The Kew Stakes


King: Love? his affections do not that way tend
Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
Was not like a madness.
Shakespeare, Hamlet


What odds on the Kew Stakes, that sad, absurd
Race between Fanny Burney and George the Third?
‘An old, mad, dying King’, so Byron said,
But Byron was unjust. Now both are dead,
We know that Farmer George was not so mad
And, as for the dying, the doctors that he had
Following the medical treatments of the day,
Near nursed him to his grave and, on the way,
Tortured him till they did unhinge his mind
With purges, vomits, cuppings well designed
To drive him crazier still. Of all, the worst,
They forced on scalp and ankles from the first
Fierce blistering poultices they thought would drain
A mythical noxious substance from his brain.
They swore the case was hopeless—we would say
A simple nervous break-down and today
Given wise and patient handling, bit by bit
Mere quiet and kindness would have dealt with it.
But he grew worse; he should have died insane
Had not the Queen decided to retain
Two more practitioners at her own expense,
Men of experience and common sense,
A doctor Francis Willis and his son John;
And, from the hour they took his treatment on,
The King’s condition improved from day to day;
Although there were relapses in which they
Were forced to use strait-waistcoats, it is true;
His frenzies left him little else to do.
By using reason with him on the whole
They helped him back at last towards self-control.
They saw he slept more comfortably at night,
Had books to read and, what was his delight,
Played music with his girls; took exercise
In daily walks which they would supervise,
But using quiet persuasion and not force,
And it was in the Kew Gardens in the course
Of such a morning stroll that the odd race
Of Fanny against the kind old King took place.
She with her novelist’s gift and native wit,
When the first shock had passed, confided it
That evening to her diary with an art
I could not hope to match. The counter-part
I here attempt is what George might have said
That evening when, as usual before bed,
He played piquet or whist or backgammon
With the two Willises, father and son
And Colonel Greville his equerry and friend.
The cure in fact was very near its end,
But the royal patient talked incessantly.
As in the worst days of his illness, he
Shifting from topic to topic, still ran on,
Though now his drift was a coherent one.


“Well gentlemen, we meet again. Well met!
What shall it be tonight, hey? Some piquet?
Cards then! But it is fair to warn you, what!
Tonight I’m in a mood to score capot!
What’s that now, Greville, hey, what’s that you say?
My majesty is in good spirits today?
Yes, so I am, and there’s good reason too:
Today I did what I proposed to do,
Not what these doctors, though I am a King,
Tell me I must and keep me on a string,
No, no. I spoke my mind and had my say,
Forced by no hints, if I should disobey
And utter anything but by their leave
They had the blister treatment up their sleeve
And the close-chair and the straight-waistcoat too,
Confess, you dogs, is that not what you do?
My subjects, hey? Non-dealer’s shown his card;
Doctor John, you are dealer; come, discard!
My subjects! Well, this morning I declare:
I ran away! Greville, had you been there,
You would have laughed your head off. Yes I ran.
What’s that you mutter, Willis? Speak up, man!
Against my royal dignity? No, No!
In public one can’t prance and skip, I know.
Dignity’s well and proper in its place,
But not in private life, as was the case
When I chased little Fanny through the park.
Yes, yes, how’s that for knocking up a lark?
Doctor, you look astonished to hear me use
A flash term from the brothels and the stews,
More fitting for my rascal of a son,
Now I live chaste, but once I had my fun.
Yes, ‘I made love to Kate’—Come, sing with me!
And Kate—hah! you know who—made love to me.
What, you don’t sing? Doctor, I had forgot:
you are in the holy orders, are you not?
That’s not a song a Reverend Sir should sing.
Your face says, Willis: Neither should a King!
Well, it was fun today, my stupid race
With little Burney—Doctor, play your ace—
What, you don’t think so? Must have scared her, what?
Scared? She was terrified! But I forgot:
You weren’t there, Greville. Let me tell you, sir,
All is well now. I made my peace with her.
I’m not a monster, if I am a King.
You weren’t there; let me tell you the whole thing.
You know Kew Gardens walks, sir, I’ll be bound.
God, how I hate those toddles round and round!
I always stamp ahead with fire and force
The posse guards me from myself, of course.
First come the doctors, watchful but polite,
My pages, almost insolent but not quite,
After whom straggles in leash a motley train,
Taught to subdue, at need, a King’s wild brain
A ticklish job, what? Last week on the grass
When I lay down, rejecting the whole farce,
Deaf to your pleading, Willis, playing dumb,
They had to hoist me up and bear me home.
Mad, hey? They say I’m mad; it may be so,
But a mad King fits a mad world, you know.
A monarch trussed in a strait-waistcoat, hey?
Is that not royalty’s portraiture today?
And what an emblem of society!
The Whigs think rational science is the key.
I doubt it. Science but puts at the command
Of greed and fear, powers they don’t understand.
No, no, damned Whigs! The Whigs will live to dread
The fatal day when they gave science its head.
What, doctor, you’re inclined to disagree?
Nay, never shake thy gory locks at me!
You see I do read Shakespeare; if I’m mad,
I thought the bard might settle some doubts I had.
I’ve just read through both Hamlet and King Lear.
Like so much Shakespeare, it’s sad stuff, I fear.
Hamlet, although he talked too much—like me—
Was not mad—there with Claudius I agree—
And as for his pretence to seem insane
The silly fellow could not even feign.
Now, Dr Willis, will you meet me, pray,
Mad or not mad? Test me by Hamlet, say?
The wind is southerly today. Come, now!
Bestir yourselves! We’ll test it, anyhow.
If you’ve a handsaw handy, we may talk;
Go search your bag, sir! Trust me for the hawk!
What, you won’t budge, then? Neither shift nor shog?
Heh, heh, heh, heh! I had you there, you rogue.
And as for kings, why, what did Shakespeare know?
Lear driven mad? No, no, I answer no!
He brought it on himself—mad from the start.
What king still in his senses, pray, would part
His kingdom in three morsels, give away
His throne, yet think to keep his crown and sway?
Should I do that, you would see soon enough
What my dear sons would do—no, no, sad stuff
As I told Fanny Burney, long ago.
—Only we can’t admit it to be so.

