Monday, May 26, 2008

Ship of Fools

Sebastian Brant (1458–1521) became a leading proponent of Humanism during Luther's formative years. The excerpt below is one example of his work, enormously successful at the time.

His prologue is introduced: "For profit and salutary instruction, admonition, and pursuit of wisdom, reason, and good manners: also for contempt and punishment of folly, blindness, error, and stupidity of all stations and kinds of men: with special zeal, earnestness, and labor compiled at Basel by Sebastian Brant, doctor in both laws."

All lands in Holy Writ abound
And works to save the soul are found,
The Bible, Holy Fathers’ lore
And other such in goodly store,
So many that I feel surprise
To find men growing not more wise
But holding writ and lore in spite.
The whole world lives in darksome night,
In blinded sinfulness persisting,
While every street sees fools existing
Who know but folly, to their shame,
Yet will not own to folly’s name.
Hence I have pondered how a ship
Of fools I’d suitably equip—
A galley, brig, bark, skiff, or float,
A carack, scow, dredge, racing boat,
A sled, cart, barrow, carryall—
One vessel would be far too small
To carry all the fools I know.
Some persons have no way to go
And like the bees they come a-skimming,
While many to the ship are swimming,
And each one wants to be the first,
A mighty throng with folly curst,
Whose pictures I have given here.
They who at writings like to sneer
Or are with reading not afflicted
May see themselves herewith depicted
And thus discover who they are,
Their faults, to whom they’re similar.
For fools a mirror shall it be,
Where each his counterfeit may see.
His proper value each would know,
The glass of fools the truth may show.
Who sees his image on the page
May learn to deem himself no sage,
Nor shrink his nothingness to see,
Since none who lives from fault is free;
And who would honestly have sworn
That cap and bells he’s never worn?
Whoe’er his foolishness decries
Alone deserves to rank as wise,
Whoever wisdom’s airs rehearses
May stand godfather to my verses!
He’d injure me and have no gain
If he would not this book retain.
Here you will find of fools no dearth
And everything you wish on earth,
The reasons why you’re here listed,
Why many fools have ay existed,
What joy and honor wisdom bears
And why a fool in danger fares,
The world’s whole course in one brief look—
Are reasons why to buy this book.
In jest and earnest evermore
You will encounter fools galore.
The wise man’s pleasure I will win,
While fools speak oft of kith and kin,
Fools poor and rich, high-bred and tyke,
Yes, everyman will find his like,
I cut a cap for every chap,
But none of them will care a rap,
And if I’d named and then apprized him,
He’d say I had not recognized him.
I hope, though, men who’re really wise
Will find a deal to praise and prize,
And out of knowledge say forsooth
That I have spoken but the truth.
If I were sure that they’d approve
I’d care not what the fools reprove.
Naught else but truth the fool must hear,
Although it pleases not his ear.
Terence asserts that truth can breed
Deep hate, and he is right, indeed,
And he who blows his nose too long
Will have a nosebleed hard and strong . . .

This excerpt from Brant's poem is found on pages 31–33 of German Humanism and Reformation, edited by Reinhard P. Becker with foreword by Roland Bainton, published in 1982 by the Continuum Publishing Company, 575 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10022. This selection was translated by Edwin H. Zeydel.

It's intriguing how some characters never change . . .

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