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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Open, commended

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Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

Jane Tozer

Dame Sirith or The Dog It Was that Cried

A performance piece for one or two versatile voices, and a cute dog

Sirith Poor pitiful old woman. In reality, a sly fixer and cunning trickster
Margery Naïve beauty. Faithful feather-brained wife of a wealthy wool-merchant
Wilekin Vain, gormless, randy cleric. He's a virgin and he dreams of Margery
Bunty Sirith's familiar, a sweet doe-eyed bitch

Narrator (Reader, my tale is sad, but true) is an addition, for performance purposes

Scene 2: Bunty's Curry (lines 237–293)

When Wilekin hears that Margery's husband is away on business, he plucks up his courage and knocks on her door. The two debate at cross purposes. When silly Margery finally twigs his proposition, she chucks him out. Dejected and sulking (in drerimod), Wilekin goes to the village wise-woman, Dame Sirith. She has a cunning plan, and guarantees that the young pair will soon be romping merrily in bed.

  Now cross your heart and hope to die
  Swear not to make a hue and cry
            My third-rate Casanova.
  If you can keep your mouth shut tight
  And leave me be to put things right,
            Soon you will be in clover.

  God spare me. Let me not be captured
  And brought before the dean and chapter
            Accused of witchery.
  They'd tie me backwards on a mule
  And drive me out. Their ways are cruel
            With spite and treachery.

  I swear, old duck, I'd never let
  You do a thing you might regret
            Or suffer for my good.
  I hereby swear to keep my silence
  And protect you from all violence
            By the Holy Rood.

  Good Wilekin, I like your tact.
  The two of us shall make a pact
            Which should be advantageous.
  Now play the man
  As best you can
            Be merry and courageous.

  How fortunate you came this way!
  I'll have a chat with her today
            And praise you to the skies.
  When she hears my point of view
  And why I think so well of you
            She'll see you with new eyes.

  Dame Sirith, what wise words you say.
  Thanks be to God, my strength and stay
            Bless you, and fill your purse.
  Here's twenty shillings, yours to keep.
  Go buy some piglets and some sheep
            And smarten up your house.

  I'll buy my home. No more high rent!
  Never was money better spent
            Than your smart cash shall be
  For I've devised a cunning plan
  A trick as yet unknown to man
            Of wondrous mastery.

Sirith (calls to dog)
  Bunty! Din-dins! Come along.
  Here's mustard sauce for you to eat
  With fiery pepper, little meat.
            Your big brown eyes will run.
  I'll make my swindle
  Of slime and dribble
            And I know just where and when.

FX: dog yoffles food and then whimpers.

Narrator (aside)
  Reader, my tale is sad, but true
  She fed the bow-wow vindaloo
            Red hot from her mouth to her bum!
  If you're lovesick and pining
  It's you should be whining
            Please don't try such capers at home.

  What! Can you not tell good from bad?
  It's clear to me you're barking mad.
  You fed your poor pooch mustard!

Dame Sirith
  Oh, shut your trap, you peevish bonehead!
  I know exactly what I'm doing
  My trickery will speed your wooing.
  You are a fool, and I'm a thinker
  Though you may be a little stinker
  She'll fall for you, hook, line and sinker.

Translated from the Middle English by Jane Tozer

Dame Sirith or The Dog It Was that Cried
Lines 237–293

The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem, click here (opens in new window).

Scene 2: Bunty's Curry

  '…Weste hic hit miȝtte ben forholen,
  Me wolde þunche wel folen
            Þi wille forto fullen.
  Make me siker wiþ word on honde
  Þat þou wolt helen, and I wile fonde
            If Ich mai hire tellen.

  For al þe world ne wold I nout
  Þat Ich were to chapitre i-brout
            For none selke werkes.
  Mi iugement were sone igiuen
  To ben wiþ shome somer-driuen
            Wiþ prestes and with clarkes.'

  'Iwis, nelde, ne wold I
  Þat þou heuedest uilani
            Ne shame for mi goed.
  Her I þe mi trouþe pliȝtte,
  Ich shal helen bi mi miȝtte,
            Bi þe holi roed!'

  'Welcome, Wilekin, hiderward!
  Her hauest imaked a foreward
            Þat þe mai ful wel like.
  Þou maiȝt blesse þilke siþ,
  For þou maiȝt make þe ful bliþ –
            Ðar þou namore sike!

  To goder-hele euer come þou hider,
  For sone will I gange þider,
            And maken hire hounderstonde.
  I shal kenne hire sulke a lore
  Þat hoe shal louien þe mikel more
            Þen ani mon in londe.'

  'Al so haui Godes griþ,
  Wel hauest þou said, dame Siriþ,
            And goder-hele shal ben þin.
  Haue her twenti shiling:
  Þis Ich ȝeue þe to meding,
            To buggen þe sep and swin.'

  'So Ich euere brouke hous oþer flet,
  Neren neuer penes beter biset
            Þen þes shulen ben!
  For I shal don a iuperti
  And a ferli maistri,
            Þat þou shalt ful wel sen.

  'Pepir nou shalt þou eten,
  Þis mustart shal ben þi mete,
            And gar þin eien to rene;
  I shal make a lesing
  Of þin heie renning –
            Ich wot wel wer and wenne.'

  'Wat! nou const þou no god!
  Me þinkeþ þat þou art wod –
  Ȝeuest þo þe welpe mustard?'

  'Be stille, boinard!
  I shal mit þis ilke gin
  Gar hire loue to ben al þin.
  Ne shal Ich neuer haue reste ne ro
  Til Ich haue told hou þou shalt do.
  Abid me her til min hom-come.'


Translation commentary

The characters are timeless. Wilekin, a pathetic young cleric, is like a dog shut up indoors and aching when he scents a bitch on heat. Our local vet calls this condition a shag-sulk.

Margery is a faithful wife, devout churchgoer and do-gooder. Her ambition is to travel and care for little children. She reads Barbara Cartland on parchment. Adultery has never entered her mind.

My childhood friend had a cocker spaniel bitch called Bunty.

January 2012. Dank, cold, bloody miserable, nasty backache. A merry project dispels gloom, so I rummaged for my old copy of the Oxford Early Middle English Verse and Prose (ed. J A W Bennett & G V Smithers 1968). I knew Dame Sirith was a jolly story, but had forgotten everything but a vague idea that something nasty happened to a bow-wow. Re-reading it was a hoot.

Dame Sirith is the first English fabliau: a bawdy story in the French mode, and a century older than the Canterbury Tales. Like The Miller's Tale, it revels in rustic ribaldry. The only manuscript is probably from an abbey library. Perhaps this text was transcribed from a performance piece composed by a skilful secular minstrel. I know only one poetic version, from Brian Stone's Mediaeval English Verse (Penguin Classics 1964). It's craftsmanlike, witty and adroit, but intended for the reader rather than a crowd.

I plan to return Dame Sirith to its original showman's guise. The sly old girl was born to be a star on radio and at festivals. I'd love to see and hear the piece camped up by a talented friend with brilliant vocal, comic and musical skills.

The tale is a seamless composition of poetic wit, subtlety, dexterity. It was meant to make jaws gawp in the audience. The twists are unguessable. I won't give away the best bits.

Jane Tozer