Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

A Poet King

The Bruce  is a book which is the outcome of the history of the times. It is the outcome of the quarrels between England and Scotland, and of Scotland's struggle for freedom. Now we come to another poet, and another poem which was the outcome of the quarrels between England and Scotland. For although Scotland's freedom was never again in danger, the quarrels between the two countries were, unhappily, not over.

In 1399, as we know, Henry IV wrested the crown of England from Richard II. The new King proved no friend to Scotland, for he desired, as those before him had desired, to rule both countries. Henry lost no chance, therefore, by which he might gain his end. So when in 1405 the King of Scotland sent his little son James to be educated in France, the English attacked the ship in which he sailed and took him prisoner. Instead, then, of going as a guest to the court of France, the Prince was carried as a prisoner to the court of England. When the old King heard the sad news he died, and James, captive though he was, became King of Scotland.

Those were again troublous times in Scotland. The captive King's uncle was chosen as Regent to rule in his absence. But he, wishing to rule himself, had no desire that his nephew should be set free. So through the reigns of Henry IV and of Henry V James remained a prisoner. But although a prisoner he was not harshly treated, and the Kings of England took care that he should receive an education worthy of a prince. James was taught to read and write English, French, and Latin. He was taught to fence and wrestle, and indeed to do everything as a knight should. Prince James was a willing pupil; he loved his books, and looked forward to the coming of his teachers, who lightened the loneliness of his prison.

"But," says a Frenchman who has written a beautiful little book about this captive King, " 'stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage': the soul of the child, who grew to be a youth, was never a prisoner. Behind the thick walls of the Tower, built long ago by the Conqueror, he studied. Guards watched over him, but his spirit was far away voyaging in the realms of poetry. And in these thought journeys, sitting at his little window, with a big book upon his knee, he visited the famous places which the Gesta Romanorum  unrolled before him. . . . The 'noble senator' Boece taught him resignation. William de Lorris took him by the hand and led him to the garden of the Rose. The illustrious Chaucer invited him to follow the gay troop of pilgrims along the highroad to Canterbury. The grave Gower, announcing in advance a sermon of several hours, begged him to be seated, and to the murmur of his wise talk, his head leaning on the window frame, the child slept peacefully.

"Thus passed the years, and the chief change that they brought was a change of prison. After the Tower it was the Castle of Nottingham, another citadel of the Norman time, then Evesham, then again the Tower when Henry V came to the throne; and at last, and this was by contrast almost liberty, the Castle of Windsor."

And thus for eighteen years the Prince lived a life half-real, half-dream. The gray days followed each other without change, without adventure. But the brilliant throng of kings and queens, of knights and ladies, of pilgrims and lovers, and all the make-believe people of storyland stood out all the brighter for the grayness of the background. And perhaps to the Prince in his quiet tower the storied people were more real than the living, who only now and again came to visit him. For the storied people were with him always, while the living came and went again and were lost to him in the great world without, of which he knew scarce anything. But at last across this twilight life, which was more than half a dream, there struck one day a flash of sunshine. Then to the patient, studious prisoner all was changed. Life was no longer a twilight dream, but real. He knew how deep joy might be, how sharp sorrow. Life was worth living, he learned, freedom worth having, and at length freedom came, and the Prince returned to his country a free King and a happy lover.

How all this happened King James has told us himself in a book called The King's Quair,  which means the King's little book, which he wrote while he was still a prisoner in England.

King James tells us how one night he could not sleep, try as he might. He lay tossing and tumbling, "but sleep for craft on earth might I no more." So at last, "knowing no better wile," he took a book hoping "to borrow a sleep" by reading. But instead of bringing sleep, the book only made him more and more wide awake. At length he says:—

"Mine eyen gan to smart for studying,

My book I shut, and at my head it laid,

And down I lay but any tarrying."

Again he lay thinking and tossing upon his bed until he was weary.

"Then I listened suddenly,

And soon I heard the bell to matins ring,

And up I rose, no longer would I lie.

