Tennis in Literature

The two contenders for the first use of the word ‘tennis’ in English literature each occur in – or around – the year 1400.

First, see the ballad To Henry IV: in Praise of Peace. (Circa 1400): by the then Poet Laureate, John Gower.

Of the tennis to winne or lese a chace
May no life wete or that the bal be ronne,
Al stant in God what thing men shal purchase,
Th’ ende is in hym or that it be begonne.

Loosely paraphrased:

To win or lose a chase
No life can know before the ball has run,
All stands with God as to what men win,
The end is in Him before a player can begin.

Then ‘The Second Shepherd’s Play’ (Circa 1400), one of the Wakefield Mystery plays. Like the Coventry Mystery Plays, simple stories which convey a religious message by consciously placing the story in a familiar context. Here, tennis is the ‘familiar’ pastime to which the play refers:

I bring the bot a ball:
Have and play the withall,
And go to the tenys
The Second Shepherd’s Play – lines 734-36.1

While Mathematicians illustrated theorems with Jeu de Paume gambling probabilities; devout poets employed it as a metaphor wherein God and Satan volley for souls. In Divine Fancies (1632) Francis Quarles begins one poem with this metaphorical conceit:

Man is a tennis court: his flesh, the wall.
The gamesters God and Satan; the heart’s the ball.

Those less inclined to metaphysical conceit used the Jeu de Paume scoring system as a euphemism for sexual conquest. In the 1620s, Théophile de Viau’s ribald verse quickly became popular across Paris

If you kiss her, count fifteen
If you touch her buds, thirty
If you capture the hill,
Forty-five comes up.
But if you enter the breach
With what the lady needs
Remember well what I sing to you:
You will win the game outright.

Attributed to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) this poem delivers an extended tennis metaphor:

Love Compared to a Tennis Playe
Whereas the Harte at Tennysse playes, and men to gaminge fall,
Love is the Courte, Hope is the Howse, and Favour serves the Ball.
The Ball itself is True Desert; the Lyne, which Measure showes,
Is Reason, wheron Judgement lookes howe players winne or lose.
The Gettye [jetty] is deceitfull Guyle; the Stopper, Jealouzye,
Which hath Sir Argoes’ hundred eyes, wherwith to watch and prye.
The Fault, wherwith fifteen is lost, is wante of witte and Sence,
And he that bringes the Racket in, is Double Dyligence.
And loe, the Racket is Freewill, which makes the Ball rebounde;
And Noble Bewtye is the chase, of every game the grounde.
But Rashenes strikes the Ball awrye, and wher is Oversighte?
“A Bandye, hoe!’ the people crye, and soe the Ball takes flighte.
Nowe, in the ende Goodly kinge [Good-liking] proves
Content the game and gayn.
Thus, in a Tennysse knit I Love
A Pleasure mixte with Payne.

Little is known of William Lathum (fl 1634) It’s thought that he may have attended Emmanuel College, Cambridge:

DOPO IL GIVOCO COSI VA NEL SACCO IL RE, COME IL PEDONE
If in my weak conceit, (for selfe disport),
The world I sample to a Tennis-court,
Where fate and fortune daily meet to play,
I doe conceive, I doe not much misse-say.

All manner chance are Rackets, wherewithall
They bandie men, from wall to wall;
Some over Lyne, to honour and great place,
Some under Lyne, to infame and disgrace;
Some with a cutting stroke they nimbly sent
Into the hazard placed at the end;

Resembling well the rest which all they have,
Whom death have seiz’d and placed in their grave:
Some o’re the wall they bandie quite away,
Who never more are seene to come in play:
Which intimates that even the very best
Are soone forgot of all, if once deceast.

So, (whether silke-quilt ball it bee, or whether
Made of course cloth, or of most homely lether);
They all alike are banded to and fro,
And all at last to selfe same end do goe,
Where is no difference, or strife for place,
No odds between a Trype-wife and your Grace:
The penny-counter’s every whit as good
As that which in the place of thousands stood.
When once the Audit’s full cast up and made,
The learned Arts as well as the manual trade,
The Prisoner and the Judge upon the Bench,
The pamperd Lady and the Kitchin wench,
The noble Lord, or Counsailor of State,
The Botchy-Lazer, begging at the gate
Like Shrubs’ and Ceadars’ mingled ashes, lye
Without distinction, when they do dye.
Ah for unpartial death, and th’homely grave
Looke equall on the free man and the slave.

