point would have been entirely lost, however, if the original were not still well known.

            D’Urfey’s ballad is vigorous and imaginative. It rivals some of the grotesqueries of the original – ‘To cut mince pies from children’s thighs/With which to feed the fairies’ is particularly striking. And it scans, which is more than some of the others quite manage. But the overall tone is rough and scurrilous: it doesn’t begin to attempt the lyric tenderness and heights of fantasy to which Tom-o’-Bedlam’s Song so effortlessly soars.

 With a host of furious fancies

Whereof I am commander,

With a burning spear and a horse of air

To the wilderness I wander,

With a knight of ghosts and shadows

I summoned am to tourney;

Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end;

Methinks it is no journey.

For Rudyard Kipling these lines breathed ‘incommunicable splendour, opening doors into inexplicable worlds.’ Harold Bloom spoke of their astonishing power. Robert Graves did not commit to the ballad being ‘necessarily the work of Shakespeare’, but pointed to evidence suggesting it may have been sung during performances of King Lear in Shakespeare’s own lifetime. And for Isaac D’Israeli it was ‘delirious and fantastic; strokes of sublime imagination … mixed with familiar comic humour.’ He added, ‘The last stanza of this Bedlam song contains the seeds of exquisite romance; a stanza worth many an admired poem.’

I wholeheartedly agree. If ever a poem opened a magic casement on to the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn, Tom-o’-Bedlam’s Song does it for me. And thankyou to Rosemary Sutcliff for introducing me to it, in a book which as the best children's books often do, has stayed with me for life.

 


*Coney-catching was a cant term used by the Elizabethan underworld. Petty thieves, card-sharps, pick-pockets and confidence tricksters were the ‘catchers’; their victims were the ‘coneys’ – which means rabbits.

*Not quite. In D’Israeli’s version, ‘heart’ may be a misprint for ‘host’, and ‘the rounded welkin’, though it makes sense, is more vividly ‘the wounded welkin’ in the earliest known version of Giles Earle.

 

Picture credits:

Beggar Looking Through his Hat, attributed to Jacques Bellange, Walters Art Museum Baltimore wiki

Bedlam Beggar: detail, woodcut, British Library 

Abraham Man, Thomas Dekker, British Library

Tom o' Bedlam, by Norman Lindsay

Street Ballad: The New Tom o' Bedlam: British Library