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.

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

  1. I remember the opening line as ” Into the crooked crypt he crept, his bag of chink he chunk ………” First came across it more than 60 years ago.

  2. I just looked up this poem as I know my grandfather used to quote it referring to some of the town characters that would pass by his shop in Ireland. Interesting to know that it was quoted at least as far back as the beginning of this 1900s. Grandfather was born in 1885.

  3. This came up in a discussion and I wasted lots of time searching for the origin before finding this. The problem was that I was searching for the version I learned from my mother in the 1950s in Scotland:
    “Out of his hole to steal he stole and many a slink he slunk,
    many a wicked smile he smole and many a wink he wunk.”

  4. Hi Sandy. Thanks for this. It’s interesting that you still have those lovely words so redolent of a fox ‘many a wicked smile he smole and many a wink he wunk’ in your version. Did you see the version above which dates it back to 1917 in New Zealand?

    1. Yes, the New Zealand connection is interesting, but I also note that it came from “Angus McPhee”, which makes me wonder if his mother may have been a Scottish immigrant to New Zealand – very common from around the 1840s, so she could have brought it with her?

  5. Hi Sandy, I’ve been thinking about this comment. I have always assumed it came from somewhere in the British Isles…we don’t have foxes here in NZ. I guess it is quite possible that a recent immigrant in the 1800s could have made it up to tell her/his children. And they do have foxes in Australia so it could have come from there. Or somewhere else in the colonies like India. If it came from Scotland how would it read?

  6. My cousin (Sir Peter Hall, the theatrical director and producer) wrote this in my autograph book in about 1953 when I was 8. I can’t find the original but know that he used “fearful” rather than “wicked”

  7. Thanks for this comment Jean. How lovely to know that your cousin knew this poem and shared it with you. I find it really interesting that he used the word fearful instead of wicked. I can imagine that with his great sense of words and their sounds he would have preferred wicked! Hope you going well over there in the UK at this time.

  8. Hello! So glad to find your post.
    We’re in Scotland and my mother taught me this poem. Almost the same as your version from your mother:

    Forth from his den to steal he stole
    His bags of chink he chunk
    And many a crafty smile he smole
    And many a wink he wunk

    It’s strange that crafty is there instead of wicked. I’ve grown up with “crafty” being there and so it naturally sounds better to me! But it looks like the weight of evidence is against it…

  9. I remember the verse from my childhood in the 1950s, where it appeared in a book called, I think, “The Jack & Jill Annual” – certainly the brother and sister Jack and Jill were in the title, and their adventures with the Sandman featured largely in the book. It wasn’t a comic book as such, though there may have been comic-strip stories; the bulk of it was well written, with some clever humour, and like that nice little verse it appeared to be quite a bit older than I was at the time. As I remember it – and I think there was an illustration showing the burglar emerging from what looked like a large rabbit hole – the verse ran:

    “The burglar crept out of his hole
    And his bag of chink he chunk.
    And many a wicked smile he smole
    And many a wink he wunk.”

    It’s fascinating to learn how far back it goes, and how widespread it is!

    1. Hello Roger. It would be good to know where you were when you learned it. It helps to find out where it originated. The funny thing is the oldest mention so far is New Zealand where there are no foxes! Thanks for your comment.

      1. A good point, Helen! I was living, as I still do, in England. Another thing occurred to me a day or so ago… My godfather gave me a large box full of copies of “The Children’s Magazine”, dating from the years between 1910 and 1920, approximately. As a result I became very familiar with the sort of literature that middle-class Edwardian children read – and the contents of “The Jack and Jill Annual” (or whatever its actual title was) struck me, even as a child, as old-fashioned. So it’s not really a surprise to learn that “The Fox” goes back at least to that same period.

  10. I’ve had a number shots at finding this poem and I’ve finally succeeded.
    Brilliant. It’s great to see the variations. I learnt it from my mother in the 60s but the opening line was simply “A thief he came to steal he stole” I don’t know if the variations are regional but I was in Cardiff South Wales.
    As in previous comments I was particularly amused by the use of “smole” as a past tense for smile.

  11. Hello Alan, Thanks for your comment. Have you read the pingback above? I still find it interesting that the earliest mention of it is from an autograph book in NZ in 1917. I think you are the first from Wales to comment. Amazing how popular it has been.

  12. I’ve been trying to find the origin of this poem for ages.. My mother, who was born in Christchurch, NZ in 1922, used to recite a slightly different version again:
    ” A cautious look around he stole,
    His heart went thimpy thump;
    And many a wicked smile he smole,
    And many a thought he thunk.”

    She would probably have learned this from her mother, who came to NZ from Wrexham, north Wales sometime after the 1911 census in the UK. In any case, I’m so pleased to read all the comments, and variants: thank you for your blog!

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