Doing a little research on William Morris' A King's Lesson, which I posted last week, I came across this interesting article by Éva Péteri discussing the historical sources used by Morris. I won't repeat everything she wrote, please do go and read the article if you are interested, but she demonstrates that there are enough similarities between Morris' story and a poem by Hungarian János Garay entitled King Matthias in Gömör to suggest he had access to it, despite the fact that it wasn't translated into English at the time he wrote A King's Lesson and that Morris spoke only a little German - a language it had been published in. The tale is apparently a well known one in Hungary and this poem is simply the most popular mid-nineteenth century rendition of it. Despite this it is still very hard to find in English and so I thought I would publish it here.
King Matthias in Gömör
Every one loved King Matthias, when his charger he rode
To victory in all our battles and our enemies bestrode:
In peace his strength made him the velvet couch despise,
He came and went, for his people's good, listening to our cries,
Through Transdanubia, through all our mighty land,
Through the counties of Tisza he waved his judge's wand,
And none who fell before his knees and cried their grief
Went from his court with less than justice and relief.
And last he came to Gömör and held a royal feast,
As is the Magyar custom, from ancient times at least.
Ten thousand toasts were drunk both serious and gay,
The golden wine of Tokay flowed as night was turned to day.
"God damn the bloody Turk, bring Germans to defeat,
May Christ our Saviour lay all Czechs beneath our Champion's feet!"
The warrior toasts were drunk. At last the country's wealth
Was coupled with the cries, "Our good King Matthias' health!"
Alas, when at the end the nobles could drink no more
And when, in silly drunkenness, they fell upon the floor,
One toast they had forgot, "To those who press the wine,
The toiling peasant daylong bending o'er the vine."
"Gentlemen," King Matthias smiled, liking the idea of a joke,
"The workers have toiled all day beneath a heavy yoke
That we might royally feast. 'Tis time we gave them rest.
They shall sit down in our places and drink of the very best."
The king rose from the table, like the sun in midday sky,
"Up, follow me," he cried, "or I'll know the reason why."
The besotted nobles staggered up to fall in with his command,
"Come," he roared laughing, "we go to conquer the land!"
The sun stood still in wonder, wide-eyed the peasants stare
As their mighty king, their Champion, combed out his golden hair,
And wonder more than wonder, no longer the sword and shield
His conquering arm began the humble spade to wield.
But their wonder changed to laughter, when the courtiers they saw,
Full of soft living, the spade making their hands raw.
And while the weak nobles sweated, with anguish filled,
Their Champion, Matthias, more than an acre had tilled.
Oh, the cries that rose from the little men, the sky was rent,
"Release us, O Majesty, from this hard punishment.
None of us fear the sword but, alas, O King, we're afraid
Of this mighty instrument we cannot wield — the peasant's spade."
In the end Kind Matthias relented. Using his spade,
Which he drew from the shining furrow his work had made,
As a royal sceptre, his words and his mien severe,
"Listen, O you fat courtlings, listen to me and hear
This lesson: You now have learned half dead with toil,
That your soft living is founded on this clumpish soil,
That they, who till it and make it yield its crop,
Work till their muscles scream and until they drop.
So, back in your banqueting halls, by riches beset,
Remember my words. When you toast you will not forget
To lift your glasses to lift your hearts and minds
To the vine-dressers, cowherds, the shepherds, and hinds."
In Gömör, thus did King Matthias enhance his noble joke,
Laying upon his people the lightest of heavy yokes,
And so increased their love for him, no sweat was too severe,
That even today they love him, and his mighty name revere.
Source: Makkai, Á (Ed.) (1996) In Quest of the Miracle Stag: The Poetry of Hungary, University of Illnois Press