You are here: Archive Home > Bab Ballads > Jester James

Jester James

Time, I - April 1879


Illustration by Gilbert

In all the merry land that spreads from Humber to the Thames,
You couldn't find a jester who could rival JESTER JAMES;
His antic jokes were modelled on severely classic rules,
And all his quips passed muster at the strictest ladies' schools.

None imitated actors like this fascinating rogue;
His comic songs enjoyed a most extraordinary vogue;
And no one laughed so heartily at this engaging man
As LADY ISABEL, betrothed to HUGH DE BARBICAN.

"Now, good SIR HUGH," said ISABEL, "if fond of me you be,
Engage this merry fellow, for he hugely pleaseth me."
And good SIR HUGH DE BARBICAN engaged him, it appears,
To poke his fun at anyone for seven certain years.

For half a year, or thereabouts, he did extremely well;
His quaint remarks convulsed SIR HUGH and LADY ISABEL;
And crowds dropped in each afternoon to hear his latest crank,
Including P-rson-ges of the V-ry H-ghest R-nk.

But, ah! there came a day when it was patent to SIR HUGH
That JAMES had uttered nearly all the decent jests he knew.
He doled them out at intervals, and much impaired their strength,
By dwelling on their merits at unnecessary length.

His quips grew very feeble, and his puns fell flat and dead;
His riddles were so easy, you could do them on your head;
And though his imitations were by far the best of all,
Yet even imitations, all day long, are apt to pall.

Poor JESTER JAMES grew anxious when he found he didn't please;
And when they guessed his riddles (which they did with perfect ease)
He used to groan and weep, and beat his bosom with his fist,
Which isn't what you look for in a private humorist.

At length it got to such a pitch that thus outspake SIR HUGH:
"I fear you've undertaken rather more than'you can do.
The practise of your calling seems to give you pain acute;
I'll cancel your agreement. Go to Margate, and recruit."

Illustration by Gilbert

Said JAMES, "A kinder offer I have never, never heard.
But a bargain is a bargain; I'm a jester of my word.
I've signed a bond by which I undertake to furnish you
With seven years of merriment, and I will do it, too!"

He struggled bravely on, and racked his unproductive brain,
And very sad indeed were his attempts to entertain;
He lost his nice refinement and his delicacy chaste,
And some of his conundrums were in execrable taste.

At first SIR HUGH said little, for his heart was good and kind,
And all his friends pretended that they really didn't mind.
(But great was the relief that o'er a dinner-party spread
When it was time for JESTER JAMES to toddle off to bed.)

The wretched knight he writhed beneath the dismal jester's ban;
And much as LADY ISABEL loved HUGH DE BARBICAN,
To marry him she firmly, but respectfully, declined,
Unless his jester altered for the better, or resigned.

At last SIR HUGH took heart and said, "I've borne with you too long;
Your jokes are much too weak, except when they are much too strong.
Be off, and don't come back; you'll have no reason to complain,
For I'll gladly pay your wages; but you don't joke here again."

But JAMES, though dull, was proud, and scorned the bread of idleness:
"My contract is for seven years — no more, and nothing less.
If you have rights, why so have I. I know what I'm about;
And I must insist on joking till the seven years are out."

SIR HUGH gave in and tried another plan (for he was weak);
He spent his nights inventing decent jokes for JAMES to speak;
And each day at JAMES'S breakfast, with his rolls and Sally Lunns,
Came a batch of blameless riddles and of inoffensive puns.

And every morn, from eight to ten, they'd sit beneath a tree,
Rehearsing conversations that would lead to repartee,
Or planning little incidents and complicated larks,
On which this dismal jester might extemporise remarks.

For instance, HUGH would bid him sit, his head between his feet,
To justify his saying, "I am making both ends meet."
On which a shout of merriment would echo through the hall,
Which must have been good nature, for the joke was very small.

And sometimes JAMES was told to climb a venerable oak,
That he might say, "I'm up a tree" — an irritating joke.
But still his audience wore a pleasant smile upon their lips,
For they saw the Dawn of Reason in these gruesome little quips.

Illustration by Gilbert

One day JAMES had to tumble down a well and break a bone,
To warrant him in saying, "Better far let 'well' alone."
He did it; and SIR HUGH was so impressed by the advice,
That he wouldn't hear of meddling with that well at any price.

JAMES persevered, "Let well alone," incessantly to shout
(It was the cue for good SIR HUGH to go and pull him out).
He cried, "Let well alone — let well alone!" as he was bid;
But SIR HUGH he only answered, "So I will!" — and so he did.

Loud rang the merry castle bells from battlemented walls,
And gaily hummed the wassail in those proud ancestral halls;
And merry were the nuptials Of SIR HUGH and ISABEL,
For no one ever thought of interfering with that well.

Illustration by Gilbert

Archive Home  |  W. S. Gilbert  |   Bab Ballads

Page Created 29 July, 2011