Variations on an Air

King Cole.


Variations on an Air

G.K. Chesterton


Old King Cole was a merry old soul,

And a merry old soul was he;

He called for his pipe,

and he called for his bowl,

and he called for his fiddlers three.


Ater Lord Tennyson.

Cole, that unwearied prince of Colchester,

Growing more gay with age and with long days

Deeper in laughter and desire of life

As that Virginian climber on our walls

Flames scarlet with the fading of the year;

Called for his wassail and that other weed

Virginian also, from the western woods

Where English Raleigh checked the boast of Spain,

And lighting joy with joy, and piling up

Pleasure as crown for pleasure, bade me bring

Those three, the minstrels whose emblazoned coats

Shone with the oyster-shells of Colchester;

And these three played, and playing grew more fain

Of mirth and music; till the heathen came

And the King slept beside the northern sea.


After W.B. Yeats.

Of an old King in a story

From the grey sea-folk I have heard

Whose heart was no more broken

Than the wings of a bird.


As soon as the moon was silver

And the thin stars began,

He took his pipe and his tankard,

Like an old peasant man.


And three tall shadows were with him

And came at his command;

And played before him for ever

The fiddles of fairyland.


And he died in the young summer

Of the world’s desire;

Before our hearts were broken

Like sticks in a fire.


After Robert Browning.

Who smoke-snorts toasts o’ My Lady Nicotine,

Kicks stuffing out of Pussyfoot, bids his trio

Stick up their Stradivarii (that’s the plural

Or near enough, my fatheads, nimium

Vicina Cremonæ; that’s a bit too near.)

Is there some stockfish fails to understand?

Catch hold o’ the notion, bellow and blurt back “Cole”?

Must I bawl lessons from a hornbook, howl,

Cat-call the cat-gut “fiddles”? Fiddlestick!


After Walt Whitman.

Me clairvoyant,

Me conscious of you, old camarado,

Needing no telescope, lorgnette, field-glass, opera-glass, myopic pince-nez,

Me piercing two thousand years with eye naked and not ashamed;

The crown cannot hide you from me,

Musty old feudal-heraldic trappings cannot hide you from me,

I perceive that you drink.

(I am drinking with you. I am as drunk as you are.)

I see you are inhaling tobacco, puffing, smoking, spitting

(I do not object to your spitting),

You prophetic of American largeness,

You anticipating the broad masculine manners of these States;

I see in you also there are movements, tremors, tears, desire for the melodious,

I salute your three violinists, endlessly making vibrations,

Rigid, relentless, capable of going on for ever;

They play my accompaniment; but I shall take no notice of any accompaniment;

I myself am a complete orchestra.

So long.


After Swinburne.

In the time of old sin without sadness

And golden with wastage of gold

Like the gods that grow old in their gladness

Was the king that was glad, growing old:

And with sound of loud lyres from his palace

The voice of his oracles spoke,

And the lips that were red from his chalice

Were splendid with smoke.


When the weed was as flame for a token

And the wine was as blood for a sign;

And upheld in his hands and unbroken

The fountains of fire and of wine.

And a song without speech, without singer,

Stung the soul of a thousand in three

As the flesh of the earth has to sting her,

The soul of the sea.


Chesterton notes this series was “Composed on Having to Appear in a Pageant as Old King Cole.” The familiar, solid simplicity of the original rhyme is reworked in the styles of five popular poets. Chesterton’s parodies are devastatingly humorous in their imitation of each poet’s style, perspective, and ego. This irreverent exercise reminds me of Chesterton’s remark about “higher culture”: “It means taking literature seriously, a very amateurish thing to do.”