Not only has Gerald Bullett asked for Spenserian stanzas based on a folk tale, he has also asked for an essay with an upper limit of 300 words (an impossible luxury in these straitened times: I started in 1978, and I don’t think the word limit has ever exceeded 150, and has been as low as 100) using John Earle’s aphoristic style (1628), and as if printed in a ‘modern’ and prurient Sunday newspaper. I have never heard of John Earle; but you may read him here. I wonder what the position was in 1930. Did the competitors do their homework? (It can be done. I thought I’d get through my life without reading Lawrence Durrell, but there was a competition in the late 1970s to turn Eliot into Durrell or vice versa, so I have read Durrell. A harder-earned £7, I cannot imagine.)
Anyway: Bullett is happy with neither. He didn’t mean entrants to write in Spenser’s style, just to use the form named after him; however, he did want the folk-rhyme to be a ‘metaphysical allegory’. When it came to Earle (a means of attacking the gutter press, to use a more modern term, something the Week-end Review writers had earned the right to do), however, he did want something in Earle’s style. However ‘sincere apologies’ are not in Bullett’s phrase-book (any more than they were when Raymond Mortimer or Julian Barnes were judges). Seacape is an unlucky loser, as is T.E. Casson, who must have begun – and he has more unhappiness in store – to need therapy for the number of times he has come close but gained no guinea.
The introduction to Bullett’s report is so grudging that even Valimus, who does get half-a-guinea, must have wondered whether to accept it. The winner (who has been waiting like Casson for a reward) is the pseudonymous Majolica:
Anon Sir Guyon counter’d as he far’d
An old decrepit woman all alone
With haske of eggs for market-day prepar’d,
Who shook and sneez’d, and weping made her mone;
And her olde legges that were but skin and bone,
She sought within her petticote to hide,
And ‘Lord have mercy on me’ did she groan,
‘I am not I, but who I be besyde,
Or in what unlykelyness, uneath may be descryde.’
Forwearied, by the way I layd me down,
And in my Kirtle did my feet enfold;
But lo, all starke, my sences in a swowne,
I wake, and am not I, and am a-colde,
Nor who I be, by no means may be told,
For when to meet me ran my littel hound,
As one bemused at what he doth behold
He bark’d and wayl’d, and gnarring lept around,
That I am none of I his wisdom doth expound.
This dearnely that mishappening bewayl’d
Hispania (for so the beldame hight)
Which, while she senceless lay, her coats curtayl’d,
And of her words and weeds despoyl’d her quite.
One Stout of harte and arm, a merry wight,
Had snipt the Kirtle of that ancient dame,
Nor mought she have agayne her antique might,
But with her vestiment, put off her fame,
And ‘I am none of I’ was still her fitt of shame.
Wheron sore laden with her merchandyse
Up til the toun on heavie steppes she wente,
Which ere she raught, as I wol yow devyse,
Upon the waye her litel fors was spent,
And sodainly dire weariness her hente
That al for failynge limbes she might not kepe
Her lonelie viage ne her ful intent,
Til on her droopyyng eye lids gan to crepe
As softe as quiet death the heavie lidded slepe.
Bifel that there a foul and witless loun
Stretcht on the cruell paument her espide,
Who cut her kirtel robe the knees aboun
And left her, on his palfreye for to ride
And don his other mischiefs far and wide.
So on a sodain was she ful awake
With biter colde, and “Lauk-a-mussie!” cryde
That al her limbes with pynching cramps did ake
And deathlie shivers so her tremblyng bones did shake.
O gentil Ouid, chroniler of chaunge,
Haue pitie of this poure and wretched wight!
What agonie of feares, what fantomes straunge
Her fraile and crazie senses did affright,
And stopt her eares, and blinded eek her sight,
So was she left with al her minde fordone,
And haples laye in sad and piteous plight
As she were thunder strook or turned to stone,
Nor knewe if she were she or els some other one!
Bisette with euil doutes and mazed with feares
She was as al her wits were stoln awaye,,
Nor coude the wantowne sorrowe of her teares
The Passyng Time with helying hande allaye.
Onlie she wepte, “O sad and woful daye,
Now graunte this teste of resoun may not faile:
If still mysefe am I, in happie playe
My gentil bound shall wagge his litel taile,
But if I be not I he shall bothe barke and waile.”
Which when she sayde, on weake unsteadie feet
Back to her wonyngre she assayed to goe,
And waited for her hound those steppes to grete
That at the lintel halted tired and slowe;
Yet he with rorying bowe and angrie wowe
Leped as a thief were knockyng at the dore,
That certes she could neuere tel nor knowe
If she were stille waht she had ben bifore,
And whose her wearie bodye was could know namore.
Now we have 16B: the two pastiches of Earle. The winner is Gilbert Highet, and he is singled out for special praise as having produced ‘perhaps the most perfectly finished work that has ever come to me for judgment in a Literary Competition’. This must have pleased Highet, at that time an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford (at the age of 25), having already achieved a master’s degree in Greek and Latin from Glasgow. He had also won a whole host of prestigious prizes in Scotland, as he was to continue to do in Oxford. He was also to become one of the most renowned classics professors in the USA – and played a significant role in profiling Nazi leaders, successfully predicting their actions by comparing them to Roman emperors.
Here’s his winner:
The half-guinea goes to another young man who was destined for greater things – Stuart Piggott, later one of the key British archaeologists, and at this stage only 20 years old, but precocious enough to have published learned articles. In fact at almost the same time he was the tail-end charlie in Competition 16B, he was preparing a highly influential article on Neolithic pottery.