Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Tom Fool a Knight
By Robert Southey (17741843)
From The Doctor
IN these days when honours have been so profusely distributed by the most liberal of Administrations and the most popular of kings, I cannot but think that Tom Fool ought to be knighted. And I assure the reader that this is not said on the score of personal feeling, because I have the honour to be one of his relations, but purely with regard to his own claims, and the fitness of things as well as to the character of the Government.
It is disparaging him, and derogatory to his family, which in undisputed and indisputable antiquity exceeds any other in these kingdoms,it is disparaging him, I say, to speak of him as we do of Tom Duncombe, and Tom Cribb, and Tom Campbell; or of Tom Hood and Tom Moore, and Tom Sheridan; and before them of Tom Browne and Tom DUrfey, and Tom Killigrew. Can it be supposed if he were properly presented to his Majesty (Lord Nugent would introduce him), and knelt to kiss the royal hand, that our most gracious and good-natured king would for a moment hesitate to give him the accolade, and say to him Rise Sir Thomas!
It is perfectly certain that in this case Sir Thomas More, if he were alive, would not object to have him for a brother knight and namesake. It is equally certain that Sir Thomas Lethbridge could not, and ought not.
Dryden was led into a great error by his animosity against Hunt and Shadwell when he surmised that dulness and clumsiness were fatal to the name of Tom. There are, says Serjeant Kite, several sorts of Toms; Tom o Lincoln, Tom Tit, Tom Tell-truth, Tom o Bedlam and Tom Fool! With neither of these is dulness or clumsiness associated. And in the primitive world, according to the erudite philologist who with so much industry and acumen collected the fragments of its language, the word itself signified just or perfect. Therefore the first Decan of the constellation Virgo was called Tom, and from thence Court de Gobelin derives Themis: and thus it becomes evident that Themistocles belongs to the Toms. Let no Thomas then or Sir Thomas, who has made shipwreck of his fortune or his reputation or of both, consider himself as having been destined to such disgrace by his godfathers and godmothers when they gave him that name. The name is a good name. Any one who has ever known Sir Thomas Acland may like it and love it for his sake: and no wise man will ever think the worse of it for Tom Fools.
No! the name Thomas is a good name, however it has been disparaged by some of those persons who are known by it at this time. Though Bovius chose to drop it and assume the name Zephiriel in its stead in honour of his tutelary angel, the change was not for the better, being indeed only a manifestation of his own unsound state of mind. And though in the reign of King James the First, Mr. William Shepherd of Towcester christened his son by it for a reason savouring of disrespect, it is not the worse for the whimsical consideration that induced him to fix upon it. The boy was born on the never-to-be forgotten fifth of November 1605, about the very hour when the Gunpowder Treason was to have been consummated; and the father chose to have him called Thomas, because he said this child, if he lived to grow up, would hardly believe that ever such wickedness could be attempted by the sons of men.
It is recorded that a parrot which was seized by a kite and carried into the air, escaped by exclaiming Sancte Thoma adjuva me! for upon that powerful appeal the kite relaxed his hold, and let loose the intended victim. This may be believed, though it is among the miracles of Thomas à Becket, to whom, and not to the great schoolman of Aquino, nor the Apostle of the East, the invocation was addressed. Has any other human name ever wrought so remarkable a deliverance?
Has any other name made a greater noise in the world? Let Lincoln tell, and Oxford; for although, omnis clocha clochabilis in clocherio clochando, clochans clochativo, clochare facit clochabiliter clochantes, yet among them all, Master Janotus de Bragmardo would have assigned pre-eminence to the mighty Toms.
I should also recommend Tom Noddy, were it not for this consideration, that the honour would probably soon be merged in an official designation, and therefore lost upon him; for when a certain eminent statesman shall be called from the Lower House, as needs he must ere long, unless the party who keep moving and push him forward as their leader, should before that time relieve him of his hereditary rights, dignities, and privileges, no person can possibly be found so worthy to succeed him in office and tread in his steps, as Tom Noddy.