So most unpartiall umpires are these twain,
A King with them’s but as a Common Swain.
No upper hand, ‘twixt dust of poore and rich,
No Marshall there to sentence which is which;
And once resolv’d to powder, none can ken
The dust of Kings from dust of other men:
But as at Chesse, when once the game is doon,
The side which lost, and that as well which wonn,
The victor King, and conquer’d pawne, together
Jumbled, are tumbled to th’same bagge of lether
Without regard whether the pawne or King
Therein lye uppermost, or underling.

Natheless all sorts, each sexe of purpose wink,
And of this destine doon seldom thinke,
Living (alacks), as life should never fail,
And deeme of death but as an old wives’ tale

Moving forward in time, we come to ‘Fortune’s Tennis Ball’ (Anon. Printed London, 1640 AD)

A warning to all that are nurfers of pride,
for juftice is knowne to be eagle-ey’d;
Thofe that will climb muft look to have a fall
For fortune will pat-down her tennis-ball:
Let no man frown, for ile have all known it,
This wicked age muft have a biting poet.
Or
A provifo for all thofe that are elevated, to
Take heed of falling, for fortune fpights
More the mightie than the poore:
According to the poet:
‘qui cadit in terram non habet unde cadit.`

Interestingly, the poem’s title, ‘Fortune’s Tennis Ball’ echoes of the description of Roman Emperor Pertinax (Publius Helvius Pertinax 126–193), murdered only 3 months into his reign. Initially a seller of charcoal, then a schoolmaster, next a soldier – and finally Emperor of Rome, Pertinax has been described as The Tennis Ball of Fortune. Oliver Goldsmith refers to Pertinax as such in The Roman History, from the foundation of the city of Rome, to the destruction of the Western Empire (London, 1769).

It’s difficult to establish who coined this phrase – and when – but in it was certainly in use as early as 1621, when William Slatyer published The History of Great Britain and describes Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell as ‘Fortune’s Tennis-balles’. John Taylor – who styled himself ‘England’s Water Poet’ wrote of a storm he encountered at sea, between Salisbury and London:

The whilst we leape upon those liquid hills,
Where Porposes did shew their fins and gills,
Whilst we like various Fortune’s Tennis ball,
At every stroake, were in the Hazard, all.

Perhaps though, it was inspired by Webster’s fine conceit:

We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and bandied which way please them.
Bosola to Antonio, Act V, Scene IV. The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster, 1612


Piers Gaveston

Nearly seven hundred years ago, on June 19 1312, Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall, was taken from his prison cell in Warwick Castle and dragged to the top of Blacklow Hill, between Guys Cliffe and Leek Wootton. Here he was met by two Welshmen; one ran him through with a sword; the second hacked off his head.

Gaveston was arguably the most hated man in England. King Edward II’s favourite, he treated England’s noblemen, visiting foreign dignitaries and the Queen – Isabella – with contempt. A scion of Gascon nobility, “Graceful and agile in body, sharp-witted, refined in manners… well-versed in military matters” Gaveston was in turn arrogant, haughty, grasping and immature.

‘He might commaund, he was my Sovereign’s son,
And what I said, by him was ever done.
My words as laws authentic he allowed,
Mine yea, by him was never crossed with no,
All my conceit as current he avowed,
And as my shadow still he served so,
My hand the racket, he the tennis ball,’

- Gaveston employs a tennis metaphor to describe his influence over Edward, Prince of Wales.
Piers Gaveston (extract) Michael Drayton (1563-1631)

Piers’ family took its name from the village of Gabaston in Béarn, near Pau in the modern ‘Pyrénées-Atlantiques’ département. Sharp-eyed tennis players will already have noted the coincidence that one of France’s few active clubs is located here.

Gaveston met Edward, Prince of Wales in about 1300. Edward I – ‘Longshanks’ – introduced Gaveston to his son in the hope that the young Gascon Knight would be a good rôle model for his heir.

They were to prove inseparable. Edward treated Gaveston as a brother – even referring to him as such in official documents. Inevitably, this caused difficulties. A contemporary remarked “On account of Piers [the King] was said to forget himself, and so Piers was regarded as a sorcerer.” According to Walter of Guisborough, the Prince requested the county of Ponthieu – part of the Royal Inheritance – be passed to Gaveston. This proved a step too far for the King: enraged, Edward I set about his son, tearing out the Prince’s hair by the handful before physically throwing him out of the Royal chambers. On 26 February 1307, it was decreed that the Prince’s favourite must leave the realm – a step conceived to punish the Prince of Wales rather than Gaveston. Gaveston made his departure in style: with horses, luxurious clothes and £260, all gifted by the Prince of Wales

Soon afterwards, his health failing fast, ‘Longshanks’ reportedly summoned to his deathbed his most trusted men: Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln; Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick; Aymer de Valence – later Earl of Pembroke. This coterie was charged with the care of the Prince of Wales – and it was the dying King’s express wish that they prevent Gaveston’s return.

