Origins of “The Fox”-a poem of mystery and delight – by anon

The Fox

Forth from his den to steal he stole.

His bag of chink he chunk.

And many a wicked smile he smole

and many a wink he wunk.

Six years ago tomorrow, I posted the above poem. I said it had a big influence on me and it did. Its sense of fun; the clever use of words, and its rather nice touch of ‘wicked’.

Several people have commented on it over the years. Derek Denton knew it as ‘The Smiling Villain’ from a text for teaching English in the 1960s. Derek said ‘It is a remarkably clever use of words and the sheer fun the poem encapsulates never fails to intrigue and delight.’  Andrew who was taught it by his mum described it as a treasure. My mum taught it to me so I can relate to that.

Occasionally over the years I have had a go at discovering its origins without any luck. But I was inspired to have another go after this comment arrived from Angus McPhee. He says ‘On the 17th of July 1917, this was written in the autograph book of my mother (1895-1978). I have just scanned it. I thought I would check the poem’s origin and came to your website!’

Have you noticed mothers are getting quite a lot of mention?

Below is a copy of the scan.

Many thanks to Angus from Australia for sharing this with us. The exciting thing about this scan is that it is proof of the poem’s existence in 1917. And also that it comes from a place which is probably as far from its origins as it could get…Mataura at the bottom of the South Island NZ, where Angus grew up.The first line has changed from the version I used above.

Origins of The Fox.

I’ve had a good browse of the internet since receiving the above. This time I have tried lots of different keywords such as the second line of the poem, which worked quite well. though Angus’ scan is the earliest date I can find of its mention. I have always thought it quite old, perhaps from the middle ages?  One website referred to it as a nursery rhyme so it could go way back. It’s most certainly English in origin although I came across a translation of it (how does one translate smole?) Another interesting fact is that in all the versions I have seen, it’s only the first line and title that has been changed

I have now come across the poem in a variety of places, from simple blogs to intellectual articles in papers and learned books on English literature. In a children’s book review in the Japan Times, the writer was discussing book characters who are sometimes so good they are cheesy,  writers who dream up wicked characters, and  ‘Others (who) use their words wickedly, like the anonymous chap who penned “The Smiling Villain.” It goes he says “Forth from his den to steal he stole, His bags of chink he chunk, And many a wicked smile he smole, And many a wink he wunk.”

Aha, you see this is the exact same version I know as The Fox. I think the version above is the original and I’m sure the original title is The Fox.  It has to be …the Fox so epitomises villains and that first line is so rhythmic and in keeping with the other lines which are crisp and expressive.

Shakespeare talked about smiling villains. Here is a quote from Hamlet. O most pernicious woman! O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain! My tables—meet it is I set it down. That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—

Could Shakespeare have written the poem? I don’t think so. The Smiling Villain just doesn’t fit with the style of the poem. And I think we’d know if he had. So the good news is that The Fox poem is alive and well and respected enough to be quoted in a number of intellectual articles, at least one book, and various blogs. The special thing about this poem to me is the way the words are used. By using smole and chunk and wunk some strong and amusing rhythm has been added. And this is what gives it character and is probably why it has become a nursery rhyme heard at mother’s kneeses.  Yes I did do that on purpose.

But I would like to know its origins, wouldn’t you? So thank you to those who have added comments and given me clues about this much loved verse. And please if you know anything more about it let me know!

If you want to read more poems for Tuesday or just more poems please go to the Tuesday Poem website and archive here.