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I promised I’d write this post much soonier,
But my life took a turn for the loonier,
I couldn’t quite get my thoughts together,
Got busy, and wasn’t helped by the weather
(Hot and parched)
But now, it’s cooler, and it rained, so hopefully you won’t think I’m just a cartoon feature.
I swear, some Google search result gave “cartoon feature” as a “near rhyme” for “loonier.” Wow. Google: Doggerel Generator Extraordinaire. Among other things.
What I originally planned to do, somewhere back in the first week of July, was write a post about one of my favorite Ancient Brit kings, Canute. I was going to quote William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair (the novel, not the magazine), and his poem, which starts like this:
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.
Urgh. At the direction of a college English professor (not Mr. She), I was once required to write a Canterbury-Tale like prologue, but focusing on a contemporary character. It was 1973, and I chose Henry Kissinger, because he was in the news, and because he’d been Dad’s boss a decade previous, and I’d met him a few times. I remember getting an A- for my effort, and the comment, “somewhat metrically irregular but rather enjoyably done.”
Or, I thought I might invoke an oft-quoted poem by Paul Perro:
There once was an old king called King Canute,
He was a kind old man, and wise to boot.
He was troubled though, he thought it was odd,
That his subjects treated him like a god.
One day a man said “You are a great king
Ruler of everyone and everything.”
These are two not-terribly-good (IMHO) poems which relate the lesson that people used to take, as a matter of course, from the story of King Canute (Cnut).
Just fifty years before William the Conqueror invaded England from the Southeast, Canute took over England, sailing down from Denmark and landing at Wessex. Strenuous fighting ensued along the way (Canute was already known as a warrior-prince) until he ended up in London, which was under siege for several months, eventually capitulating to the extent that all land north of the capital was ceded to Canute, while the English King Edmund continued his dominion over the land to the south–said land to pass to Canute upon Edmund’s death. Edmund died within a few weeks of the treaty (no word on Hillary Clinton’s whereabouts at the time, other than to say that it is not widely believed that Edmund committed suicide), and Canute was crowned King of all England. He eventually secured thrones not only there, but also in Scotland and Norway, in addition to his native Denmark.
He’s regarded, by the standards of the time, as a rather good and just king, but his reputation for specific kingly virtues pales in comparison to the thing that we all know about him, which is that he was the foolish, proud, delusional monarch who thought that he could hold back the tides, and was humiliated, mortified and embarrassed when that was shown not to be the case.
Oops. Perhaps not so much.
The first recounting of the tale of “Canute and the Waves” comes from Henry of Huntingdon, in his twelfth-century Historia Anglelorum (OK, a century or so after Canute died, but a hell of a lot closer to his life than are we). Henry explained the episode this way:
… when he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.” Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown on his neck, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. By whose mercy may the soul of King Cnut enjoy rest.
So the first, and almost-contemporaneous, account describes a Canute who’s tired of the fawning sycophancy of his nobles, and who decides to teach them a lesson and show them that even the power of kings is limited by eternal laws and divine providence. Whether or not it’s a faithful depiction of his actions (Lord knows, contemporaneity with events is no guarantee of accuracy or fairness when it comes to news coverage–we see that every day), it was the story that was passed down for generations: Canute the Meek; Canute the Pious; Canute the Devout; Canute who hung up his crown on the crucifix and never wore it again after showing his courtiers that he, too, was mortal.
Somewhere along the way, though, the story changed, and Canute became Canute the Deluded, Canute the Narcissist, and Canute the Megalomaniac. (Don’t believe me, just Google “King Canute Donald Trump” for multitudinous, and multifarious comparisons. You’ll get the idea.)
And we now live in a world where Canute, more often than not, is held up as an exemplar of power gone mad, of the King who thought he could hold back the tide, who could stop the waves from rolling in, and who could control the forces of nature without being subject to them himself.
And I think about him sometimes, when I read and watch stories of how we’re going to “beat” or “defeat” Covid-19 just as soon as we find the silver bullet, whatever that may be, to help us do so. Masks? Goggles? Vaccine? Hazmat suits? Quarantines? Lockdowns? The next best thing? Whatever.
Because I don’t think we are. I don’t think we’ve “beaten” lots of diseases we thought we’d either eradicated, or which had disappeared. Recent reports from various parts of the world indicate that they’re still out there, waiting to rear their ugly heads as soon as we drop our guard or start acting stupidly in ways that allow them to re-emerge.
No, I think we’re going to have to learn to live with it Covid-19 and do the best we can for ourselves and each other, while still finding a way to live fully and humanely. Certainly until we find out a lot more about it, and perhaps still, even then. And I think a little (or large) dose of humility on the subject might be the key to doing just that.
But, back to Canute, and his admonition to his hangers-on (with a little political commentary at the end), Thackeray version:
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.
I still can’t think of it as peerless poesy, but I heartily endorse the sentiment of the last line.Published in