by William Makepeace Thackeray
“KING CANUTE was weary hearted; he had reigned for years a score,
Battling, struggling, pushing, fighting, killing much and robbing more;
And he thought upon his actions, walking by the wild sea-shore.
‘Twixt the Chancellor and Bishop walked the King with steps sedate,
Chamberlains and grooms came after, silversticks and goldsticks great,
Chaplains, aides-de-camp, and pages,—all the officers of state.
Sliding after like his shadow, pausing when he chose to pause,
If a frown his face contracted, straight the courtiers dropped their jaws;
If to laugh the king was minded, out they burst in loud hee-haws.
But that day a something vexed him, that was clear to old and young:
Thrice his Grace had yawned at table, when his favorite gleemen sung,
Once the Queen would have consoled him, but he bade her hold her tongue.
‘Something ails my gracious master,’ cried the Keeper of the Seal.
‘Sure, my lord, it is the lampreys served to dinner, or the veal?’
‘Psha!’ exclaimed the angry monarch, ‘Keeper, ’tis not that I feel.
”Tis the HEART, and not the dinner, fool, that doth my rest impair:
Can a king be great as I am, prithee, and yet know no care?
Oh, I’m sick, and tired, and weary.’—Some one cried, ‘The King’s arm-chair!’
Then towards the lackeys turning, quick my Lord the Keeper nodded,
Straight the King’s great chair was brought him, by two footmen able-bodied;
Languidly he sank into it: it was comfortably wadded.
‘Leading on my fierce companions,’ cried he, ‘over storm and brine,
I have fought and I have conquered! Where was glory like to mine?’
Loudly all the courtiers echoed: ‘Where is glory like to thine?’
‘What avail me all my kingdoms? Weary am I now and old;
Those fair sons I have begotten, long to see me dead and cold;
Would I were, and quiet buried, underneath the silent mould!
‘Oh, remorse, the writhing serpent! at my bosom tears and bites;
Horrid, horrid things I look on, though I put out all the lights;
Ghosts of ghastly recollections troop about my bed at nights.
‘Cities burning, convents blazing, red with sacrilegious fires;
Mothers weeping, virgins screaming vainly for their slaughtered sires.—’
Such a tender conscience,’ cries the Bishop, ‘every one admires.
‘But for such unpleasant bygones, cease, my gracious lord, to search,
They’re forgotten and forgiven by our Holy Mother Church;
Never, never does she leave her benefactors in the lurch.
‘Look! the land is crowned with minsters, which your Grace’s bounty raised;
Abbeys filled with holy men, where you and Heaven are daily praised:
YOU, my lord, to think of dying? on my conscience I’m amazed!’
‘Nay, I feel,’ replied King Canute, ‘that my end is drawing near.’
‘Don’t say so,’ exclaimed the courtiers (striving each to squeeze a tear).
‘Sure your Grace is strong and lusty, and may live this fifty year.’
‘Live these fifty years!’ the Bishop roared, with actions made to suit.
‘Are you mad, my good Lord Keeper, thus to speak of King Canute!
Men have lived a thousand years, and sure his Majesty will do’t.
‘Adam, Enoch, Lamech, Cainan, Mahaleel, Methusela,
Lived nine hundred years apiece, and mayn’t the King as well as they?’
‘Fervently,’ exclaimed the Keeper, ‘fervently I trust he may.’
‘HE to die?’ resumed the Bishop. He a mortal like to US?
Death was not for him intended, though communis omnibus:
Keeper, you are irreligious, for to talk and cavil thus.
‘With his wondrous skill in healing ne’er a doctor can compete,
Loathsome lepers, if he touch them, start up clean upon their feet;
Surely he could raise the dead up, did his Highness think it meet.
‘Did not once the Jewish captain stay the sun upon the hill,
And, the while he slew the foemen, bid the silver moon stand still?
So, no doubt, could gracious Canute, if it were his sacred will.’
‘Might I stay the sun above us, good sir Bishop?’ Canute cried;
‘Could I bid the silver moon to pause upon her heavenly ride?
If the moon obeys my orders, sure I can command the tide.
‘Will the advancing waves obey me, Bishop, if I make the sign?’
Said the Bishop, bowing lowly, ‘Land and sea, my lord, are thine.’
Canute turned towards the ocean—’Back!’ he said, ‘thou foaming brine.
‘From the sacred shore I stand on, I command thee to retreat;
Venture not, thou stormy rebel, to approach thy master’s seat:
Ocean, be thou still! I bid thee come not nearer to my feet!’
But the sullen ocean answered with a louder, deeper roar,
And the rapid waves drew nearer, falling sounding on the shore;
Back the Keeper and the Bishop, back the king and courtiers bore.
And he sternly bade them never more to kneel to human clay,
But alone to praise and worship That which earth and seas obey:
And his golden crown of empire never wore he from that day.
King Canute is dead and gone: Parasites exist alway.”
William Makepeace Thackeray was born on this day in 1811, you can read more of his work through Surrey Libraries.
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