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  ― 148 ―

12. Friar Ben.

WHAT a vast amount of unread Literature there is! What hosts of dumpy, dusty duodecimos arrayed in melancholy ranks on topmost library-shelves, and stalwart folios, the Atlantics of the world of books above, that are nibbled at, indeed, by rats, and perused by veritable bookworms, but which no superficial reader has essayed to taste, no human helluo librorum has penetrated beyond the preface!

And yet when we do take down one of these ancient tomes, and plod through its rubbish in a faint hope of finding riches, how often are we startled by a noble thought that has lain perdu there whilst generation after generation has passed from the womb, to the font, to the altar, to the grave,—like the Apollo Belvidere slumbering for centuries amidst the ruins of Antium.

Sometimes, too, it is a good old joke that we rescue from the cobwebs, as an inquisitive new butler fishes up a bottle of good old port long buried at the bottom of a disused bin. How strange it seems to be drinking wine that was bought of a dead merchant for a dead consumer! How odd to be laughing at a jest concocted by a forgotten wit for mouldered readers!

In a queer old book, without a title-page, I stumbled on this quaint old song without a title:—

“Sack he drank, and played the sackbut—
Heigho, heigho!
A jolly man was Friar Ben,
There's not another one in ten
Jolly man like Friar Ben.

“Sack he drank, and played the sackbut—
Heigho, heigho!
A naughty man was Friar Ben,
Maid ne'er came within his ken
But was kissed by naughty Friar Ben.




  ― 149 ―
“Sack he drank, and played the sackbut—
Heigho, heigho!
A dying man is Friar Ben,
Quinsy creeps from Ailsea Fen,
And chokes poor dying Friar Ben.

“Sack he drank, and played the sackbut—
Heigho, heigho!
In his grave lies Friar Ben,
Sack and sackbut ne'er agen
Shall cheer the cell of Friar Ben!”

Bibulous, musical, amorous old Friar! Can't you fancy the jolly old fellow, the “man of purple cheer,” puffing away at his trombone, with swollen cheeks like an overgrown cherub's—making the cloisters ring with melody, dulcet as the roaring of a bison, as his brawny arm shoves down the slide to the very bottom of the tube—and stopping every now-and-then to wipe his bald, “empearled” crown, empty his brazen mouth-piece, and bury his flesh-and-blood nose in a beaker of the “liquid amber?” What could he do but drink sack in that damp, dreary Fen District of his, all bog and bulrushes, and pollard-willows fringing dykes of ink; where the very cattle, fetlock deep in mire, seem growing plant-like—vegetable beef; where the rank corn has an unhealthy, dropsical look as it drowsily bends before the sluggish, miasmal breeze that blows, fever-and-ague-laden, from the flooded marshes; and where, in his time, the black waters of the “mere” poppled dismally against the slimy wall of the moist monastery, or sent up (as they do now)—embossed upon a leaden sky—bronze-white-and-purple flocks of flapping wild ducks, and gray flocks of shrilly-screaming geese, scared from their calm cruisings amid the island-tufts of dark-green polished rushes, when the fowler's punt pushed too boldly through its treacherous screen of tall, broad flags and spear-and-pennon reeds? Is it not, rather, wonderful that—notwithstanding his potations—he still had heart enough to play the sackbut, and kiss the maidens—that he didn't turn croaker like the frogs around him? It was a scurvy trick that crawling quinsy played him, stopping both notes and draughts—I am afraid that, on the day it seized him, he had not imbibed his due modicum of nepenthe! Poor old Friar Ben! Had it not been for that old song—not valueless, maugre contemptuous proverbs—thy memory would have sunk and rotted in the stream of Time, like a withered water-lily in the “mere” of whose muddy stagnancy thou wert too wise to drink—leaving it to fatten the carp that fed thee upon fast-days. But—




  ― 150 ―

Dignum laude virum Musa vetat mori!

And why wert thou laude dignus? Because thou didst drink sack. Thy brethren might chant—

Simus perennes cœlibes,

but, being water-drinkers, they have proved most transitory bachelors. Thou, on the other hand—though marsh-worms have devoured thy body, and eels devoured the worms, and those, in turn, been gathered to the eel-pots of their ancestors—thou still abidest, embalmed in poesie—a portly monachic mummy—to testify of the soul-cheering influences of the moderate use of wine.

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