The Patricia and Emmett Robinson Prize
Lee Pelham Cotton
How Now, Malvolio?
I’ve never nibbled on a cake; I’ve never sipped a stoup of ale;
a steward of a sumptuous house knows better than to stray.
I chalk levels on the casks and see the sweets are never stale.
Mocked by boorish tricksters who o’er my lady held strange sway,
carousing beastlike through the house with growl and grunt and bray.
I never nibbled on a cake; I never sipped a stoup of ale.
Still I, as other men, may hope, and even seek to find a way
to rise above my station as a virtuous fellow may,
for I chalked levels on the casks and saw the sweets were never stale.
Thus, when I read my lady’s will, I hastened forthwith to obey;
to shift attire and countenance to seem in all more brisk and gay.
But I never nibbled on a cake; nor ever sipped a stoup of ale.
My hopeful heart was but a jest, to those who live to jeer and play.
My yellow stockings were so quaint, my garters crossed the latest way
while chalking levels on the casks and seeing sweets were never stale.
I’ll quit this bedlam: I’m not mad, no matter what the betters say.
Hung by those ’cursed garters, my ’cursed life will ebb away.
I’ll never nibble on a cake; I’ll never sip a stoup of ale.
I chalked levels on the casks and saw the sweets were never stale.
Author’s note: this villanelle is inspired by the self-righteous and ultimately unfortunate steward, Malvolio, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Reading an encouraging letter he believes penned by the mistress of the house, Malvolio plays the fool and ultimately becomes unhinged, while the merry (if unkind) pranksters responsible for the missive enjoy a hearty laugh.