augury doggerel

Saturday, March 15, 2003


I think the story I just remembered is true, but I don't have anything to look it up in. Anyway, it made me laugh, so here it is.

Richard Corbet was the bishop of Oxford back in Shakespeare's day, maybe a little later. The bishop had a good singing voice and he knew it. When traveling, he might stop at an inn, get himself up like the professional singers of the day, and be the evening's entertainment. He also liked his wine and was known to take his friend and assistant (what do you call a bishop's assistant?) downstairs, locking the door behind them, and sample a good bit of the cellar. And the bishop wrote poems. If you knew anything about him before, it was probably that he wrote the verse that starts:

Farewell, rewards and fairies,
Good housewives now may say,
For now foul sluts in dairies
Do fare as well as they.
And though they sweep their hearths no less
Than maids were wont to do,
Yet who of late for cleanliness
Finds sixpence in her shoe?

Lament, lament, old abbeys,
The fairies lost command;
They did but change priests' babies,
But some have changed your land,
And all your children sprung from thence
Are now grown Puritans;
Who live as changelings ever since,
For love of your demains.

It's an elegy for the more fanciful and superstitious days before the too-earnest Puritans started sticking their cold noses into things. Puritanism was certainly the sort of thing that would annoy a pub-singing, cellar-guzzling, fairy-missing poet who also happened to be bishop. He was Cavalier with a capital C, but also in the lowercase, lighthearted sense of the word.

However, the bishop was proud. One day, the story goes, he decided not to walk in procession around the cathedral church as a more humble prelate would do. Corbet would ride. Dressed in the full bishop's getup�hood and cassock and so on�he slowly rode his mare and read from the prayer book, and probably thought he looked pretty good. But this was exactly when a nearby stallion sniffed the air, got a whiff of something heady, broke loose, and sprinted for the bishop's mare. Before anything could be done, the stallion had mounted the mare and pinned the bishop between the two of them for the duration.

In subsequent processions, the bishop walked.


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