It was a poem my mother read to me when I was young. I was trying to play a video game when she came into my room, grabbed a volume from the bookshelf (our house was covered in books), and said she wanted to read one of her favorites to me. I tried not to roll my eyes. A poem? Seriously? It was like being Fred Savage in The Princess Bride when Colombo walks in and says he's going to read a book. "Is this a kissing poem?" I might have asked.
It was The Fool's Prayer, by Edward Rowland Sill, and it was everything that I expected it to be - sentimental and metered, filled with words I didn't understand like "knave," and "balsam." It tells the story of a jester who is asked to say a prayer before the king and the royal court. The jester (who must hide his grimness behind a fake, painted-on smile) prays for humility despite his faults, repeating "Lord be merciful to me, a fool." The king, who had been prepared to mock his jester's words, is so moved that he recites the same prayer.
Booooring. I was trying to beat The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, or something equally important, so I obviously didn't have time for poems. And why didn't the poet just start with the last four or five lines and make it shorter? Was it really necessary to write an entire page full of rhymes? Why should I spend my spare time unraveling knotted phrases or counting syllables? Besides, simple prose could accomplish the same thing as this poem in the space of a Post-It note! (Yes, English majors, I'm one of Those people. Also, I am realizing that I was a big jerk when I was a teenager. Sorry, Mom!)
Being a teen, I didn't want to understand this poem in the pursuit of some sort of enlightenment, because I was already an invincible genius, wise beyond my years and perfect in every way. But something about the poem's phrasing, the metrical rhymes, and its repetitions caused The Fool's Prayer to cling to the edges of my mind. Though I dismissed it in a moment of youthful arrogance, the poem didn't dismiss me. It was still there, lurking about my thoughts and taunting me with it's lesson.
Even though I'm 32, I still enjoy pretending that I'm wise even though I'm not. "I sure was dumb ten years ago," I might say to a co-worker, but in the back of my mind I'm certain that when I'm 42 I'll be saying the same thing. There has been some progress in my life; I no longer think of myself as an invincible genius, but as an absent-minded bumbler who can't find his car in the parking lot. Also, I had to look up the spelling of "genius" five minutes ago. (That really happened. I tried "geneous" and "genious" before giving up. If the NSA ever confiscates my Google searches they'll only find an endless list of misspelled words.) Like everyone else, I think I'm a decent person, but I've proven to be more selfish than caring plenty of times. I've been guilty of hatred and pettiness while claiming to decry those things.
When faced with my shortcomings I become aware of a familiar, unrelenting refrain crying out from my memory to teach me the old lesson. The Fool's Prayer might not be great poetry by academic standards - I wouldn't know - but it's a good one in my book. In dark times the poem's refrain will pierce through the haze of self-doubt and loathing, leading me down a well-worn path where I whisper a comforting liturgy: "Lord be merciful to me, a fool."
- ...But for our blunders -- oh, in shame
- Before the eyes of heaven we fall.
- "Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
- Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
- That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,
- Be merciful to me, a fool!"
- The room was hushed; in silence rose
- The King, and sought his gardens cool,
- And walked apart, and murmured low,
- "Be merciful to me, a fool!"
- (Read the whole thing, here.)