But now, how trow ye? such a fantasy

Fell me to mind, that aye methought the bell

Said to me, 'Tell on man what thee befell.'

Thought I tho' to myself, 'What may this be?

This is mine own imagining,

It is no life that speaketh unto me;

It is a bell, or that impression

Of my thought causeth this illusion,

That maketh me think so nicely in this wise';

And so befell as I shall you devise."

Prince James says he had already wasted much ink and paper on writing, yet at the bidding of the bell he decided to write some new thing. So up he rose,

"And forth-with-all my pen in hand I took,

And made a + and thus began my book."

Prince James then tells of his past life, of how, when he was a lad, his father sent him across the sea in a ship, and of how he was taken prisoner and found himself in "Straight ward and strong prison"  "without comfort in sorrow." And there full often he bemoaned his fate, asking what crime was his that he should be shut up within four walls when other men were free.

"Bewailing in my chamber thus alone,

Despairing of all joy and remedy,

Out wearied with my thought and woe begone,

Unto the window gan I walk in haste,

To see the world and folk that went forbye,

As for the time though I of mirths food

Might have no more, to look it did me good."

Beneath the tower in which the Prince was imprisoned lay a beautiful garden. It was set about with hawthorn hedges and juniper bushes, and on the small, green branches sat a little nightingale, which sang so loud and clear "that all the garden and the walls rang right with the song." Prince James leaned from his window listening to the song of the birds, and watching them as they hopped from branch to branch, preening themselves in the early sunshine and twittering to their mates. And as he watched he envied the birds, and wondered why he should be a thrall while they were free.

"And therewith cast I down mine eyes again,

Whereas I saw, walking under the tower

Full secretly, new coming her to play,

The fairest and the freshest young flower

That ever I saw methought, before that hour,

For which sudden abate, anon astart,

The blood of all my body to my heart."

A lovely lady was walking in the garden, a lady more lovely than he had dreamed any one might be. Her hair was golden, and wreathed with flowers. Her dress was rich, and jewels sparkled on her white throat. Spellbound, he stood a while watching the lovely lady. He could do nothing but gaze.

"No wonder was; for why my wits all

Were so overcome with pleasance and delight,

Only through letting of mine eyes down fall,

That suddenly my heart became her thrall,

For ever of free will."

Thus, from the first moment in which he saw her, James loved the beautiful lady. After a few minutes he drew in his head lest she might see him and be angry with him for watching her. But soon he leaned out again, for while she was in the garden he felt he must watch and see her walk "so womanly."

So he stood still at the window, and although the lady was far off in the garden, and could not hear him, he whispered to her, telling of his love. "O sweet," he said, "are you an earthly creature, or are you a goddess? How shall I do reverence to you enough, for I love you? And you, if you will not love me too, why, then have you come? Have you but come to add to the misery of a poor prisoner?"

Prince James looked, and longed, and sighed, and envied the little dog with which the lovely lady played. Then he scolded the little birds because they sang no more. "Where are the songs you chanted this morning?" he asked. "Why do you not sing now? Do you not see that the most beautiful lady in all the world is come into your garden?" Then to the nightingale he cried, "Lift up thine heart and sing with good intent. If thou would sing well ever in thy life, here is i-faith the time—here is the time or else never."

Then it seemed to the Prince as if, in answer to his words, all the birds sang more sweetly than ever before. And what they sang was a love-song to his lady. And she, walking under the tender green of the May trees, looked upward, and listened to their sweet songs, while James watched her and loved her more and more.

"And when she walkéd had a little while

Under the sweet green boughs bent,

Her fair fresh face as white as any snow,

She turnéd has, and forth her ways went;

But then began my sickness and torment

To see her go, and follow I not might,

Methought the day was turnéd into night."

Then, indeed, the day was dark for the Prince. The beautiful lady in going had left him more lonely than before. Now he truly knew what it was to be a prisoner. All day long he knelt at the window, watching, and longing, and not knowing by what means he might see his lady again. At last night came, and worn out in heart and mind he leaned his head against the cold rough stone and slept.

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