What became of the monk?



The song, the song, I can’t get rid of the song

You know how a tune works its way into your brain and constantly repeats itself. For Oz, this happened with the amusing diddy, Animal Fair. If you don’t know it, it goes like this:

I went to the animal fair,
The birds and the beasts were there,
The big baboon by the light of the moon
Was combing his auburn hair,
The monkey bumped the skunk,
And sat on the elephant’s trunk;
The elephant sneezed and fell to his knees,
And that was the end of the monk,
(: The monk, the monk, the monk:)

white fur baboon


What became of the monk at the animal fair?

There are other versions and variations of lyrics, but I like this one best. The image of a big baboon by the light of the moon combing his auburn hair seems hilarious. Not as funny as the site of an elephant who sneezes and falls on his knees, doing who knows what to the monk, the monk, who in the heck is the monk?

After the paroxysms of laughter, curiosity seizes Oz. Who and why would anyone write such nonsensical verses? And, the monk, the monk, who in the heck is the monk?

The lyrics to the tune first find print in 1898 in the Chicago Record. The occasion is the landing of American troops in Cuba during the Spanish American War. In preparation for the landing, the troops are on deck and lying about, passing the time, singing. The meaning was, I am sure, lost to those who belted out the words. It was nevertheless mesmerizing and uplifting, appropriate for soldiers wondering what is going to happen tomorrow, what is going to become of me?

The tune must be old. It must be an English doggerel, for the refrain constantly asks what became of the monk.

The monk?

The monk I suppose was the monk that lived in the abbeys across England in the time of King Henry VIII. King Henry we know had six wives, one was not enough because he wanted a son and a son was not what he got until he married Jane Seymour, and having done her duty to king and country, Jane died. The monk, the monk, you ask, what became of the monk? To marry his wives, Henry dissolved the Catholic Church in England and became head of his own church, the Church of England.

By 1542, this “Dissolution” led to the closure of all monasteries and convents in England, and children everywhere asking, “What became of the monk?” Henry himself, exhausted by his marital efforts, died at the age of 55, supposedly uttering these last words:

“Monks! Monks! Monks! What became of the monks?”


king henry viii, hans holbein

The answer to the monks whereabouts

The answer is that most monks kept quiet or simply moved away. Those that spoke out about high-handed Harry were pilloried or executed like London’s Carthusian Martyrs.

In 1886, 18 of these monks were beatified by Pope Leo XIII, perhaps leading to the reemergence of the doggerel, and the occasion for the Chicago Record to print the lyrics.


What is the word I am looking for

What is this fascination we have with words?

Who has not spent an hour, a day, or a week searching for the right word, and having found one, will change it for another, then another. And daring to wax poetic we fail, like the child wanting to catch an elusive butterfly, flailing with net, coming up with empty air.


Prologue to Troilus and Criseyde

It was then quite refreshing to come across these words from Georffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to Book 2 of Troilus and Criseyde.

Middle English

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,
In sondry londes, sondry ben usages.

Chaucer’s speech is Middle English, the language spoken after the Norman invasion, influenced by French, but connected to the language of the Saxons and Angles who came to the British Isles in the Middle Ages. With a little study the words and meaning become clear.

Following the rhetorical salutation “you know” we are greeted by the strange sounding  word “eek” in line 22 (pronounced like “eck” and not the sound we make when we see a mouse) is derivative of the German “auch” meaning “also” or “besides”.

Third line, the word “prys” is “prize” which is a fair equivalent for value. Line 26, “spedde” is the past tense of “speed”. It is a word familiar even in Shakespeare’s time in the common salutation “Speed well” meaning may your trip go quickly and without mishap. “Fare” and “farewell” is a more modern adaptation. “Eek” appears again in the second to last line. Here it is better to substitute “besides”. The word “sondry” we spell “sundry” but the meaning is the same, “various”.

The last line repeats the word “sondry” twice, referring first to different lands, and second to the usage of speech. The verb “ben” is our “been” expressing a form of the verb “to be”. Today, one might more appropriately say “have been” to imply continuous usage, but “were” fills the bill nicely.

