Jesters could use rhymes and ditties to crack a joke or make a point, and the capacity to produce verse can signal some overlap with poets. But this intersection goes further – in some times and places the role of court poet could share some common ground with that of the court fool. An independent stance, and a certain freedom. It is even occasionally the recognised court poet who is also the fool.
In Ireland, as in some Scandinavian cultures, the poet could have a powerful position in the court or similar power structures, even occasionally including prophecy or fierce advice.
Here the poet listens to the Leprechaun king spewing rodomontade, his vauntings played back to him by a supine entourage. If this seems like a remote 12th century tale, don’t forget that 21st century corridors of power still have people surrounded by fawning underlings jockeying for position. And in many cases, they won’t have a court poet, like the court fool he often resembles, saying ‘Pah!’ to all that.
“Have you ever seen a king that was better than myself?” And they answered, “We have not.” “Have you ever seen a strong man better than my strong man?” “We have not.” “Horses or men of battle have you ever seen better than they which to-night are in this house?” “By our word,” they made answer, “we never have”… All of which when he had heard, the king’s chief poet Esirt burst out laughing.
In this case, the poet is bound in chains for insulting the glory of the ‘wee folk’, but asks for a few days’ grace in which to bring to light the truth behind his dismissive laugh. Truth-telling mockery, as we know, is a regular device of court fools.
Source: The Death of Fergus Mac Leide (c. 1100), quoted in Ancient Irish Tales, ed. by Tom Cross and E. Slover (Dublin: Figgis, 1936; repr. 1969), p. 472
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