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Our Fathers of Old

[words Rudyard Kipling, music Peter Bellamy; notes on Our Fathers of Old at the Kipling Society]

Our Fathers of Old is a poem from Rudyard Kipling’s book Rewards and Fairies. Peter Bellamy sang it on his first album of songs set to Kipling’s poems, Oak, Ash & Thorn. He noted:

Our Fathers of Old comes from A Doctor of Medicine, in which the astrologer and herbalist Culpepper tells how his knowledge of the occult helped him cure the plagure in Dan and Una’s village during the Civil War between King and Parliament. The Limerick Rake lent a little of itself to the tune.

As the original album wasn’t available anymore, Peter Bellamy re-recorded this and other songs with the help of Nigel Schofield, probably in the mid-1980s. The new version was finally included on the Fellside compilation Mr Bellamy, Mr Kipling & the Tradition.

Cath and Phil Tyler sang Our Fathers of Old on Folk Police Recordings’ 2011 album of songs from Kipling’s “Puck” stories, Oak Ash Thorn.


Our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old—
Excellent herbs to ease their pain—
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane,
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you—
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old—
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars—
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in division it goes—
(Every plant had a star bespoke)—
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts they are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

Wonderful little, when all is said,
Wonderful little our fathers knew.
Half of their remedies cured you dead—
And most of their teaching was quite untrue—
“Look at the stars when a patient is ill,
(For dirt has nothing to do with disease,)
Bleed and blister as much as you will,
Blister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
Whence enormous and manifold
Errors were made by our fathers of old.

Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
And neither planet nor herb assuaged,
They took their lives in their lancet-hand
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door—
Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled,
Excellent courage our fathers bore—
Excellent heart had our fathers of old.
Not too learned, but nobly bold,
And into the fight went our fathers of old.

Now if it be certain, as Galen says,
And sage Hippocrates holds as much—
“That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,”
Then, be good to us, stars above!
Then, be good to us, herbs below!
We are afflicted by what we can prove;
And we are distracted by what we know—
So—ah, so!
Down from your Heaven or up from your mould,
Pleae send us the hearts of our fathers of old!