But Burney, yes; Greville, I see you nod,
My race with her! I talk too much, by God!
Like Edmund Burke, all words but not much sense;
But then I’m nervous: nerves are my defence.

Poor little Burney! I gave her quite a scare,
For, as I walked ahead and took the air,
I spied her walking too. Then suddenly
She turned and stopped short recognizing me.
I waved and called. Her hands flew to her face.
Then off she ran and I, of course, gave chase.
I’m not surprised, of course, that she took fright.
Here orders are to keep me out of sight,
Kept even from my family, you know.
You’ve no idea how boring that can grow!
And there was Fanny, so charming and so kind;
Half-an-hour’s talk was all I had in mind;
The solace of conversation with a friend
—Greville here, takes tea with her for hours on end—
And so I ran, but as I ran, I drew
This comet’s tail behind at view-halloo.
I could have shouted yoicks! or Tally-ho!
How I restrained myself I scarcely know:
I felt so light! I ran with such a foot
That for a while I out-paced all this lot
But little Fanny showed a turn of speed
Beyond us all; outdistanced me, indeed,
Hands at her sides, skirts lifted just a span,
To show red woollen ankles as she ran;
Pit-pat towards the Pagoda she was bent,
And all of us like hounds upon the scent;
As pretty a picture as one could see, it was.
Her little feet twinkled on the frosty grass.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter and a little hop.
Till Dr John, here, called to her to stop.
I panted up, quite blown and almost done,
But managed at last to ask, ‘Why did you run?’
She did not answer, but stared at me quite wild.
‘I am your friend’, I said. At that she smiled.
We stood awhile and only puffed and stared
And then I talked and she, no longer scared,
Chatted quite simply as she does at court.
Oh, how we talked! The doctors cut us short.
I would have none of that. This time I won
And made them fall behind while we walked on.
I asked about her father and we spoke
Of music and I sang—No, no, a croak
Was all I managed. I was too hoarse, you see
I talk too much. She hummed the tune for me.
I tried once more, but no, I was still hoarse,
What, Greville, what did I sing? Handel of course!
What should it be but Handel? I adore
His music past all others; the greatest man
To grace this Kingdom since my reign began!
There’s Herschel too, my own astronomer—
His sister? Yes, I studied comets with her …
Herschel’s a good musician too, you know.
He named a planet for me some time ago.
Georgium sidus, what do you think of that?
Well back to Fanny Burney and our chat!
We talked of friends, the court, my pages too
And that old dragon, Schwellenberg, who so
Torments her. ‘Don’t mind her,’ I said, ‘You know
I am your friend. Remember, you must go
To me, to no-one else in case of need!’
And so we parted. Willis, here, agreed
No harm was done. We parted with a smile.
Tomorrow, maybe, they’ll let me run a mile.
No, no! That’s nonsense! Tomorrow Joseph Banks
Comes and we’ll talk of plants and trees; and thanks
To the Kew Stakes today, we’ll walk alone
To see how my merino sheep get on.
Banks, too, is a great man. I have in hand
An Order of Minerva, newly planned
For geniuses who have adorned the age,
Painters, composers, the poet and the sage,
Handel, of course, Sam Johnson, Herschel, Cook
Our navigator—No! I overlook
One thing: he’s dead—was killed ten years ago
By savages of course—Banks told me so:
Well, we’ll have Banks himself and we must not
Forget inventors, Priestly, say, and Watt.
Gainsborough of course, Sir Joshua for the brush
And you too, doctor; do I see a blush?
You shall be in it—but you must cure me first.
What’s that? I must consent, then, to be nursed?
And it’s my bed-time? Well, it’s been a day!
And I’ll agree to everything you say.
No need for the strait-waistcoat now, what, what!
Great Heavens, Dr John has made capot!
I’ve handled my cards badly. Never mind,
I’ll sleep! Wait, where’s my flute! I feel inclined
To play that air I could not sing today
For Fanny; sorry I gave her such a fright.
Let’s hope the little thing sleeps well tonight!”

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