Friday, June 21, 2013

On spilling your guts for a poem

The year is 1484.  My interest?  The treatment of a poet William Collingbourne, who dared to pen a satiric rhyme directed at the king.  He then further enraged the authorities by nailing it to the doors of St. Paul's Cathedral

I've written poems lambasting politicians, celebrities, drunken priests, poets with literary trophies, out-of-print novelists, and in-print novelists - but none seemed to give a shit.  Not one rose up in anger from a faux-leather recliner to retrieve a shotgun from the closet.

But Sir Collingbourne's taunt was considered treasonous.  When he got wind that soldiers wished to speak to him, he rode away on a horse and hid in a village.  But he was loud there, too, drunkenly bragging in a tavern that he had written a little ditty about the king.  He was discovered, jailed, spat at, ridiculed with hearty slaps, and so on.  Then he was hauled back to London, where townies lined the streets and reveled in his public disgrace.  A judge called for his execution.  The poor fellow was strung up on the gallows (Aldergate, I wonder, or Execution Dock at Wapping?), brought down while his lungs were still heaving, castrated, and disemboweled.

But our Collingbourne was witty to the end.  When the executioner shoved a hand into his abdomen and pulled out his slippery entrails, he said, "Oh, Lord Jesus, yet more trouble."

I touch my belly when I think of him, brave poet who spilled his guts for a poem.

-- Gary Soto, What Poets Are Like: Up and Down with the Writing Life; a wonderful book!


Here's the ditty, pinned to the door of St. Pauls Cathedral on 18 July 1484:

the Catte, the Ratte and Lovell 
our dogge rulyth all Englande under a hogge.

A key to the poem -

Rat = royal adviser Sir Richard Ratcliff
Cat = minister Sir William Catesby (Chancellor of the Exchequer during King Richard’s reign)
Dog = Viscount Lovel (His family’s heraldic symbol was the wolf)
Hog = King Richard III (King Richard III’s banner animal, the boar, is re-interpreted and made into a tame hog.

(More about this dangerous poem can be found here.)


Photo: The verger to the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral opening its doors after being closed for a week during the protests of 2011; story and photo credit here.