08 Feb The Chanticleer and the Russell Fox
Normally, in such circumstances, we might be inclined to write something like, “we watched last night’s State of the Union address so that you didn’t have to!” But we didn’t watch it. And why would we? Why would anyone? These speeches are thoroughly pointless – and have been for at least two decades. The last significant State of the Union was probably George W. Bush’s address on January 29, 2002, when he identified the “axis of evil” and announced to the world that the War on Terror would not be confined to Afghanistan alone. Every speech since then (or almost every speech, at the very least) has been an exercise in vanity, indulgence, and duplicity. “I did this! I did that! We need this! They denied me that!” Seriously.
Who ******* cares?
Part of the reason we’re so late today – and will be comparatively brief – is that we spent an inordinate amount of time this morning and early afternoon digging through selections from Gibbon and Carlyle (mainly), looking for parallels we might cite regarding the collapse of politics in Rome or Versailles into purely performative decadence. That, we thought, would be about the most relevant thing we could say about the address last night.
Instead, however, we decided to focus less on the speech itself and more on the much-discussed “heckling” of the president by Republicans and the apparent pleasure the president took from responding to his critics. That, we believe, is probably an even better encapsulation of our politics today than just about anything else: a bunch of self-important windbags jawboning back and forth with one another, accomplishing nothing, yet putting everyone and everything in danger.
To that end, we thought we would drag out some thoughts from Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, specifically, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” (And speaking of nuns, if this were 8th Grade English at St. Teresa’s, taught by Sister Amata, the last of the ruler-totin’ Dominicans, we’d make you read it as Chaucer wrote it. But it’s not, and neither you nor we have time for that.) So…here goes:
She had a yard that was enclosed about
By paling and a dried up ditch without,
In which she had a cock named Chanticleer,
In all the realm of crowing without peer.
His voice was merrier than the play
Of the church’s organ each holy day.
And surer was his crowing than a clock
(Even that of the abbey), for this cock
By instinct knew each move of the equator
As it progressed, that none too soon nor later
But on the dot, fifteen degrees ascended,
He crowed the hour no clock so well attended.
His comb was finest coral red and tall,
And battlemented like a castle wall.
His bill was black and like the jet it glowed,
His legs and toes like azure when he strode.
His nails were whiter than the lilies bloom,
Like burnished gold the color of his plume….
A black-marked fox, iniquitous and sly,
Who’d lived for three years in the grove nearby
(By heaven’s high design right from the first),
That very night had through the hedges burst
Into the yard where Chanticleer the Fair
And all his wives were accustomed to repair.
There in a bed of cabbages he lay
Completely still till well into the day,
Waiting his time on Chanticleer to fall,
As gladly do homicides one and all
Who wait to ambush and to murder men.
O false murderer, lurking in your den!
O new Iscariot, new Ganelon!
O false dissembler, like the Greek Sinon
Who brought the Trojans sorrow so severe!
A curse upon that day, O Chanticleer….
Sunbathing in the sand, fair Pertelote
Lay blithely by her sisters, while the throat
Of Chanticleer made song as merrily
As that of any mermaid in the sea.
(The Physiologus, with truth to tell,
Says mermaids sing both merrily and well.)
It so befell that as he cast his eye
On the cabbage bed, to catch a butterfly,
He caught sight of the fox there lying low.
He didn’t have the least desire to crow —
He cried at once “Cock, cock!” with quite a start,
As any man fear-stricken in his heart.
By instinct every beast desires to flee
When he has seen his natural enemy,
Though never laying eyes on him before.
This Chanticleer would not have tarried more
Once he espied the fox, had not the latter
Said, “Gentle sir, alas! what is the matter?
I am your friend–are you afraid of me?
I’d be worse than a fiend, most certainly,
To do you harm. And please don’t think that I
Come here upon your privacy to spy;
The reason that I’ve come is not a thing
Except that I might listen to you sing.
For truly you’ve a voice as merry, sire,
As any angel’s up in heaven’s choir.
Because of this, in music you’ve more feeling
Than had Boethius, or all who sing.
My lord, your father (his soul blessed be)
And mother (she of such gentility)
Have both been in my house, to my great pleasure.
To have you, sir, I’d love in equal measure.
For when men speak of singing, I must say —
As may my eyes see well the light of day —
Till you, I never heard a mortal sing
As did your father when the day would spring….
This Chanticleer stood high upon his toes;
Stretching his neck, he let his two eyes close
And loudly he began to crow. Apace
The fox Sir Russell sprang out from his place
And by the throat grabbed Chanticleer. He bore
Him on his back toward the woodland, for
The fox as yet by no one was pursued.
O Destiny, you cannot be eschewed!…
This simple widow and her daughters heard
The woeful crying of the hens. They stirred
Themselves at once, leapt up and ran outside;
The fox toward the grove they then espied,
Bearing away the cock upon his back.
They cried out “Help!” and “Mercy!” and “Alack!
Hey, hey, the fox!” And after him they ran,
And joining in with staves came many a man,
And our dog Collie, Talbot too, and Garland,
And Malkin with a distaff in her hand.
Ran cow and calf and even all the hogs,
So frightened by the barking of the dogs
And shouting of each woman, every man.
They thought their hearts would burst, so hard they ran.
They yelled like fiends in hell, such was the cry;
The ducks all quacked as if about to die;
The geese in fear flew up above the trees;
Out of the hive there came a swarm of bees.
God knows, the noise was hideous and loud!
I’m certain that Jack Straw and all his crowd
Did not produce a shouting half as shrill
(When they had found a Fleming they could )
As all the noise directed at the fox….
Good men, I pray, please listen one and all,
For see how Fortune upsets suddenly
The hope and pride now of her enemy!
This cock, who on the fox’s back still lay,
Despite his fear said to the fox, “I say,
What I would do, my lord, if I were you,
So help me God, is tell those who pursue,
‘Turn back, you fools, you haughty churls all,
And may a pestilence upon you fall!
For now that I have reached the woodland’s side,
In spite of you this cock shall here abide —
I’ll eat him up right now in front of you!'”
The fox replied, “In faith, that’s what I’ll do.”
But as he spoke those words, without a pause
The cock broke nimbly from the fox’s jaws
And immediately flew high up in a tree.
We like this particular version of the fable best for one reason: it shows that Nemesis – who punishes hubris – does not play favorites. It doesn’t matter if you’re a haughty rooster or an arrogant fox. You will, in time, be punished for your arrogance. Count on it. Or as the Fox puts it:
“God bring[s]s to defeat/One whose demeanor is so indiscreet”