Thursday, February 19, 2009

Neil Gaiman Replies

Horse-Drawn Hearse
(Image Borrowed from the Past)

I am still wondering about the origin of that epigraph used by Neil Gaiman for The Graveyard Book. Just to refresh our memories, here is that brief rhyme:
Rattle his bones
Over the stones
It's only a pauper
Who nobody owns
Gaiman cites it as a "Traditional Nursery Rhyme," but I've found nothing yet to substantiate that.

Because I'm obsessive, I decided to go to the source and therefore sent a query to Mr. Gaiman himself:
Dear Mr. Neil Gaiman

Sorry to bother you with an inane question, but about this:
Rattle his bones
Over the stones
It's only a pauper
Who nobody owns
Is this really a "Traditional Nursery Rhyme"? I ask because . . . I'm a bit obsessive. I have already done some digging around:
Gaiman's Borrowed Rhyme

James Joyce et al.: "Rattle his bones"
I found no nursery rhyme, however. Don't bother to reply unless this strikes your fancy. I understand that people are pressed for time.

Anyway, I'm enjoying your stories, which I've only recently learned about -- and through a review of the movie Coraline in Christianity Today, of all places. Now, I'm reading everything that you've written. Well . . . everything published that I can find.

Best Regards,

Jeffery Hodges
To my surprise, Mr. Gaiman replied within a couple of hours to my query about this rhyme:
The first reference I found to it was in a book on Death Customs in England, which referred to it as a trad nursery rhyme and had it in the form I listed in the book.

When we were copyediting, we wondered about the grammer on who and whom and that, and then I found myself spending a week on the internet doing exactly the journey you did, and coming to similar conclusions. But liking the version I'd read first the best, and liking the idea that it was a nursery rhyme the best -- and really not knowing if the poem was echoing something older or not. So I left it...
Thank you, Mr. Gaiman, for taking the time to provide this helpful explanation.

Of course, I now have a new obsession. I cannot find a reference online to Death Customs in England. I did find The Victorian Undertaker (1996), by Trevor May, which has a version of the rhyme on page 11 (and a lugubrious photo of a pauper's hearse on the following page):
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns
Mr. May identifies this as "the refrain of a widely sung song, 'The Pauper's Drive', set to music 1839" (oddly enough, for the poem was published in 1841 by Thomas Noel in his book of poetry Rymes and Roundelayes).

I also found a similar book, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute (2001), by Ruth Richardson, and it has a version of the rhyme on page 375 that is closer to the one used by Gaiman:
Rattle his bones over the stones,
It's only a pauper whom nobody owns
Ms. Richardson cites Thomas Noel's poem and notes that it "has the well-known refrain" that I've just quoted, helpfully adding that "'owns' is another word for 'claims' in this context."

Interestingly, in's entry on "funeral" (and seemingly only there), I found a note on the "pauper's funeral," in which "a cheap coffin [was] pushed on a hand-cart, as remembered in the children's rhyme":
Rattle his bones over the stones,
He's only a pauper whom nobody owns.
This couplet is attributed by to Thomas Noel, citing "The Pauper's Drive," but note that the writer has also referred to the lines as a "children's rhyme," which returns us to a point close to Gaiman's original identification of the lines as a "Traditional Nursery Rhyme."

Perhaps this is as far as we can go, but since we now have Mr. Neil Gaiman's own words on the subject, we need not go further anyway.

PS: Since the time this post was written, I've published my own dark fantasy story, partly inspired by Gaiman . . .

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At 11:42 AM, Blogger Rob said...

He responded that fast? That's remarkable. Guess having Stardust and Coraline turned into movies hasn't done too much to inflate his ego.

At 11:45 AM, Blogger John B said...

Are you intending to read the comics he wrote for as well? MARVEL 1602 is actually a pretty fun read, if you know much of Elizabethan-era English history.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Rob, yeah, he responded very quickly. Astonishingly so.

From his reply, I'd say he's quite a down-to-earth fellow.

I've just started his Smoke and Mirrors and note that he is generous with his praise for those who have helped him along his literary way.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, I'll read whatever I can get my hands on. How does one obtain Marvel 1602?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:30 PM, Blogger Rob said...

You can get his stuff on Amazon, at What the Book in Itaewon, and there's a web site in Korea where my wife has ordered DVDs and books from for me. I can find out what it is for you and then maybe you can arrange it.

I strongly recommend reading The Sandman comics; full of Shakespearean, Greek and even some Milton references.

At 12:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Rob, thanks. Yes, let me know, and my wife can order for me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:19 PM, Blogger John B said...

