Monday, February 16, 2009

Gaiman's Borrowed Rhyme

Neil Gaiman
(Image from The Graveyard Book)

I've just finished Neil Gaiman's recent novel, The Graveyard Book, which tells the tale of an orphaned child raised by the inhabitants of a graveyard, who give him the name "Nobody Owens." I won't reveal the plot since this book has been published only this year. Instead, I'll merely draw attention to a little ditty that serves as the book's epigraph:
Rattle his bones
Over the stones
It's only a pauper
Who nobody owns
Gaiman identifies this as a "Traditional Nursery Rhyme," but it's one that I'd never heard. Being curious, I did some digging around online and found a similar refrain in a poem attributed to Thomas Noel:
The Pauper's Drive
There's a grim one-horse hearse in a jolly round trot --
To the church yard a pauper is going, I wot;
The road it is rough, and the hearse has no springs;
And, hark to the dirge which the mad driver sings;
Rattle his bones over the stones! He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns!

O, where are the mourners? Alas! there are none,
He has left not a gap in the world, now he's gone, --
Not a tear in the eye of child, woman, or man;
To the grave with his carcass as fast as you can:
Rattle his bones over the stones! He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns!

What a jolting and creaking and splashing and din!
The whip how it cracks! and the wheels how they spin!
How the dirt, right and left, o'er the hedges is hurled!
The pauper at length makes a noise in the world!
Rattle his bones over the stones! He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns!

Poor pauper defunct! he has made some approach
To gentility, now that he's stretched in a coach!
He's taking a drive in his carriage at last!
But it will not be long, if he goes on so fast:
Rattle his bones over the stones! He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns!

You bumpkins! who stare at your brother con­veyed --
Behold what respect to a cloddy is paid!
And be joyful to think, when by death you're laid low,
You've a chance to the grave like a gemman to go!
Rattle his bones over the stones! He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns!

But a truce to this strain; for my soul it is sad,
To think that a heart in humanity clad
Should make, like the brute, such a desolate end,
And depart from the light without leaving a friend.
Rattle his bones over the stones! He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns!
This poem can be found on page 121 of The World's Best Poetry, Volume 3, Sorrow and Consolation, edited by Bliss Carman and commented upon by Lyman Abbot (J.D. Morris and Company, 1904).

According to Wikipedia, the British poet Thomas Noel was born on May 11, 1799 and died on May 22, 1861 and is credited with three volumes of poetry: The Cottage Muse (1833), Village Verse (1841), and Rymes and Roundelayes (1841).

Searching further, I found that the poem above appears on pages 200-201 of Rymes and Roundelayes (London: William Smith, 1841), for I located the text through Google Books, but the original differs somewhat from the version above:
The Pauper's Drive
There's a grim one-horse hearse in a jolly round trot;
To the churchyard a pauper is going, I wot;
The road it is rough, and the hearse has no springs,
And hark to the dirge that the sad driver sings: --
"Rattle his bones over the stones;
He's only a Pauper, whom nobody owns!"

Oh, where are the mourners? alas! there are none; --
He has left not a gap in the world now he's gone;
Not a tear in the eye of child, woman, or man; --
To the grave with his carcase as fast as you can;
"Rattle his bones over the stones;
He's only a Pauper, whom nobody owns!"

What a jolting and creaking, and splashing and din!
The whip, how it cracks! and the wheels how they spin!
How the dirt, right and left, o'er the hedges is hurl'd!
The Pauper at length makes a noise in the world!
"Rattle his bones over the stones;
He's only a Pauper, whom nobody owns!"

Poor Pauper defunct! he has made some approach
To gentility, now that he's stretch'd in a coach;
He's taking a drive in his carriage at last;
But it will not be long, if he goes on so fast!
"Rattle his bones over the stones;
He's only a Pauper, whom nobody owns!"

You bumpkin! who stare at your brother convey'd,
Behold what respect to a cloddy is paid,
And be joyful to think, when by death you're laid low,
You've a chance to the grave like a gemman to go.
"Battle his bones over the stones;
He's only a Pauper, whom nobody owns! "

But a truce to this strain, -- for my soul, it is sad,
To think that a heart in humanity clad,
Should make, like the brutes, such a desolate end,
And depart from the light without leaving a friend!
Bear softly his bones over the stones;
Though a Pauper, he's one whom his Maker yet owns!
My question -- you knew that one was coming -- is: Did Thomas Noel borrow the refrain from a "Traditional Nursery Rhyme"? Note that he puts that part of his poem in quotation marks . . . though this could easily be explained as being due to the fact that the "sad driver" is singing this "dirge."

Be that as it may, does anyone have any information about this "Traditional Nursery Rhyme"?

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10 Comments:

At 11:39 PM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

An intriguing question... I have never heard of it as a nursery rhyme. It as a Northern Chartist song, known in my city of Leeds. (I guess its northern/Manchester connection encouraged The Smiths to plagiarise the refrain) It must have been a popular ditty since Joyce uses it in "Ulysses". And that suggests its origin is in music hall rather than nursery rhyme. If it was ever a nursery-rhyme, it would be in Peter Opie's collection, but I do not recall it from that. A puzzle.

 
At 5:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Eshuneutics. I had noticed the Joyce connection and was thinking of noting this in a brief blog post today.

I hadn't found that The Smiths used it. I'll have to look into that.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:57 AM, Blogger Rob said...

I can't help with your question, but I really enjoyed that book. Nearly everything by Gaiman is worth reading.

 
At 1:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Rob, I've just begun reading Gaiman, and I intend to read everything.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am actually in a children Literature class at my college. We have to write a analytical paper. I decided to write it on this book about the meaning of names (Using Nobody Owens). My professor brought up how the part "nobody owns" in the beginning is the first place that Nobody Owens is introduced. So I have been trying to search for a connection. This helped me with the other poem, but still many more questions...

 
At 9:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, if you do a Gaiman search on my blog, you'll find a lot more. Gaiman even replied to a query of mine . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:54 PM, Blogger Dave Dyment said...

The Smiths paraphrase the line, and acknowledge the borrow in the following line:

"Rattle my bones all over the stones / I'm only a beggar man whom nobody owns / Oh see how words as old as sin / fit me like a glove"

in the song The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

 
At 3:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Mr. Dyment, for the additional information. I've just checked that out on You Tube.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the Woolwich Gazette,a LIberal weekly newspaper of July 19, 1873: 'Henry Russel in his own particular style used to sing the song of the pauper's funeral in words something like these...rattle his bones, over the stones, he's only a pauper that no-body owns...'

Henry Russel was a music hall comedian I think, I only came across the song/poem while researching Victorian radicalism and I had no idea Gaimen had quoted it. Haven't really read anything since Sandman, though he did also write my favourite ever issue of hell blazer.

 
At 6:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for the information. I've posted several more entries on this, but I don't recall if I came across Russel, though I may have.

Jeffery Hodges

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