The old King died on 7 July 1307 – and one of Edward II’s first acts as King was to recall his friend. Gaveston was showered with gifts: huge grants of land; the Earldom of Cornwall (traditionally a royal honour); marriage to Gloucestershire heiress Margaret de Clare – even the Regency of England in the King’s absence!

At Edward II’s wedding, Gaveston – dressed in Royal purple – was seated above England’s Earls, in a banqueting hall bedecked with tapestries displayed the King’s arms quartered with his own. The new Queen was gravely offended. Blithely unconcerned, Edward gave some of their best wedding presents to Gaveston.

Enmity towards Gaveston grew. Although exiled several times more, each time he managed to inveigle his way back. In 1311, the Barons permanently exiled him from the realm. Foolishly, he returned – and, in January 1312, was captured at Scarborough castle. Taken first to Oxfordshire, then to Warwick, he was sentenced to death.

Hidden away in a spinney atop Blacklow Hill is a 6m tall sandstone monument commissioned by Bertie Greatheed, squire of Guys Cliffe. The inscription reads

In the Hollow of this Rock
Was beheaded,
on the 1st Day of July, 1312,
by Barons lawless as himself,
PIERS GAVESTON, Earl of Cornwall;
The Minion of a hateful King:
in Life and Death,
a memorable Instance of Misrule.

After his death Gaveston’s remains were held at Blackfriars in Oxford prior to reburial at King’s Langley two years later.

Gaveston features in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (he is described as “that sly, inveigling Frenchman”).

Gaveston is celebrated by Oxford University dining club the Piers Gaveston Society: the infamous Piers Gaveston Ball is held at the end of Trinity term; Society alumni include Hugh Grant, Ian Hislop and Boris Johnson.


François Rabelais

Niccolò Machiavelli and Barbara Cartland may never before have appeared in the same sentence, but they share the honour of having had their names enter our language as an adjective. So too, Rabelais; ‘Rabelaisian’ has come to mean “coarse; earthy; extravagant; exuberant; gross; lusty; raunchy.” A single literary figure has become synonymous with a host of vices.

A writer of bawdy satire and grotesque fantasy, François Rabelais was born at his father’s country property at Rue de la Lamproie in La Devinière near Chinon.

Rabelais’ most famous work is La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, a series of five picaresque novels. On one level, they chronicle the adventures of two giants – on another, they’re a scurrilous, mocking caricature of the bastions of French society. He was skating on thin ice: in 1532 – the publication year for of the first of these five works – Jean de Cahors mocked the Clergy, was branded a heretic, and burned at the stake.

The two giants possess prodigious appetites and achieve heroic feats. Gargantua’s breeches comprise of 1106 yards of linen, his codpiece resembles a flying buttress and he uses an elephant’s scrotum for a coin-purse. His son Pantagruel, meanwhile, washes down meals with the milk of 4600 cows; his mouth is so vast that cities have been built on his teeth, complete with “tennis courts, handsome galleries, beautiful meadows, and many vineyards.”

Travelling from Bourges, Pantagruel arrives at Orléans and is is met by a horde of swaggering scholars who loudly celebrate his arrival. The students of Orléans introduce him to their principal form of leisure and exercise – Jeu de Paume, Before long, the newcomer gains mastery of the game. Foreswearing against overindulgence in his studies, Pantagruel says he has been advised by his tutors (or ‘Regents’ as they are known) that eyestrain could ruin his sight. A scholar he knows, says Pantagruel, was made a ‘licentiate’, or graduate of Law, yet knew no more law than he – although, concedes Pantagruel, he could dance and play tennis. Having made the blazon and device for the licentiates of the University of Orléans, he pronounces

So you have in your hand a racket,
A tennis-ball in your cod-placket,
A Pandect law in your cap’s tippet,
And that you have the skill to trip it
In a low dance, you will b’ allowed
The grant of the licentiate’s hood.
Gargantua and Pantagruel François Rabelais

At the end of Book I, Chapter I, Rabelais offers a “Prophetic Riddle”: in discussion with a monk, Gargantua suggests it means “the progress and carrying on of the divine truth”. The monk though, offers his own interpretation:

