Marianne Moore: Poetry

June 13, 2011

“Camellia Sabina” and Tom Thumb

Filed under: Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 6:17 pm
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Tom Thumb upon his mouse-steed figures in the seventh stanza of “Camellia Sabina” (Complete Poems, p. 17). The tale of Tom Thumb originated in England in the Seventeenth Century and, in the manner of fairy tales, moved through the years with permutations. Consistently present in the story are tiny Tom (no bigger than his father’s thumb), his desire to ride among King Arthur’s knights, and his snaring a mouse for a steed. Here is one version of the tale Moore might have read; in any case, her Tom aboard musculus is key to the stanza, although surrounded by elements not present in the story.

HOW TOM THUMB RODE A-HUNTING.

The night after Tom Thumb had been received into office, his former suit of clothes was taken away by unseen hands, and another laid in the place where it had been, such as might better befit a court-page.

The doublet was of butterflies’ wings, and the boots of chicken’s skin, for you must know that Tom needed boots.40 It vexed him that,

Tom Thumb, p. 52

when King Arthur and his knights rode out hunting, or went to seek for deeds of high adventure, he must needs be left at home; so after bethinking himself, he resolved to purvey himself of a charger. For this end he begged from the good Lady Bienpensante a long thread of her silk for broidery, wherewith he made a coil, and lay softly in wait near a mouse’s hole. By and by, forth came the grey mouse-mother with her six long-whiskered sons and daughters, and what doth our brave page, but gallantly throw his noose over the head of the likeliest-looking of the brood, and vaulting on his back, sat perched on his grey steed. Master mouse did in truth curvet and dash about wildly, but in vain did he seek to unseat his valiant little rider, who, after having let him weary himself with his antics, led him to a chess-castle, which served him for a watch-tower, and fastened him up at the entrance, with a crumb of cheese for provender.

Anon, when the knights held their jousts and games, and curbed their mettled steeds in the Castle court, forth rode Tom Thumb on his mouse, which he had named Sleekfoot; and though the knights and squires had much ado not to tread on him, so well did he rule him, with his whip made of Greymalkin’s whisker, that he taught him, in due time, to obey the rein, nor was he behind in the fairest feats of horsemanship, so that it was a marvel to all beholders.

It was a goodly sight, when King Arthur went to the chase, to see the knights and squires come forth in full array, and the little page, bravely equipped, with his hunting-spear made of a darning-needle, and his bow and arrows at his back, spring into his saddle and ride off with them, fearing no leap over any thistle, however tall. Often would his mother stand at her door to see the gallant train sweep by, with her own boy among them; and Tom often would turn his mouse’s head towards her cottage, and what king so happy as he while he sat on her shoulder, and told her all his doings?

His game was usually the fierce dragon-fly, the well-armed stag-beetle, and dangerous hornet; and skilfully did he manoeuvre to avoid the hard grip of the stag-beetle’s jaws, and to pierce the hornet’s body with his spear, before it could bring its sting to bear upon him. It was he who kept every wasp, spider, or chafer, from entering the palace to torment such ladies of Queen Guenever as chanced to be troubled with fears; and as for gnats, and all their stinging race, not one had a chance of feasting on the fair cheeks of the dames and damsels of Caerleon, while Tom Thumb with his spear was on the watch.

–Charlotte Mary Yonge, The History of Sir Thomas Thumb (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable, 1855), pp. 51-53.

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