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National Poetry Month and Bad King John

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The following post is cross posted on the From the Catbird Seat: Poetry & Literature blog.

Magna Carta is coming to the Library of Congress in November 2014!  This document is regarded as being one of the foundations of representative government and at the same time marked a defeat of the king by his barons.  But long before 1215, King John had suffered massive losses and reversals of fortune, and was on the road to infamy.

Photograph taken by  Andrew Weber
Photograph taken by Andrew Weber

The favored,  younger son of Henry II, John had inherited the English throne along with the rest of Angevin Empire from his brother King Richard (“The Lionheart”) in April 1199.  However by June 1215, John had sustained a series of losses that made him a byword as a bad ruler.  When he came to the throne in 1199, the Angevin empire consisted of  England as well as many territories in France.  By 1204, John had lost most of his possessions in Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Poitou.  His disagreement with Pope Innocent III over the candidate for the Archbishop of Canterbury led to a papal interdict against England.  The interdict lasted from 1208 to 1212, while John himself was excommunicated in 1209.  A papal interdict  was a harsh punishment as it suspended most church services in England including Christian burial.  Moreover, like Richard III, John is believed to have been involved in the killing of  his nephew Arthur, Duke of Brittany.  John is also the only English king to have faced a successful invasion by a foreign power.  Louis (VIII), the Dauphin of France invaded in 1216 at the invitation of the barons after John tried to renege on the terms of Magna Carta, which resulted in the First Barons’ War.

What, one might ask, does of all of this have to do with National Poetry Month?  Well, King John makes an appearance in one of my favorite poems from childhood.  The poem is from A.A. Milne’s compilation of childhood poems “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We Are Six” with the original drawings by E.H. Shepard–one of the first books I received as a child.  The poem about King John is titled “King John’s Christmas” and it begins by reminding us about King John’s bad character:

King John was not a good man –
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.

Each stanza of the poem repeats the same first line: “King John was not a good man.”  As the poem lays it out, no one liked King John:  he is shunned when he walks around the town; no one comes to tea; he  has to send himself Christmas cards; and “They’d given him no present now/ For years and years and years.”  Despite, this bleak situation, King John posts a Christmas list on the chimney–signed it not “‘Johannes R.’/ But very humbly, ‘JACK.’”  The list includes chocolate, oranges, and a pocket knife; but the King really wants a “big, red India-rubber ball.”  The King returns to his room filled with hopes and fears but when Christmas dawns finds that once again his stocking is empty.  The poet however takes pity on King John – and a big, red India-rubber ball crashes through the window onto his bed:

When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An India-rubber ball!

It would seem that sometimes, even for a very bad king, fate or serendipity will operate to give him at least one present.  But we are glad, it did not give him the pocket knife which was also on the list–“And I SHOULD like a pocket knife/That really cuts”–not knowing what mischief he would have gotten up to with this!

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