In the Archives: Mark Twain, “[Date, 1601.] CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.”
“[Date, 1601.] ‘Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors” or “1601” is one of the most fascinating works in all of the writing of Mark Twain. The piece is written as a conversation between Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Bacon, and others in the Queen’s closet, by the Queen’s cup-bearer. As the company talks, the narrator relates:
In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—
Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring.
Then follows each member of the company discussing the fart, followed by some ribald talk of sex, poetry, and religion. Depending on your view of the matters at hand, the piece is either immensely hilarious or shocking… or maybe both. And it is almost wholly without peer in Twain’s writings.
Written in 1876, the same summer he began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the piece was originally meant for Samuel Clemens’s minister–the Reverend Joseph Twichell. He later wrote:
“I took it to one of the greatest, best and most learned of Divines [Rev. Joseph H. Twichell] and read it to him. He came within an ace of killing himself with laughter (for between you and me the thing was dreadfully funny. I don’t often write anything that I laugh at myself, but I can hardly think of that thing without laughing). That old Divine said it was a piece of the finest kind of literary art—and David Gray of the Buffalo Courier said it ought to be printed privately and left behind me when I died, and then my fame as a literary artist would last.”
As you read the piece, think about Samuel Clemens writing the piece for his minister–the man who performed his wedding ceremony.
In 1880, John Hay–the humorist and statesman–had four copies printed, without a name attached (only one copy of this version is known to exist). Amazingly, the first book edition was printed in 1882 at West Point, by a friend of Clemens and Twichell, in an edition of 50 copies on handmade paper soaked in coffee, with special punches for the Old English spelling required. Truly, it may have have been the best use of military technology in the history of the Army. Further editions were printed during Twain’s lifetime, although Twain did not claim the piece until 1906 in a letter. (See Franklin J. Meine’s introduction for more information).
1601 represents the profane, vulgar side of Mark Twain that was seldom seen in his work, although it was well known that he had a passion for swearing. Franklin Meine argues that:
Although 1601 was not matched by any similar sketch in his published works, it was representative of Mark Twain the man. He was no emaciated literary tea-tosser. Bronzed and weatherbeaten son of the West, Mark was a man’s man, and that significant fact is emphasized by the several phases of Mark’s rich life as steamboat pilot, printer, miner, and frontier journalist.
While I am not sure that it is so easy to say that this piece represents the manly man Mark Twain, it does point to a largely masculine culture of letters in which fugitive pieces, often of a rather profane or vulgar bent, were passed around amongst friends. Benjamin Franklin’s “Fart Proudly,” (1871) was of a similar vein of American humor–one that blends folklore with the dirty joke while presenting the subject in a “respectable” form. Twain and Franklin’s pieces are surely remembered because of their famous authors, and each is hilariously funny in its own way. Are there other examples of this type of humor that might be put into the conversation?
In the meantime, enjoy 1601, although if you are at work, there are some truly dirty parts. Be warned.
CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.
[Mem.—The following is supposed to be an extract from the diary of the Pepys of that day, the same being Queen Elizabeth's cup-bearer. He is supposed to be of ancient and noble lineage; that he despises these literary canaille; that his soul consumes with wrath, to see the queen stooping to talk with such; and that the old man feels that his nobility is defiled by contact with Shakespeare, etc., and yet he has got to stay there till her Majesty chooses to dismiss him.]
YESTERNIGHT toke her maiste ye queene a fantasie such as she sometimes hath, and had to her closet certain that doe write playes, bokes, and such like, these being my lord Bacon, his worship Sir Walter Ralegh, Mr. Ben Jonson, and ye child Francis Beaumonte, which being but sixteen, hath yet turned his hand to ye doing of ye Lattin masters into our Englishe tong, with grete discretion and much applaus. Also came with these ye famous Shaxpur. A righte straunge mixing truly of mighty blode with mean, ye more in especial since ye queenes grace was present, as likewise these following, to wit: Ye Duchess of Bilgewater, twenty-six yeres of age; ye Countesse of Granby, thirty; her doter, ye Lady Helen, fifteen; as also these two maides of honor, to-wit, ye Lady Margery Boothy, sixty-five, and ye Lady Alice Dilberry, turned seventy, she being two yeres ye queenes graces elder.
I being her maites cup-bearer, had no choice but to remaine and beholde rank forgot, and ye high holde converse wh ye low as uppon equal termes, a grete scandal did ye world heare thereof.
In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—
Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring. Will my Lady Alice testify?
Lady Alice.—Good your grace, an’ I had room for such a thunderbust within mine ancient bowels, ’tis not in reason I coulde discharge ye same and live to thank God for yt He did choose handmaid so humble whereby to shew his power. Nay, ’tis not I yt have broughte forth this rich o’ermastering fog, this fragrant gloom, so pray you seeke ye further.
Ye Queene.—Mayhap ye Lady Margery hath done ye companie this favor?
