The Poet's Allegory, by Richard Middleton
The boy came into the town at six o'clock in the morning, but the
baker at the corner of the first street was up, as is the way of
bakers, and when he saw the boy passing, he hailed him with a jolly
"Hullo, boy! What are you after?"
"I'm going about my business," the boy said pertly.
"And what might that be, young fellow?"
"I might be a good tinker, and worship god Pan, or I might grind
scissors as sharp as the noses of bakers. But, as a matter of fact,
I'm a piper, not a rat-catcher, you understand, but just a simple
singer of sad songs, and a mad singer of merry ones."
"Oh," said the baker dully, for he had hoped the boy was in search of
work. "Then I suppose you have a message."
"I sing songs," the boy said emphatically. "I don't run errands
for anyone save it be for the fairies."
"Well, then, you have come to tell us that we are bad, that our lives
are corrupt and our homes sordid. Nowadays there's money in that if
you can do it well."
"Your wit gets up too early in the morning for me, baker," said the
boy. "I tell you I sing songs."
"Aye, I know, but there's something in them, I hope. Perhaps you
bring news. They're not so popular as the other sort, but still, as
long as it's bad news?"
"Is it the flour that has changed his brains to dough, or the heat of
the oven that has made them like dead grass?"
"But you must have some news?"
"News! It's a fine morning of summer, and I saw a kingfisher across
the water meadows coming along. Oh, and there's a cuckoo back in the
fir plantation, singing with a May voice. It must have been asleep
all these months."
"But, my dear boy, these things happen every day. Are there no
battles or earthquakes or famines in the world? Has no man
murdered his wife or robbed his neighbour? Is no one oppressed by
tyrants or lied to by their officers."
The boy shrugged his shoulders.
"I hope not," he said. "But if it were so, and I knew, I should not
tell you. I don't want to make you unhappy."
"But of what use are you then, if it be not to rouse in us the
discontent that is alone divine? Would you have me go fat and happy,
listening to your babble of kingfishers and cuckoos, while my
brothers and sisters in the world are starving?"
The boy was silent for a moment.
"I give my songs to the poor for nothing," he said slowly. "Certainly
they are not much use to empty bellies, but they are all I have to
give. And I take it, since you speak so feelingly, that you, too, do
your best. And these others, these people who must be reminded hourly
to throw their crusts out of window for the poor?would you have me
sing to them? They must be told that life is evil, and I find it
good; that men and women are wretched, and I find them happy; that
food and cleanliness, order and knowledge are the essence of
content while I only ask for love. Would you have me lie to cheat
mean folk out of their scraps?"
The baker scratched his head in astonishment.
"Certainly you are very mad," he said. "But you won't get much money
in this town with that sort of talk. You had better come in and have
breakfast with me."
"But why do you ask me?" said the boy, in surprise.
"Well, you have a decent, honest sort of face, although your tongue
"I had rather it had been because you liked my songs," said the boy,
and he went in to breakfast with the baker.
Over his breakfast the boy talked wisely on art, as is the wont of
young singers, and afterwards he went on his way down the street.
"It's a great pity," said the baker; "he seems a decent young chap."
"He has nice eyes," said the baker's wife.
As the boy passed down the street he frowned a little.
"What is the matter with them?" he wondered. "They're pleasant people
enough, and yet they did not want to hear my songs."
Presently he came to the tailor's shop, and as the tailor had sharper
eyes than the baker, he saw the pipe in the boy's pocket.
"Hullo, piper!" he called. "My legs are stiff. Come and sing us a
The boy looked up and saw the tailor sitting cross-legged in the open
window of his shop.
"What sort of song would you like?" he asked.
"Oh! the latest," replied the tailor. "We don't want any old songs
here." So the boy sung his new song of the kingfisher in the
water-meadow and the cuckoo who had overslept itself.
"And what do you call that?" asked the tailor angrily, when the boy
"It's my new song, but I don't think it's one of my best." But in his
heart the boy believed it was, because he had only just made it.
"I should hope it's your worst," the tailor said rudely. "What sort
of stuff is that to make a man happy?"
"To make a man happy!" echoed the boy, his heart sinking within him.
"If you have no news to give me, why should I pay for your songs! I
want to hear about my neighbours, about their lives, and their wives
and their sins. There's the fat baker up the street they say he
cheats the poor with light bread. Make me a song of that, and I'll
give you some breakfast. Or there's the magistrate at the top of the
hill who made the girl drown herself last week. That's a poetic
"What's all this!" said the boy disdainfully. "Can't you make dirt
enough for yourself!"
"You with your stuff about birds," shouted the tailor; "you're a rank
impostor! That's what you are!"
"They say that you are the ninth part of a man, but I find that they
have grossly exaggerated," cried the boy, in retort; but he had
a heavy heart as he made off along the street.
