Prosopopoia: or Mother Hubbard's Tale

Original Text: 
Edmund Spenser, Complaints, containing sundry, small poems of the world's vanity (1591). Facs. edn. (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1970). PR 2357 A1 1591A Robarts Library
480The fox was well induc'd to be a parson,
481And of the priest eftsoons gan to inquire,
482How to a benefice he might aspire.
483"Marry, there" (said the priest) "is art indeed:
484Much good deep learning one thereout may read;
485For that the ground-work is, and end of all,
487First, therefore, when ye have in handsome wise
488Yourself attired, as you can devise,
489Then to some nobleman yourself apply,
490Or other great one in the worldes eye,
491That hath a zealous disposition
492To God, and so to his religion.
493There must thou fashion eke a godly zeal,
495For each thing feigned ought more wary be.
496There thou must walk in sober gravity,
498Fast much, pray oft, look lowly on the ground,
499And unto every one do courtesy meek:
500These looks (nought saying) do a benefice seek,
501But be thou sure one not to lack or long.
503And there to hunt after the hoped prey,
504Then must thou thee dispose another way:
505For there thou needs must learn to laugh, to lie,
508Of thy great master's will, to scorn, or mock.
509So may'st thou chance mock out a benefice,
510Unless thou canst one conjure by device,
513These be the ways by which without reward
514Livings in court be gotten, though full hard;
515For nothing there is done without a fee:
516The courtier needs must recompensed be
519Scarce can a bishopric forpass them by,
520But that it must be gelt in privity.
521Do not thou therefore seek a living there,
522But of more private persons seek elsewhere,
523Whereas thou may'st compound a better penny,
524Ne let thy learning question'd be of any.
525For some good gentleman, that hath the right
526Unto his church for to present a wight,
528That if the living yearly do arise
529To forty pound, that then his youngest son
530Shall twenty have, and twenty thou hast won:
531Thou hast it won, for it is of frank gift,
533Both that the bishop may admit of thee,
534And that therein thou may'st maintained be.
535This is the way for one that is unlearn'd
536Living to get, and not to be discern'd.
537But they that are great clerks, have nearer ways,
538For learning sake to living them to raise;
539Yet many eke of them (God wot) are driven
540T' accept a benefice in pieces riven.
541How say'st thou (friend), have I not well discourst
543Better a short tale than a bad long shriving.
544Needs any more to learn to get a living?"
546"Ye a great master are in your degree:
547Great thanks I yield you for your discipline,
548And do not doubt but duly to incline
549My wits thereto, as ye shall shortly hear."
550The priest him wish'd good speed, and well to fare:
551So parted they, as either's way them led.
552But th' ape and fox ere long so well them sped,
553Through the priest's wholesome counsel lately taught,
554And through their own fair handling wisely wrought,
555That they a benefice 'twixt them obtained;
556And crafty Reynold was a priest ordained,
557And th' ape his parish clerk procur'd to be.
559But, ere long time had passed, they so ill
560Did order their affairs, that th' evil will
561Of all their parish'ners they had constrain'd;
563How foully they their offices abus'd,
564And them of crimes and heresies accus'd,
566But they neglected his commandement.
567So long persisted obstinate and bold,
568Till at the length he published to hold
569A visitation, and them cited thether:
570Then was high time their wits about to geather.
572With their next neighbour priest, for light condition,
573To whom their living they resigned quite
574For a few pence, and ran away by night.


479] First published in 1591 in Complaints, Containing Sundry Small Poems of the World's Vanity, but with a prefatory remark that it was "long sithens composed in the raw conceipt of youth." It is thought that the poem was written in 1579-80 and retouched in 1590, and that it is an attack on Lord Burleigh as the sponsor of the proposed marriage between Queen Elizabeth and the Duke d'Alençon. If so, the ape is perhaps the French ambassador Simier (whom Elizabeth is known to have called her "monkey"), the fox Burleigh, and the lion Elizabeth; there is also much general satire of the abuses of church and court. The beast fable as a means of satire is taken from Chaucer and the mediaeval Reynard the Fox cycle, with certain Renaissance modifications. In the extract here printed, the two rogues are questioning a priest as to the possibility of a successful career in the church. Back to Line
486] beneficial. Benefice. A variant form, used for the sake of the rhyme; or perhaps "a presentation to a benefice". Back to Line
494] contrare. The contrary. Back to Line
497] Saint Radegund (521-587), wife of Clotair I, King of the Franks, became a nun in 544 and retired to Poitiers, where she founded a nunnery. She was noted for her learning, piety, and austerity. Back to Line
502] thee list. It please thee. The verb is impersonal and "thee" is an indirect object. Back to Line
506] face. Maintain a false appearance.
forge. Fabricate.
company. Be a gay companion. Back to Line
507] beetle-stock. The handle of a beetle, or wooden hammer. Hence, a mere tool. Back to Line
511] cast a figure for. Seek artfully. Literally, draw an horoscope for, calculate astrologically. Back to Line
512] school trick. A device of the schoolmen, an academic subtlety. Back to Line
517] Benevolence. A forced contribution. Back to Line
518] primitias. First fruits (Latin primitiae, first year's revenue. Back to Line
527] cope. Make a bargain. Back to Line
532] shift. Provide for. Back to Line
542] common-place. Topic. Back to Line
545] by my halidom. A common oath, literally "By my holy relic". Back to Line
558] revel rout. Uproarious merriment. Back to Line
562] Ordinary. The bishop or his deputy. Back to Line
565] pursuivants. Officers with warrants. Back to Line
571] composition. Agreement. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
N. J. Endicott
RPO Edition: 
2RP 1.108.