The poem includes a frame narrative, starting with a focus on a king’s court, turning into an in-depth and narrative-style prayer, and then resuming its courtly setting in the last lines. The poem focuses on how people are judged and treated according to their jobs/roles in life and how God does not consider people the same way. The Fool chastises those listening to his prayer through allusions and implications meant to remind everyone what it takes to live well.
The Fool's Prayer Edward Rowland SillThe royal feast was done; the KingSought some new sport to banish care,And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”The jester doffed his cap and bells,And stood the mocking court before;They could not see the bitter smileBehind the painted grin he wore.He bowed his head, and bent his kneeUpon the monarch’s silken stool;His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,Be merciful to me, a fool!“No pity, Lord, could change the heartFrom red with wrong to white as wool:The rod must heal the sin; but, Lord,Be merciful to me, a fool!“’T is not by guilt the onward sweepOf truth and right, O Lord, we stay;’T is by our follies that so longWe hold the earth from heaven away.“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,Go crushing blossoms without end;These hard, well-meaning hands we thrustAmong the heart-strings of a friend.“The ill-timed truth we might have kept—Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung!The word we had not sense to say—Who knows how grandly it had rung!“Our faults no tenderness should ask,The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;But for our blunders—oh, in shameBefore the eyes of heaven we fall.“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;Men crown the knave, and scourge the toolThat did his will; but Thou, O Lord,Be merciful to me, a fool.”The room was hushed; in silence roseThe King, and sought his gardens cool,And walked apart, and murmured low,“Be merciful to me, a fool!”
Explore The Fool’s Prayer
‘The Fool’s Prayer’ by Edward Rowland Sill is an interesting piece about living a moral life and remembering one’s place in God’s world.
The poem begins with a king asking his Fool, or court jester, to say a prayer for the entire room. He kneels and begins a prayer that stuns everyone. He asks God for mercy and takes listeners through a description of the ways that humanity makes incredibly poor choices, keeping Earth away from Heaven. The poem ends with everyone in the room shocked by his skill with language and perceptiveness.
Structure and Form
‘The Fool’s Prayer’ by Edward Rowland Sill is a ten-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. The poem follows the rhyme scheme of ABCB, with different end sounds in each stanza. The poet also chose to write each line in trochaic tetrameter. Each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is unstressed.
In this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. They include:
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that does not include “like” or “as.” For example, “These clumsy feet, still in the mire, / Go crushing blossoms without end.” Here, the poet’s speaker, a Fool, describes sinning and making mistakes as metaphorically crushing beautiful flowers.
- Juxtaposition: throughout this poem, the poet highlights the very clear contrast between the Fool, who sees the world more clearly, and the royal audience he’s hired to perform for, who does not.
- Refrain: the repetition of the same phrase. For example, “O Lord, / Be merciful to me, a fool!”
Stanzas One and Two
The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”
The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.
In the first lines of ‘The Fool’s Prayer,’ the speaker begins by noting that a feast is at its end, and now it’s the Fool’s job to “make us a prayer.” He’s ordered to do so before the entire court as they mocked him. They laughed at his expense, thinking he was just as foolish as his appearance and job title implied. But they don’t know that he’s very aware of how he’s being treated. He wore a “bitter smile” behind the painted-on “grin” that is part of his makeup. The word “bitter” implies that he’s tired of being treated the way he is and feels upset at the role he has to play.
Stanzas Three and Four
He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool:
The rod must heal the sin; but, Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
The Fool did as he was told. He bent his head and began his prayer (alluded to in the title). He had his knee “Upon the monarch’s silken stool,” an example of juxtaposition meant to remind the reader how different he is from the royalty around him, and he prays to God to show mercy to him, “a fool.”
The Fool knows that to redeem a sinful heart, there is likely to be some suffering, symbolized by the rod. But, he hopes that the Lord will look at him with some degree of mercy.
Stanzas Five and Six
“’T is not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
’T is by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.
“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.
The speaker knows a truth about humankind that the people listening probably didn’t think he was capable of. He notes how it is through sin and folly that humanity holds the “earth from heaven away.” People’s actions and how they treat one another prevents the Earth from becoming more Heaven-like and from the people giving their hearts to God.
He refers to his own feet in the next lines, describing them as clumsy and as crushing blossoms without end. This symbolizes the way that one might wander through life, unsure of what to do and where to go. One makes mistakes with their clumsy actions/feet, crushing blossoms, or the beauty of God’s creation (which may also symbolize an opportunity to improve oneself).
The speaker refers to his and others’ hands as “well-meaning.” He’s aware that he, and others, approach things with good intentions but are, in the end, doing more damage than good. It’s important to learn from one’s lessons, keep God in one’s heart, and do whatever one can to help others.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
“The ill-timed truth we might have kept—
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung!
The word we had not sense to say—
Who knows how grandly it had rung!
“Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders—oh, in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.
The speaker (the Fool) continues his prayer in the following lines. He highlights that humanity keeps the truth of its actions from itself. People know that they act poorly and cruelly, doing things that are not right in the eyes of God. But they continue to do so. The speaker knows that people should be, and likely will be, punished for the way they behave. Their “blunders” make them fall lower in the “eyes of heaven,” a metaphor for God’s judgment.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
“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!”
The final stanzas conclude the poem and describe a bit of the crowd’s reaction to the very thoughtful prayer. The Fool ends his prayer by saying that the Earth has no balsam, or balm, for mistakes. It does not treat mistakes with kindness (or the same mercy that the Fool hopes to receive from God). The “mistakes” he alludes to are partially described below “Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool / That did his will.” The “knave” is a term used to describe someone who is dishonest or immoral in some way. The fact that he is “crowned” suggests that humanity is putting the wrong people in power.
The “tool” described later in the line is likely an allusion to a servant or a loyal employee. This person does the will of a king, only showing complete loyalty, and is looked down on and even punished. The Fool continues his plea for mercy before the final stanza in which the poet describes him walking out of the room while everyone repeats his refrain, “Be merciful to me, a fool!”
Suddenly, everyone seems enlightened by the Fool’s prayer. They see the world in the same way as he, noting that they are all fools because they’ve been acting in the same way the Fool described.
The tone of this poem is pleading and respectful. The speaker, a court jester, prays for his deliverance and the mercy of God while alluding to his sins and the sins of others.
The theme of ‘The Fool’s Prayer’ is religion and living a moral life. The court jester knows that the royal men and women around him spout out religious sentiments but do not live according to a good religious code. This is something he seeks to remind them of in his prayer.
There are several different reasons that Sill may have written this poem. He was likely interested in reminding readers of their sins and mistakes and conveying a message that could be summed up as “treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Edward Rowland Sill poems. For example:
- ‘Opportunity’ – a narrative poem that describes an imagined or real battle and a unique opportunity that presents itself.
Other related poems include:
- ‘Prayer’ by Carol Ann Duffy – describes the different forms a prayer can take in the modern world and how those forms provide comfort.
- ‘Prayer Before Birth’ by Louis MacNeice – was written during the terror-struck days of World War II. It places the realities of an evil world into the mouth of an unborn baby.