Go to the pissemyre and biholde thou hise weies.

Not quite how Wycliff rendered Proverbs vi.6, which is better known in the more poetic King James Bible version:

6 Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
7 Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
8 Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.

TGSE00353_mAnd also an early instruction towards practical anarcho-communism. As for the Glaswegian connexion (as right), we may get there in a subsequent post. Meantime, let’s stick with literary formicidae (ants, to you).

Summon the Summoner

When Chaucer took the hump he was at his best. The more unpleasant the pilgrim, the more enjoyable the mockery. He hit the jackpot with the Summoner:


A SOMONOUR was ther with us in that place,
That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,
For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe.
As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe,
With scalled browes blake, and piled berd,
Of his visage children were aferd.

There are joys in teaching, but few as exquisite as skating so close to corrupting the youth implied in lines like that:

Please, sir, what’s “saucefleem”? 100-octane acne, dear boy.

Please, sir, why were sparrows “lecherous”? What d’you think that randy pair out in the Quad are up to?

A Malcolmian aside

If ‘Lord’ Ken Baker of Dorking knew what was happening, when he prescribed Romeo and Juliet as essential National Curriculum study (start with the Queen Mab speech in I.iv), he would have stopped us instantly. Instead, Departmental Bowdlerising had to await a change in generation of teachers, from dissident ’60s types to compliant ‘Teach First’ retreads.

More joys of the OED

If we start with pissant, we are told it is “slang and regionalChiefly U.S. regional in later use”.

The earliest citation is Nicholas Culpepper in 1649:

Some countries cal them Ants, some Pismires, and some Pisants, we in Sussex Emments.

Not much of note was going on in London that year, apart from beheading a king and establishing a whole new national régime, so Culpepper took his personal revenge on the College of Physicians (who had tried to do him down with an accusation of witchcraft) by translating the Pharmacopoeia. This breaking of the code made him the Edward Snowden of his day.

Clearly enjoying him/herself, the compiler of this headword then takes us to the land of Sir Les Patterson (Barry Humphries’ re-working of the strip-cartoon he did for Private Eye) country:

Chiefly Austral. In similative and comparative phrases. drunk as a pissant: extremely drunk. game as a pissant: very brave or courageous.

Another Malcolmian aside

“Similative” — now there’s a word in need of future employment.

Despite the Chiefly Austral., the first citation is from John Dos Passos and 42nd Parallel:

When he woke up Ike was sitting on the bed. Ike’s eyes were bright and his cheeks were red. He was still a little drunk. “Say, Mac, did they roll yer? I can’t find my pocketbook an’ I tried to go back but I couldn’t find the apartment. God, I’d have beat up the goddam floosies . . . Shit, I’m drunk as a pissant still. Say, the galoot at the desk said we’d have to clear out. Can’t have no drunks in the Y.M.C.A.” 

Ah, the uplifting qualities of Great Literature! And, note too, that Ike has facial links to the Summoner.

D’oh! we had forgotten the significance of the Summoner in pissantry.

But, first, a reflection on how we went to the War of Bush’s Face, led by the nose by that chancer Ahmed Chalabi.

Here we are with The Guardian, re-hashing a Seymour Hersh column for the New Yorker (which quite properly gets the citation in the OED):

Many within the Bush administration are reported to be sceptical of Mr Chalabi and his supporters. One senior official said the administration has no intention of allowing “a bunch of half-assed people to send foreigners into combat.”

He added: “Who among them has ever smelled cordite? These are pissants [nonentities] who can’t get the president’s ear and have to blame someone else. We’re not going to let them lead others down the garden path.”

Deeper into the pismire

who-murdered-chaucer-CoverFrontMedium-m673The Summoner’s Tale was, we are critically assured, the last composed by Chaucer. Either he was fed up with the project, having composed just two dozen of the promised hundred, or his grand intent was abbreviated by outside factors (see Terry Jones for one version).

The Tale is sordid, flatulent, and a marvellous bit of spiteful satire: the Summoner is getting off on the Friar (whose Tale attacked summoners), and revealing his own deeply-unpleasant character. It deserves to be counted one of the finest recitations (which is what it was intended to be) in the literary canon. The Summoner has his friar, the main character in the Tale, cheating poor parishioners, before he goes to visit the wealthy old Thomas. He gropes Thomas’s wife, and we are back to the lecherous sparwe:

The frere ariseth up ful curteisly,
And hire embraceth in his armes narwe,
And kiste hire sweete, and chirketh as a sparwe
With his lyppes: “Dame,” quod he, “right weel,
As he that is youre servant every deel,
Thanked be God, that yow yaf soule and lyf!

The wife asks the friar to counsel Thomas on his anger:

“Now, by youre leve, o deere sire,” quod she
“Chideth him weel, for seinte Trinitee!
He is as angry as a pissemyre,
Though that he have al that he kan desire;
Though I hym wrye a-nyght and make hym warm,
And over hym leye my leg outher myn arm,
He groneth lyk oure boor, lith in oure sty.
Oother desport right noon of hym have I;
I may nat plese hym in no maner cas.”

OK, Geoff, we get the implication.

But we still wonder why the ant should be a simulative for anger.


1 Comment

Filed under Chaucer, education, Literature, Oxford English Dictionary, Quotations, reading

One response to “Go to the pissemyre and biholde thou hise weies.

  1. Pingback: The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 30: Guy Aldred & friends | Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service

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