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The Vain King
In robes of Tyrian blue the King was drest, A jewelled collar shone upon his breast, A giant ruby glittered in his crown ----- Lord of rich lands and many a splendid town. In him the glories of an ancient line Of sober kings, who ruled by right divine, Were centred; and to him with loyal awe The people looked for leadership and law. Ten thousand knights, the safeguard of the land, Lay like a single sword within his hand; A hundred courts, with power of life and death, Proclaimed decrees justice by his breath; And all the sacred growths that men had known Of order and of rule upheld his throne. Proud was the King: yet not with such a heart As fits a man to play a royal part. Not his the pride that honours as a trust The right to rule, the duty to be just: Not his the dignity that bends to bear The monarch’s yoke, the master’s load of care, And labours like the peasant at his gate, To serve the people and protect the State. Another pride was his, and other joys: To him the crown and sceptre were but toys, With which he played at glory’s idle game, To please himself and win the wreaths of fame. The throne his fathers held from age to age Built for King Martin to diplay at will, His mighty strength and universal skill. No conscious child, that, spoiled with praising, tries At every step to win admiring eyes, ---- No favourite mountebank, whose acting draws From gaping crowds loud thunder of applause, Was vainer than the King: his only thirst Was to be hailed, in every race, the first. When tournament was held, in knightly guise The King would ride the lists and win the prize; When music charmed the court, with golden lyre The King would take the stage and lead the choir; In hunting, his the lance to slay the boar; In hawking, see his falcon highest soar; In painting, he would wield the master’s brush; In high debate, -----”the King is speaking! Hush!” Thus, with a restless heart, in every field He sought renown, and found his subjects yield As if he were a demi-god revealed. But while he played the petty games of life His kingdom fell a prey to inward strife; Corruption through the court unheeded crept, And on the seat of honour justice slept. The strong trod down the weak; the helpless poor Groaned under burdens grievous to endure. The nation’s wealth was spent in vain display, And weakness wore the nation’s heart away. Yet think not Earth is blind to human woes --- Man has more friends and helpers than he knows; And when a patient people are oppressed, The land that bore them feels it in her breast. Spirits of field and flood, of heath and hill, Are grieved and angry at the spreading ill; The trees complain together in the night, Voices of wrath are heard along the height, And secret vows are sworn, by stream and strand, To bring the tyrant low and liberate the land. But little recked the pampered King of these; He heard no voice but such as praise and please. Flattered and fooled, victor in every sport, One day he wandered idly with his court Beside the river, seeking to devise New ways to show his skill to wondering eyes. There in the stream a patient fisher stood, And cast his line across the rippling flood. His silver spoil lay near him on the green: ”Such fish,” the courtiers cried, ”were never seen!” ”Three salmon larger than a cloth-yard shaft--- ”This man must be the master of his craft!” ”An easy art!” the jealous King replied: ”Myself could learn it better, if I tried, ”And catch a hundred larger fish a week--- ”Wilt thou accept the challenge, fellow? Speak!” The fisher turned, came near, and bent his knee: ”’Tis not for kings to strive with such as me; ”Yet if the King commands it, I obey. ”But one condition of the strife I pray: ”The fisherman who brings the least to land ”Shall do whate’er the other may command.” Loud laughed the King: ”A foolish fisher thou! ”For I shall win and rule thee then as now.” So to Prince John, a sober soul, sedate And slow, King Martin left the helm of state, While to the novel game with eager zest He all his time and all his powers addrest. Sure such a sight was never seen before! For robed and crowned the monarch trod the shore; His golden hooks were decked with feathers fine, His jewelled reel ran out a silken line. With kingly strokes he flogged the crystal stream, Far-off the salmon saw his tackle gleam; Careless of kings, they eyed with calm disdain The gaudy lure, and Martin fished in vain. On Friday, when the week was almost spent, He scanned his empty creel with discontent, Called for a net, and cast it far and wide, And drew --- a thousand minnows from the tide! Then came the fisher to conclude the match, And at the monarch’s feet spread out his catch --- A hundred salmon, greater than before --- ”I win!” he cried: ”the King must pay the score.” Then Martin, angry, threw his tackle down: ”Rather than lose this game I’d lose me crown!” ”Nay, thou has lost them both,” the fisher said; And as he spoke a wondrous light was shed Around his form; he dropped his garments mean, And in his place the River-god was seen. ”Thy vanity hast brought thee in my power, ”And thou shalt pay the forfeit at this hour: ”For thou hast shown thyself a royal fool, ”Too proud to angle, and too vain to rule. ”Eager to win in every trivial strife, --- ”Go! Thou shalt fish for minnows all thy life!” Wrathful, the King the scornful sentence heard; He strove to answer, but he only chirr-r-ed: His Tyrian robe was changed to wings of blue, His crown became a crest, --- away he flew! And still, along the reaches of the stream, The vain King-fisher flits, an azure gleam, --- You see his ruby crest, you hear his jealous scream.
Henry Van Dyke's other poems:
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