By noon he had interviewed the butcher, the cobbler, the milkman, and
the maker of candlesticks, but they treated him no better than the
tailor had done, and as he was feeling tired he went and sat down
under a tree.
"I begin to think that the baker is the best of the lot of them," he
said to himself ruefully, as he rolled his empty wallet between his
Then, as the folly of singers provides them in some measure with a
philosophy, he fell asleep.
When he woke it was late in the afternoon, and the children, fresh
from school, had come out to play in the dusk. Far and near, across
the town-square, the boy could hear their merry voices, but he felt
sad, for his stomach had forgotten the baker's breakfast, and he did
not see where he was likely to get any supper. So he pulled out his
pipe, and made a mournful song to himself of the dancing gnats
and the bitter odour of the bonfires in the townsfolk's gardens. And
the children drew near to hear him sing, for they thought his song
was pretty, until their fathers drove them home, saying, "That stuff
has no educational value."
"Why haven't you a message?" they asked the boy.
"I come to tell you that the grass is green beneath your feet and
that the sky is blue over your heads."
"Oh I but we know all that," they answered.
"Do you! Do you!" screamed the boy. "Do you think you could stop
over your absurd labours if you knew how blue the sky is? You would
be out singing on the hills with me!"
"Then who would do our work?" they said, mocking him.
"Then who would want it done?" he retorted; but it's ill arguing on
an empty stomach.
But when they had tired of telling him what a fool he was, and gone
away, the tailor's little daughter crept out of the shadows and
patted him on the shoulder.
"I say, boy!" she whispered. "I've brought you some supper. Father
doesn't know." The boy blessed her and ate his supper while she
watched him like his mother and when he had done she kissed him on
"There, boy!" she said.
"You have nice golden hair," the boy said.
"See! it shines in the dusk. It strikes me it's the only gold I shall
get in this town."
"Still it's nice, don't you think?" the girl whispered in his ear.
She had her arms round his neck.
"I love it," the boy said joyfully; "and you like my songs, don't
"Oh, yes, I like them very much, but I like you better."
The boy put her off roughly.
"You're as bad as the rest of them," he said indignantly. "I tell you
my songs are everything, I am nothing."
"But it was you who ate my supper, boy," said the girl.
The boy kissed her remorsefully. "But I wish you had liked me for my
songs," he sighed. "You are better than any silly old songs!"
"As bad as the rest of them," the boy said lazily, "but somehow
The shadows flocked to their evening meeting in the square, and
overhead the stars shone out in a sky that was certainly exceedingly
Next morning they arrested the boy as a rogue and a vagabond, and in
the afternoon they brought him before the magistrate.
"And what have you to say for yourself!" said the magistrate to the
boy, after the second policeman, like a faithful echo, had finished
reading his notes.
"Well," said the boy, "I may be a rogue and a vagabond. Indeed, I
think that I probably am; but I would claim the license that has
always been allowed to singers."
"Oh!" said the magistrate. "So you are one of those, are you! And
what is your message!"
"I think if I could sing you a song or two I could explain myself
better," said the boy.
"Well," replied the magistrate doubtfully, "you can try if you like,
but I warn you that I wrote songs myself when I was a boy, so that I
know something about it."
"Oh, I'm glad of that," said the boy, and he sang his famous song of
the grass that is so green, and when he had finished the magistrate
"I knew that before," he said.
So then the boy sang his wonderful song of the sky that is so blue.
And when he had finished the magistrate scowled. "And what are we to
learn from that!" he said.
So then the boy lost his temper and sang some naughty doggerel he
had made up in his cell that morning. He abused the town and
townsmen, but especially the townsmen. He damned their morals, their
customs, and their institutions. He said that they had ugly faces,
raucous voices, and that their bodies were unclean. He said they
were thieves and liars and murderers, that they had no ear for music
and no sense of humour. Oh, he was bitter!
"Good God!" said the magistrate, "that's what I call real improving
poetry. Why didn't you sing that first? There might have been a
miscarriage of justice."
Then the baker, the tailor, the butcher, the cobbler, the milkman,
and the maker of candlesticks rose in court and said?
"Ah, but we all knew there was something in him."
So the magistrate gave the boy a certificate that showed that he was
a real singer, and the tradesmen gave him a purse of gold, but the
tailor's little daughter gave him one of her golden ringlets. "You
won't forget, boy, will you?" she said.
"Oh, no," said the boy; "but I wish you had liked my songs."
Presently, when he had come a little way out of the town, he put his
hand in his wallet and drew out the magistrate's certificate and tore
it in two; and then he took out the gold pieces and threw them into
the ditch, and they were not half as bright as the buttercups. But
when he came to the ringlet he smiled at it and put it back.
"Yet she was as bad as the rest of them," he thought with a sigh.
And he went across the world with his songs.