Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

"Leisure to Make Rhymes": St. Thomas More as English Poet

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

"Leisure to Make Rhymes": St. Thomas More as English Poet

Article excerpt

Part Two

The first part of this article was published in the Summer 2011 issue of Logos.--Editor

"A RUEFUL LAMENTATION" (1) is an elegiac poem on the death of Eliza-beth of York, wife of King Henry VII, who died on February 11, 1503, her thirty-seventh birthday, nine days after giving birth to a daughter who would die shortly after her. She was buried in Westminster Abbey on February 25, and More's poem may have been written as a "titulus" to be hung over her tomb after interment, a common practice in the late Middle Ages. (2) The poem is spoken by the dead queen herself, a not uncommon practice for verse epitaphs, but a first-person lament marked by genuine dramatic complexity, spoken by a public figure and thus exemplifying the "fall of princes" genre popularized by Boccacio and John Lydgate, makes this an unusual poem for its time and still a moving one in our own. (3)

The opening rhyme royal stanza, the first of twelve, begins with little indication that the poem will be more than a conventional elegy:

O ye that put your trust and confidence,
In worldly joy and frayle prosperite,
That so lyve here as ye should never hence,
Remember death and loke here uppon me. (ll. 1-4)

These lines, with their warning not to trust in what cannot last, could be spoken by anyone, though they exhibit a certain degree of uncommon wit in the third line, which can be understood to mean both living as though one will never go "hence," and living in a way that one will no longer be able to when one does indeed pass from this life to the next. The two imperatives, "remember death" and "look on me," juxtapose general, standard advice and a concrete, particular reference that will be the focus of the rest of the poem, for the speaker is both "everywoman," subject to the common human experience of death the great leveler, and a specific person of the highest estate whose stature makes her story more visible and more vivid than it would be were she an obscure commoner unknown beyond her limited circle of family and friends.

When she goes on to declare, "Ensaumple I thynke there may no better be" (l. 5), the audience is not yet aware why the speaker could make such a claim, and how valid it might be, but in the final couplet of the stanza she identifies herself and her connection to her audience, a relationship that is the basis for the present speech: "Your selfe wotte well that in this realme was I, / Your quene but late, and lo now here I lye" (ll. 6-7). The double reason for her exemplary role is based both on the disparity between her former and present state and on the bond she has with her listeners--she was not just "a" queen but "your" queen. The last half-line, with its play on "lo" as an exclamation and "low" as a reference to the grave, as well its reference to Henry VII's still unfinished royal chapel in Westminster Abbey, will recur in each of the subsequent stanzas with additional impact from the progressively accumulated details.

The following stanza poses a series of rhetorical questions, one per line, each presupposing a positive answer:

Was I not borne of old worthy linage?
Was not my mother queene my father kyng?
Was I not a kinges fere in marriage?
Had I not plenty of every pleasaunt thyng? (ll. 8-11)

The questions move from a reference to her noble ancestry in general to her royal parentage, as daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, to her marriage to Henry (on January 18, 1486, in the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth Field when Henry was victorious over Richard III, her uncle--and putative murderer of her brothers, the princes in the Tower); the fourth line switches from "Was" to "Had"--from her social and political position to her life of wealth and comfort. The disparity between what she was and what she now is leads to an expression of bewilderment:

Mercifull god this is a straunge reckenyng:
Rychesse, honour, welth, and auncestry
Hath me forsaken and lo now here I ly. … 
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