Lady Margery.—So please you madam, my limbs are feeble wh ye weighte and drouth of five and sixty winters, and it behoveth yt I be tender unto them. In ye good providence of God, an’ I had contained this wonder, forsoothe wolde I have gi’en ‘ye whole evening of my sinking life to ye dribbling of it forth, with trembling and uneasy soul, not launched it sudden in its matchless might, taking mine own life with violence, rending my weak frame like rotten rags. It was not I, your maisty.
Ye Queene.—O’ God’s name, who hath favored us? Hath it come to pass yt a fart shall fart itself? Not such a one as this, I trow. Young Master Beaumont—but no; ‘twould have wafted him to heaven like down of goose’s boddy. ‘Twas not ye little Lady Helen—nay, ne’er blush, my child; thoul’t tickle thy tender maidenhedde with many a mousie-squeak before thou learnest to blow a harricane like this. Wasn’t you, my learned and ingenious Jonson?
Jonson.—So fell a blast hath ne’er mine ears saluted, nor yet a stench so all-pervading and immortal. ‘Twas not a novice did it, good your maisty, but one of veteran experience—else hadde he failed of confidence. In sooth it was not I.
Ye Queene.—My lord Bacon?
Lord Bacon.-Not from my leane entrailes hath this prodigy burst forth, so please your grace. Naught doth so befit ye grete as grete performance; and haply shall ye finde yt ’tis not from mediocrity this miracle hath issued.
[Tho' ye subjct be but a fart, yet will this tedious sink of learning pondrously phillosophize. Meantime did the foul and deadly stink pervade all places to that degree, yt never smelt I ye like, yet dare I not to leave ye presence, albeit I was like to suffocate.]
Ye Queene.—What saith ye worshipful Master Shaxpur?
Shaxpur.—In the great hand of God I stand and so proclaim mine innocence. Though ye sinless hosts of heaven had foretold ye coming of this most desolating breath, proclaiming it a work of uninspired man, its quaking thunders, its firmament-clogging rottenness his own achievement in due course of nature, yet had not I believed it; but had said the pit itself hath furnished forth the stink, and heaven’s artillery hath shook the globe in admiration of it.
[Then was there a silence, and each did turn him toward the worshipful Sr Walter Ralegh, that browned, embattled, bloody swashbuckler, who rising up did smile, and simpering say,]
Sr W.—Most gracious maisty, ’twas I that did it, but indeed it was so poor and frail a note, compared with such as I am wont to furnish, yt in sooth I was ashamed to call the weakling mine in so august a presence. It was nothing—less than nothing, madam—I did it but to clear my nether throat; but had I come prepared, then had I delivered something worthy. Bear with me, please your grace, till I can make amends.
[Then delivered he himself of such a godless and rock-shivering blast that all were fain to stop their ears, and following it did come so dense and foul a stink that that which went before did seem a poor and trifling thing beside it. Then saith he, feigning that he blushed and was confused, I perceive that I am weak to-day, and cannot justice do unto my powers; and sat him down as who should say, There, it is not much yet he that hath an arse to spare, let him fellow that, an' he think he can. By God, an' I were ye queene, I would e'en tip this swaggering braggart out o' the court, and let him air his grandeurs and break his intolerable wind before ye deaf and such as suffocation pleaseth.]
Then fell they to talk about ye manners and customs of many peoples, and Master Shaxpur spake of ye boke of ye sieur Michael de Montaine, wherein was mention of ye custom of widows of Perigord to wear uppon ye headdress, in sign of widowhood, a jewel in ye similitude of a man’s member wilted and limber, whereat ye queene did laugh and say widows in England doe wear prickes too, but betwixt the thighs, and not wilted neither, till coition hath done that office for them. Master Shaxpur did likewise observe how yt ye sieur de Montaine hath also spoken of a certain emperor of such mighty prowess that he did take ten maidenheddes in ye compass of a single night, ye while his empress did entertain two and twenty lusty knights between her sheetes, yet was not satisfied; whereat ye merrie Countess Granby saith a ram is yet ye emperor’s superior, sith he wil tup above a hundred yewes ‘twixt sun and sun; and after, if he can have none more to shag, will masturbate until he hath enrich’d whole acres with his seed.
Then spake ye damned windmill, Sr Walter, of a people in ye uttermost parts of America, yt capulate not until they be five and thirty yeres of age, ye women being eight and twenty, and do it then but once in seven yeres.
Ye Queene.—How doth that like my little Lady Helen? Shall we send thee thither and preserve thy belly?
Lady Helen.—Please your highnesses grace, mine old nurse hath told me there are more ways of serving God than by locking the thighs together; yet am I willing to serve him yt way too, sith your highnesses grace hath set ye ensample.
Ye Queene.—God’ wowndes a good answer, childe.
Lady Alice.—Mayhap ’twill weaken when ye hair sprouts below ye navel.
