I’ve enjoyed John Hay’s poem, The Enchanted Shirt ever since I bought a slim volume of his poetry, Pike County Ballads, printed in 1897. It’s full of wisdom about the human condition.
The Enchanted Shirt
by John Hay
Fytte the First: wherein it shall be shown how the Truth is too mighty a Drug for such as be of feeble temper
The King was sick. His cheek was red
And his eye was clear and bright;
He ate and drank with a kingly zest,
And peacefully snored at night.
But he said he was sick, and a king should know,
And doctors came by the score.
They did not cure him. He cut off their heads
And sent to the schools for more.
At last two famous doctors came,
And one was as poor as a rat,—
He had passed his life in studious toil,
And never found time to grow fat.
The other had never looked in a book;
His patients gave him no trouble,—
If they recovered they paid him well,
If they died their heirs paid double.
Together they looked at the royal tongue,
As the King on his couch reclined;
In succession they thumped his august chest,
But no trace of disease could find.
The old sage said, “You are as sound as a nut.”
“Hang him up,” roared the King in a gale;
In a ten knot gale of royal rage,
The other leech grew a shade pale.
But he pensively rubbed his sagacious nose,
And thus his prescription ran,—
The King will be well, if he sleeps one night
In the Shirt of a Happy Man.
Fytte the Second: tells of the search for the Shirt, and how it was nigh found, but was not, for reasons which are said or sung.
Wide o’er the realm the couriers rode,
And fast their horses ran.
And many they saw, and to many they spoke,
But they found no Happy Man.
They found poor men who would fain be rich,
And rich who thought they were poor;
And men who twisted their waists in stays,
And women that shorthose wore.
They saw two men by the roadside sit,
And both bemoaned their lot;
For one had buried his wife, he said,
And the other one had not.
At last as they came to a village gate,
A beggar lay whistling there;
He whistled and sang and laughed and rolled
On the grass in the soft June air.
The weary couriers paused and looked
At the scamp so blithe and gay;
And one of them said, “Heaven save you, friend!
You seem to be happy today.”
“O yes, fair sirs,” the rascal laughed
And his voice rang free and glad,
“An idle man has so much to do
That he never has time to be sad.”
“This is our man,” the courier said;
“Our luck has led us aright.
I will give you a hundred ducats, friend,
For the loan of your shirt tonight.”
The merry blackguard lay back on the grass,
And laughed till his face was black;
“I would do it, God wot,” and he roared with the fun,
“But I haven’t a shirt to my back.”
Fytte the Third: shewing how His Majesty the King came at last to sleep a Happy Man in his shirt.
Each day to the King the reports came in
Of his unsuccessful spies,
And the sad panorama of human woes
Passed daily under his eyes.
And he grew ashamed of his useless life,
And his maladies hatched in gloom;
He opened his windows and let the air
Of the free heaven into his room.
And out he went in the world and toiled
In his own appointed way;
And the people blessed him, the land was glad,
And the King was well and gay.
Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston
I particularly loved the depiction of the King as a hypochondriac, with no perspective, shut up in his palace with no empathy or understanding of the outside world. There are many parallels with people’s cosseted lives, stuck on the Internet, today. I found the depiction of the two doctors entertaining, with the intelligent, honest one being killed and the lazy, cunning one coming up with the perfect prescription – an impossible task similar to those in folk tales, where prospective suitors are tasked with grazing Hares by moonlight and bringing them back the next day. Intelligence and cunning are two very different properties.
‘The sad panorama of human woes’ is a sobering thought and is still true. “There’s folks a lot worse off than you” is always a useful thing to be reminded of.
Here’s where I imagine the King living, in Matera in the south of Italy. I don’t think there would have been a construction crane in his day, though.
We’ll be back there soon, amongst the Lesser Kestrels and the lizards. I’m looking forward to bringing you my photographs. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy the free heaven outside.