Czar Nikita once reigned widely,
Richly, merrily, and idly,
Did no good or evil thing:
Kept his kingdom flourishing.
He kept clear of toil and bother,
Ate and drank and praised our Father.
With some ladies he had squired
Forty daughters had he sired
Forty maids with charming faces,
Four times ten celestial graces,
Sweet of temper, full of love.
Ah, what ankles, Heaven above!
Chestnut curls, the heart rejoices,
Eyes — a marvel, wondrous voices,
Minds — enough to lose your mind:
All from head to toe designed
To beguile one’s heart and spirit;
There was but a sole demerit.
Oh? What fault was there to find?
None to speak of, never mind.
Or at most the merest tittle.
Still, a flaw (though very little).
How explain it, how disguise
So as not to scandalize
That cantankerous old drip,
Help me, Muse — your poet begs!
Well — between the lassies’ legs . . .
Stop! Already too explicit,
Too immodest, quite illicit . . .
Indirection here is best:
Aphrodite’s lovely breast.
Lips, and feet set hearts afire,
But the focus of desire,
Dreamed-of goal of sense and touch,
What is that? Oh, nothing much.
Well then, it was this in fact
That the royal lassies lacked.
Sternly Tsar Nikita summoned
Courtiers, mummies, nannies,
“Come and Hear the stricture I impose:
Any one of you who sows
In my daughters’ minds suggestions
Or provokes unseemly questions,
Or so much as dreams to dare
Hint at that which is not there,
Deal in doubtful words and notions,
Or perform improper motions —
Let there be no shred of doubt:
Wives will have their tongues cut out,
Men a member more essential,
Intumescent in potential.”
Our Tsarevnas grew apace.
Sad their lot! Nikita’s Grace
Called his Council, put his case:
Thus and so — not unavowedly
But in whispers, not too loudly,
Pas devant les domestiques . . .
Mute the nobles sat and wondered
How to deal with such a freak.
But a gray-haired Nestor pondered,
Rose, and bowing to and fro,
Dealt his pate a clanging blow,
And with venerable stutters
To the potentate he utters:
“May it not, Enlightened Sire,
Be accounted wanton slyness
Or offend your Gracious Highness: —
Sunken yet in carnal mire,
A procuress once I knew,
(Where’s she now? What does she do?
Likely in the same vocation.)
She enjoyed the reputation
Of a most accomplished witch,
Curing any ache or itch,
Making feeble members sound.
Pray let my advice be heeded:
If that witch could just be found,
She’d install the thing that’s needed.”
Envoys were dispatched who fleetly
Sped by special courier post,
Searched the realm from coast to coast,
Scampered, scurried, faster, faster,
Tracking witches for their Master.
One year passes, nothing’s heard,
And another, not a word.
Till at last a lad of mettle
On a lucky trial did settle,
Rode into a forest dread
Just as though by Satan led;
There he found the little cottage
Where the witch lived in her dotage,
Boldly passing gate and bar
As an envoy of the Tsar,
He saluted the magician
And revealed the Tsar’s commission:
What the quest was all about,
What his daughters were without.
Three-score hours she brewed her spell,
Conjured up the Prince of Hell,
And so soon as she could ask it,
He produced a brassbound casket
Stocked with countless feminine
Wherewithals of men’s sweet sin.
Curly beauties, choice examples,
Every size, design, and shade,
What a marvelous parade!
Sorting out her wealth of samples,
Soon the sorc’ress had arrayed
Forty of superior grade
All in damask napkin dressed,
And had a locked them in the chest.
This she handed to the willing
Envoy with a silver shilling,
And he rides . . . till in the west
Sinking sun commends a rest.
What was hidden in the casket
That the witch was sending him?
Just that oaken lid mask it
For the journey’s interim . . .
Tightly grooved, though . . . all looks dim.
Terror of the Tsar’s decree
Yields to curiosity,
The temptation’s too delicious:
Ear laid close against the fissures,
Long he listens — but in vain;
Sniffs & smells: familiar scent . . . Egad!
What profusion there, what wonder!
Just a glimpse could not be bad;
If one pried the lock asunder . . .
And before he knew, he had.
Whoosh! The birdies, swarming out,
Light on branches all about,
Tails aflirt. In vain our lad
Loudly calls them back to casket,
Throws them biscuit from his basket,
Scatters morsels — all no good.
(Clearly such was not their diet);
Why return if you could riot
Sweetly chanting in the wood,
To be cooped in gloom and quiet?
Meanwhile in the distance stumbles,
All bent double by her load,
Some old woman down the road.
Our poor envoy up and bumbles
Quite distracted in her wake:
“Granny, help, my head’s at stake!
Look, there sit my birdies scattered,
Chattering as if nothing mattered,
How can I entice them back?”
That old woman craned her neck,
Spat, and with her crook did beckon:
“Though you asked for it, I reckon,
Do not fret or worry so:
If you your thing to them do show:
They’ll all come back, of that I warrant.”
Our young fellow thanked the crone,
And the moment he had it shown —
Down they flutter in a torrent,
Swarming off their firs and birches,
And resumed their former perches
In the envoy’s box; and he,
To forestall some new disaster,
Clapped them under lock and key,
And rode homeward to his Master,
Thanking God he had retrieved them.
When the princesses received them,
Each one promptly found its cage;
And the Tsar in royal glee
Graciously was pleased to stage
A gigantic jubilee.
Seven days they spent in fêting
And a month recuperating.
The entire House of Lords
He allotted rich rewards,
Nor forgot the witch herself:
On the Art Museum’s ladders
Reaching for the highest shelf,
They brought down to send the elf
Skeletons, a brace of adders,
And in spirits in a jar
Half a candle, famed afar.
And of course the envoy bold
Had his prize. My tale is told.
Some will ask me, eyebrows climbing,
Why I wrought such fatuous rhyming,
What reason for it was?
Let me answer them: Because.