Lady Helen.—Nay, it sprouted two yeres syne; I can scarce more than cover it with my hand now.
Ye Queene.—Hear Ye that, my little Beaumonte? Have ye not a little birde about ye that stirs at hearing tell of so sweete a neste?
Beaumonte.—’Tis not insensible, illustrious madam; but mousing owls and bats of low degree may not aspire to bliss so whelming and ecstatic as is found in ye downy nests of birdes of Paradise.
Ye Queene.—By ye gullet of God, ’tis a neat-turned compliment. With such a tongue as thine, lad, thou’lt spread the ivory thighs of many a willing maide in thy good time, an’ thy cod-piece be as handy as thy speeche.
Then spake ye queene of how she met old Rabelais when she was turned of fifteen, and he did tell her of a man his father knew that had a double pair of bollocks, whereon a controversy followed as concerning the most just way to spell the word, ye contention running high betwixt ye learned Bacon and ye ingenious Jonson, until at last ye old Lady Margery, wearying of it all, saith, ‘Gentles, what mattereth it how ye shall spell the word? I warrant Ye when ye use your bollocks ye shall not think of it; and my Lady Granby, be ye content; let the spelling be, ye shall enjoy the beating of them on your buttocks just the same, I trow. Before I had gained my fourteenth year I had learnt that them that would explore a cunt stop’d not to consider the spelling o’t.’
Sr W.—In sooth, when a shift’s turned up, delay is meet for naught but dalliance. Boccaccio hath a story of a priest that did beguile a maid into his cell, then knelt him in a corner to pray for grace to be rightly thankful for this tender maidenhead ye Lord had sent him; but ye abbot, spying through ye key-hole, did see a tuft of brownish hair with fair white flesh about it, wherefore when ye priest’s prayer was done, his chance was gone, forasmuch as ye little maid had but ye one cunt, and that was already occupied to her content.
Then conversed they of religion, and ye mightie work ye old dead Luther did doe by ye grace of God. Then next about poetry, and Master Shaxpur did rede a part of his King Henry IV., ye which, it seemeth unto me, is not of ye value of an arsefull of ashes, yet they praised it bravely, one and all.
Ye same did rede a portion of his “Venus and Adonis,” to their prodigious admiration, whereas I, being sleepy and fatigued withal, did deme it but paltry stuff, and was the more discomforted in that ye blody bucanier had got his wind again, and did turn his mind to farting with such villain zeal that presently I was like to choke once more. God damn this windy ruffian and all his breed. I wolde that hell mighte get him.
They talked about ye wonderful defense which old Sr. Nicholas Throgmorton did make for himself before ye judges in ye time of Mary; which was unlucky matter to broach, sith it fetched out ye quene with a ‘Pity yt he, having so much wit, had yet not enough to save his doter’s maidenhedde sound for her marriage-bed.’ And ye quene did give ye damn’d Sr. Walter a look yt made hym wince—for she hath not forgot he was her own lover it yt olde day. There was silent uncomfortableness now; ’twas not a good turn for talk to take, sith if ye queene must find offense in a little harmless debauching, when pricks were stiff and cunts not loathe to take ye stiffness out of them, who of this company was sinless; behold, was not ye wife of Master Shaxpur four months gone with child when she stood uppe before ye altar? Was not her Grace of Bilgewater roger’d by four lords before she had a husband? Was not ye little Lady Helen born on her mother’s wedding-day? And, beholde, were not ye Lady Alice and ye Lady Margery there, mouthing religion, whores from ye cradle?
In time came they to discourse of Cervantes, and of the new painter, Rubens, that is beginning to be heard of. Fine words and dainty-wrought phrases from the ladies now, one or two of them being, in other days, pupils of that poor ass, Lille, himself; and I marked how that Jonson and Shaxpur did fidget to discharge some venom of sarcasm, yet dared they not in the presence, the queene’s grace being ye very flower of ye Euphuists herself. But behold, these be they yt, having a specialty, and admiring it in themselves, be jealous when a neighbor doth essaye it, nor can abide it in them long. Wherefore ’twas observable yt ye quene waxed uncontent; and in time labor’d grandiose speeche out of ye mouth of Lady Alice, who manifestly did mightily pride herself thereon, did quite exhauste ye quene’s endurance, who listened till ye gaudy speeche was done, then lifted up her brows, and with vaste irony, mincing saith ‘O shit!’ Whereat they alle did laffe, but not ye Lady Alice, yt olde foolish bitche.
Now was Sr. Walter minded of a tale he once did hear ye ingenious Margrette of Navarre relate, about a maid, which being like to suffer rape by an olde archbishoppe, did smartly contrive a device to save her maidenhedde, and said to him, First, my lord, I prithee, take out thy holy tool and piss before me; which doing, lo his member felle, and would not rise again.
(c) 2013, Tracy Wuster (introduction)