An ancient story

From: Six Non-lectures by e.e.cummings


An ancient story I’ll tell you anon

Of a notable prince, that was called King John; And he ruled England with maine and with might,  For he did great wrong, and maintein’d little right.

And ‘ll tell you a story, a story so merrye, Concerning the Abbott of Canterburye;

How for his house-keeping and high renowne, They rode poste for him to fair London towne.

An hundred men, the king did heare say, The abbot kept in his house every day; And :fifty golde chaines, without any doubt, In velvet coates waited the abbot about.

“How now, father abbot, I heare it of thee, Thou keepest a farre better house than mee; And for thy house-keeping and high renowne, I feare thou work’st treason against my crown.••

“My liege,,quo’ the abbot, “I would it we1·e  knowne I never spend nothing, but what is my owne; And I trust your grace will doe me no deere, For spending of my owne true-gotten geere…

“Yes, yes, father abbot, thy fault it is highe, And now for the same thou needest must dye; For except thou canst answer me questions three, Thy head shall be smitten from thy bodic.

“And first,” quo’ the king, “”When I’m in this stead, With  my crowne o£ gold so faire on my head, Among all my liege-men so noble of birthe,.Thou xnust tell me to one penny what I am worthe.

Secondlye, tell me, without any doubt, How soone I may ride the whole world about; And at the third question thou must not shrink, But tell me here truly what I do think.”

“0 these are hard questions f”or  my shallow witt, Nor I cannot answer your grace as yet: But if” you will give me but three weekes space, Ile do my endeavour to answer your grace.,

“Now three weeks space to thee will I give, And  that is the longest time thou  hast to live; For if thou dost not answer my questions  three, Thy  lands and  thy livings are forfeit to mee.”

Away rode the abbot  all sad at that  word, And  he rode to Cambridge, and  Oxenford; But never a doctor  there was so wise, That could with  his learning  an answer devise.

Then  home rode the abbot  of comfort so cold. And he mett  his shepheard a going to fold:

“How now, my lord abbot,  you are welcome home; What  newes do you bring  us from good King John?”

“Sad newes, sad  newes, shepheard, I must give, That I have but  three days more to live; For if I do not answer him questions three, My head  will be smitten from my bodie.

“The first is to tell him there in that  stead, With  his crowne of golde so fair on his head, Among all his liege-men so noble of birth, To within one penny of what he is worth,

“The seconde, to tell him, without  any doubt, How soone he may ride this whole world about; And at  the third  question  I must not shrinke, But  tell him there truly what he does thinke.”

”Now cheare  up, sire abbot, did you never hear yet, That a fool may learne a wise man  witt? Lend  me horse, and serving men, and your apparel, And  Ile ride to London  to answere your quarrel.

“Nay frowne not, if it hath  bin told unto mee, I am like your lordship, as ever may bee;

And if you will but lend me your gowne, There is none shall knowe us at fair London  towne.”

“Now  horses and  serving-men  thou shalt have, With sumptuous  array  most gallant  and  brave, ‘With crosier, and  miter,  and  rochet, and  cope, Fit to appear ‘fore our fader the pope.”

“Now, welcome, sire abbot,” the king he did say, “Tis  well thou’rt come back to keepe thy day: For and if thou canst  answer my questions  three, Thy  life and  thy living both saved shall  bee.

“And  first, when thou seest me here in this stead, With  my crowne of golde so fair on my head, Among all my liege-men so noble of birthe, Tell  me to one penny what  I am worth.”

“For thirty  pence our Saviour  was sold Among the false Jewes, as I have  been told: And twenty-nine  is the worth  of thee, For  I thinke thou art  one penny worser than  hee.”

The  king he laughed,  and  swore by St. Bittel, “I did not think  I had  been worth so littel! -Now secondly tell me, without  any doubt, How soone I may ride this whole world about.”

“You must rise with the sun, and  ride with  the same Until the next morning he riseth againe; And  then your grace need not make any doubt But in twenty-four  hours you’ll  ride it about.”

The king he laughed, and  swore by St.Jone, “I did  not think  it could  be gone so soonc;- Now from the third  question  thou  must not shrinke, But tell me here  truly what  I do thinke.”

“Yea, that shall  I do, and  make your grace merry; You thinke I’m  the abbot  of Canterbury; But I’m his poor shepheard, as plain you may see, That am come to beg pardon for him and  for mee.”

The  king he laughed, and swore by the masse, “Ile make thee lord abbot  this day in his place!” “Now naye, my liege, be not in such speede, For  alacke I can  neither  write ne reade.”

“Four nobles a week, then I will give thee, For  this merry  jest thou  has showne unto  mee; And  tell the old abbot  when  thou comest home,

Thou hast  brought  him a pardon from good King John.”

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