Modern English

You know also that the form of speech changes
Within a thousand years, words though
That had value then, now seem wondrous nice and strange
We think them; and yet they spoke them so
And fared as well in love as now men do;
Besides, to win love in sundry ages,
in sundry lands, there were sundry usages.

In Chaucer’s day, French was the language of court and had been so for 300 years. Despite this, and the continuing marriages with French princess, and wars in France, England seems to have had an affinity for the language fiven it by the Saxon and Angles who invaded the island in the Middle Ages.

French translation

Were I to translate Chaucer’s English to courtly French, I might, without the correct rhyme or meter, have this:

Savez que la forme de la parole change
Dans mille ans, les mots si
Cela a eu une valeur, alors, semble maintenant belle merveilleuse et étrange
Nous les pensons, et ainsi ils les ont parlé
Et aussi bien réussi dans l’amour que maintenant les hommes;
D’ailleurs, pour gagner l’amour dans les âges divers,
dans les terres diverses, il y avait des usages divers.

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer, first poet to be buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Boxing Day

Boxing Day is still celebrated in England. It is the day after Christmas (St. Stephen’s Day), when servants and tradesmen traditionally receive gifts known as a “Christmas box” from their masters and employers. As far back as 1668, Samuel Pepys complained in his diary: “Called up by drums & trumpets; these things & boxes having cost me much money this Christmas.”


To ye Gentlemen and Ladies:
The day after Christmas is not one to celebrate
Unless, one is a tradesman or a servant
Who waits patiently at the back gate

Listening politely to the laughter
Inside his or her benefactor’s stately home
Stamping well-worn shoes
Rubbing white cheeks and wiping a red nose
While the snow blows about
Earnestly, hat in hand or head bowed, waiting for a box

And ready to reply,
If I may, I am, dear sir or madam, with zeal most fervent,
Your much indebted, humble servant.

“Nay,” Robert Burns would say,
A gentleman or gentle lady is not a poor man’s friend
Who waits until the end of the year
To give one a box
On St. Stephen’s Day
Better yet,
Feed a man with work
Treat a lady with dignity
And warm a heart with kindness
Every day and not just once.

Old men, young men

Old men, young men, dead men on the battlefield. The last World War I veteran who served in the trenches was British veteran Harry Patch, who died on 25 July 2009, aged 111.

Unknown British soldier (PBI) and family

Sad fact that old men make war and young men fight. Wouldn’t it better to be the other way around. Then families wouldn’t pay quite the price.

Harry Patch wisely said, “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.”

Harry added:

“We were the PBI. That’s what we called ourselves. The poor bloody infantry. We didn’t know whether we’d be dead or alive the next day, the next hour or the next minute.

We weren’t heroes. We didn’t want to be there. We were scared. We all were, all the time. And any man who tells you he wasn’t is a damn liar.”

Not so Little Busy Bees


How Doth the Little Busy Bee

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

Isaac Watts is called the father of English hymns, having written some 750 hymns in his lifetime. The Christmas carol, “Joy to the World,” is one example.

At his birth in 1674, his father was in prison for his Nonconformist religious views (the established Anglican Church of England called them Dissenters, we might call them Puritans). His father was freed and Isaac followed in his Nonconformists beliefs, gaining a Doctor of Divinity and becoming pastor of London’s Mark Lane Independent (Congregational) Chapel. His five-foot, pale, thin frame made his head seem over-sized. He courted poet Elizabeth Singer, but she rejected his proposal of marriage saying, “Though she loved the jewel, she could not admire the casket which contained it.”

Sarcasm, satire, and irony

[Those] clever men at Oxford,
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know
One half as much,
As intelligent Mr. Toad.
Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, Kenneth Grahame


Kansas Toad
Mr. Toad comes to Kansas

Remember the verbal quiz on the SAT?

The above ditty by Mr. Toad is an example of:
a. sarcasm,
b. satire,
c. irony,
d. all of the above,
e. none of the above

Does context matter, the author’s meaning and intent? Does it depend on the point of view of the speaker or the listener? If you are half as smart as Mr. Toad, you will have a comment. Otherwise, you will just like it for what it is.

No man is an island

‘No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….’ John Donne, Meditation 17

no man is an island
no man is an island