Whilst in captivity King Henry VI wrote several verses. Sir John Harington retained several of these. They provide some insight into the thoughts of the imprisoned king. The precise date upon which the verses were written is hard to ascertain. Henry was held by the Yorkists on more than one occasion and it is unclear which of these periods the poetry was written in.
The poem reflects on the state of his Kingdom, suggesting that the riches of the crown are a trap that can lead to rapid decay. His use of metaphors are perhaps quite telling. Rescuing a rock from slimy mud whilst the area is in flood would be a precarious task, fraught with danger, and likely to end with either the rock being dropped, or the rescuer ending up rather wet. And sadly, for Henry, that is how his verse describes ruling England.
Kingdoms are but cares ;
State is devoid of stay ;
Riches are ready snares.
And hasten to decay.”
Pleasure ‘s a privy prick
Which vice doth still provoke;
Pomp, unprompt; and fame a
Power a smouldering smoke.
Who meaneth to remove the rock
Out of the slimy mnd,
Shall mire himself, and hardly
The swelling of the flood.
The poem is included in the collections of Sir John Harington, Nugae Antiquae published in 1769.
Full provenance of this source is difficult to prove. It is regular cited as being in Nugae Antiquae but few of the writers who note that use of the poem attempt to look at the origins of the source, or how it had been used in the 299 years between Henry VI’s death and the publication of Harington’s Antiquae.
There are however several earlier uses of text that is very similar. William Baldwin [editor] used a similar verse in ‘Mirror for Magistrates’ which was first compiled for publication in 1555. Those lines are:
Our kingdoms are but cares, our state devoid of stay,
Our riches ready snares, to hasten our decay:
Our pleasures privy pricks, our vices to provoke,
Our pomp a pump, our fame a flame, our power a smouldering smoke
Baldwin’s work is also similar to previous texts. His collection of verse was intended as a continuation of the Fall of Princes by the English monk and poet John Lydgate. Fall of Princes is far too large a poem to quote in full but as an illustration of the type of verse that Baldwin is basing his texts upon there is this section in Book One:
Out of her swoone when she did abbraide,
Knowing no mean but death in her distrèsse,
To her brothèr full piteously she said,
“Cause of my sorrowe, roote of my heavinesse,
That whilom were the sourse of my gladnèsse,
When both our joyes by wille were so disposed,
Under one key our hearts to be enclosed
The approach to the writing of the verses is the same from Lydgate [1370-1451] and Baldwin’s selections [First published 1555]. King Henry VI was a patron of the arts and would have been familiar with the works of Lydgate. Other poets would also be known to the king, culture benefitted from the patronage of several major nobles during the reign of Henry VI.
It is likely therefore that Henry VI has based his verse upon the metre, rhyming and approach to metaphors that are evident throughout Fall of Princes.
Links to digital copies of all of the Works of John Lydgate can be found on Luminarium.
Mirror for Magistrates – books 1 and 2 are available on Google Books