Kyobo actually lists MARVEL 1602 on its website, which kind of surprises me. It's not cheap, though.

Wikipedia has his complete bibliography.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, John B.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:40 PM, Blogger mrstkdsd said...

I found the following reference in a newspaper article regarding the death of someone:

To-day, he will be buried, and, in the language of the immortal Hood:
"Rattle his bones
Over the stones--
Only a pauper
Whom nobody owns."

Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas) > 1883 > June > 22

Another reference, but not attributed:

An inquest was held to-day upon the body of the one killed, supposed to be a tramp, but the evidence failed to disclose who the man was, and so it's the old story over again,

"Rattle his bones
Over the stones,
It's only a pauper
Whom nobody owns."
Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada) > 1891 > July > 20

I also found the earlier version of The Pauper's Drive, and the newspaper printed the refrain in italics, rather than using quotation marks. This was printed in Decatur Daily Republican (Decatur, Illinois) > 1876 > June > 29
This poem was printed in several papers, and only one used italics. The others did not use quotation marks or italics.

I also found a few political references/usages; this one being kind of amusing:

Next November.
Rattle his bones
Over the stones,
It's candidate Harrison,
Whom nobody owns.
--Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Hornellsville Weekly Tribune (Hornellsville, New York) > 1888 > July > 13

Potter's Field of Kings County--A Flagrant Outrage.
...The motto of the Board is evidently happily timed to the familiar couplet,
Rattle his bones over the stones,
For he is a pauper that nobody owns....
New York Herald (New York, New York) > 1869 > May > 31

In reference to a concert:
He sang Homer's "Rattle His Bones Over the Stones,"...
The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska) > 1909 > November > 6

I also found a Buz Sawyer comic in the newspapers from 1953, that uses Rattle his bones over the stones.

No references to nursery rhymes.


At 7:41 PM, Blogger mrstkdsd said...

I spelled my name wrong, lol.


At 8:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cyntia, tanks for the pletora of references. You've really done your omework, so you migt be even more obsessive than I am!

Obviously, tere's still more to tis riddle. Te year 1876 gets us to witin 27 years of Tomas Noel's poem. Was te poem already so well known in te States? Or is tis an older ditty?

My guess is tat te poem quickly became a popular song, but people didn't know te poet.

O, by te way, "aitc' no longer exists...

Jeffery Odges

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At 12:52 AM, Blogger MKM said...

Rob said "I strongly recommend reading The Sandman comics" and I say: me too! I think you should as well.

I've not read them in years actually but (perhaps because they were the first things I read by Mr. Gaiman) they always come to mind first, and always with happiness.


At 3:15 AM, Blogger mrstkdsd said...

Hi Jeffery,
Yes, I am obsessive too, maybe that is why I like to read your blog, lol.

I found the following this morning, printed above the poem:

Thomas Noel was born at Kirkby-Mallory on May 11, 1799. He graduated from Merton College, Oxford, in 1824, and issued in 1833 a series of stanzas upon proverbs and scriptural texts, entitled "The Cottage Muse," [I think it is Muse] and in 1841, "Village Verse" and "Rhymes and Roundelays." The latter volume included a version of the "Rat-Tower Legend," and "Poor Voter's Song" and "The Pauper's Drive," often wrongly attributed to Thomas Hood. This poem is justly praised by Miss Mitford in her "Recollections of a Literary Life," and was set to music in 1839 by Henry Russell. Noel also wrote the words of he familiar song, "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep."
Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio) > 1902 > October > 15

Mary Russell Mitford published that book in 1852. You might already know that, but I didn't know who she was,and am not familiar with the book.

The Henry Russell song seems to be dated 1846 by another source online.

Here is a link to another explanation about the song/poem, in case you didn't see it:


At 3:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Melissa. I'll add your vote to the 'pro' column.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:17 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Odd...Dr Watson! Gaiman places a book in italics, as if he is remembering a book, but that book does not exist...seemingly. If you look here, in "The English Way of Death", which seems to be a likely UK source for a book on death customs, it only referred to as a "children's rhyme". That isn't a traditional nursery rhyme, but a refrain that children might say when echoing an adult song.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, thanks for the reference. I had, in fact, noticed this and included it in today's blog entry . . . as you will see. I've just now posted it.

By the way, I was the one who put "Death Customs in England" into italics. In his email to me, Mr. Gaiman didn't use italics, but I assumed that he was providing a book title. Perhaps he intended merely a description . . . but he did use capitalization.

Anyway, apologies if I've misled on this point.

Jeffery Hodges

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