Make upon it as many grave allegories and glosses as you will, and dote upon it you and the rest of the world as long as you please; for my part, I can conceive no other meaning in it but a description of a set at tennis in dark and obscure terms. The suborners of men are the makers of matches, which are commonly friends. After the two chases are made, he that was in the upper end of the tennis-court goeth out, and the other cometh in. They believe the first that saith the ball was over or under the line. The waters are the heats that the players take till they sweat again. The cords of the rackets are made of the guts of sheep or goats. The globe terrestrial is the tennis-ball. After playing, when the game is done, they refresh themselves before a clear fire, and change their shirts; and very willingly they make all good cheer, but most merrily those that have gained. And so, farewell!
Gargantua and Pantagruel François Rabelais(tr. Sir Thomas Urquhart, 1653)

Half a century after Rabelais’s death, De Thou tells us, the family property became a tavern and then a tennis court – although the latter is open to question: there is indeed a Jeu de Paume court in the town, but it stands empty elsewhere.

In true Rabelaisian tradition, the ‘Passage du Jeu de Paume’ in Chinon’s medieval quarter of Saint-Etienne is now known as ‘Rue du Pot de Chambre’ the story goes that a group of young men brought a chamber-pot full of onion soup for a newly-wed couple on their wedding night. While attempting to scale the garden wall, however, the pot was smashed. The soup was lost but the legend was born!


Tom Stoppard

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Using two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – bit players in a World beyond their comprehension – Tom Stoppard examines such themes as existentialism, freewill vs. determinism and the impossibility of certainty. Like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern prepare incessantly for an eventuality which, we come to realise, will never occur.

Exploring these themes, Stoppard has the two protagonists engage in games of chance and semantic jousting. Cautious of what they’re doing and who they’re talking to, they feel they must be careful… but aren’t sure why. “It’s a matter of asking the right questions and giving away as little as we can” says Guildenstern, “It’s a game”

One of the most notable of these games is ‘questions’ – a word game loosely based on tennis scoring, where the players bandy questions and answers back-and-forth. The game requires fresh questions only: no statements; no repetition; no rhetoric. The 1985 movie version of this play has the two protagonists act out the game on a makeshift court.

ROS (at footlights): How very intriguing! (Turns) I feel like a spectator – an appalling business. The only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that somebody interesting will come on in a minute…
GUIL: See anyone?
ROS: No… you?
GUIL: No. (At footlights) What a fine persecution: to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened…
Pause) We’ve had no practice.
ROS: We could play at questions.
GUIL: What good would that do?
ROS: Practice!
GUIL: Statement! One-love.
ROS: Cheating!
GUIL: How?
ROS: I hadn’t started yet.
GUIL: Statement. Two-love.
ROS: Are you counting that?
GUIL: What?
ROS: Are you counting that?
GUIL: Foul! No repetitions. Three-love. First game to…
ROS: I’m not going to play if you’re going to be like that.
GUIL: Whose serve?
ROS: Eh?
GUIL: Foul! No grunts. Love-one.
ROS: Whose go?
GUIL: Why?
ROS: Why not?
GUIL: What for?
ROS: Foul! No synonyms! One-all.
GUIL: What in God’s name is going on?
ROS: Foul! No rhetoric. Two-one.
GUIL: What does it all add up to?
ROS: Can’t you guess?
GUIL: Were you addressing me?
ROS: Is there anyone else?
GUIL: Who?
ROS: How would I know?
GUIL: Why do you ask?
ROS: Are you serious?
GUIL: Was that rhetoric?
ROS: No.
GUIL: Statement! Two-all. Game point.
ROS: What’s the matter with you today?
GUIL: When?
ROS: What?
GUIL: Are you deaf?
ROS: Am I dead?
GUIL: Yes or no?
ROS: Is there a choice?
GUIL: Is there a God?
ROS: Foul! No non-sequiturs; three-two, one game all.
GUIL (seriously) What’s your name?
ROS: What’s yours?
GUIL: I asked you first.
ROS: Statement. One-love.
GUIL: What’s your name when you’re at home?
ROS: What’s yours?
GUIL: When I’m at home?
ROS: Is it different at home?
GUIL: What home?
ROS: Haven’t you got one?
GUIL: Why do you ask?
ROS: What are you driving at?
GUIL (with emphasis) What’s your name?!
ROS: Repetition. Two-love. Match point to me.
GUIL (seizing him violently) WHO-DO-YOU-THINK-YOU-ARE?
ROS: Rhetoric! Game and match!

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