"Rattle His Bones"
I had thought that I was finished with my investigations
into bone-rattling, but here I go again. I could blame one of my commenters, Cynthia, but I was already digging deeper before her two comments
Let's again recall the lines quoted by Neil Gaiman in the epigraph to The Graveyard Book
Rattle his bones
Over the stones
It's only a pauper
Who nobody owns
Readers will remember that I remarked yesterday that I couldn't find the book mentioned by Neil Gaiman in his email to me explaining where he had found his version of these lines:
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.
I still haven't found a book with this title, but I did notice one titled The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral Since 1450
, by Julian Litten (2007 ), and I'm nearly persuaded that it's the one meant by Gaiman, for it apparently has a version very close to Gaiman's epigraph. I say "very close" because I've only seen a reference to Litten's book on a website titled Newcastle Workhouse
, a local history site that quotes a similar version to the lines in question:
A pauper funeral was something to be avoided, not only because of its extreme simplicity but also for its significance in exhibiting one's failure to maintain a position, however lowly, in society. The covered hand-cart pushed along by a hunched-up attendant with the undertaker striding out in front and the mourners hurrying along behind, made a pathetic accompaniment to the children's rhyme, "Rattle his bones over the stones; he's only a pauper who nobody owns" (from J. Litten, The English Way of Death).
Litten's version is similar to Gaiman's in using "who" rather than "whom" but differs in using "he's" rather than "it's" . . . so I can't be sure that Gaiman meant The English Way of Death
when he referred to Death Customs in England
, though I'm sorely tempted to think so.
Gaiman also mentioned some uncertainty about which relative pronoun to use in the rhyme:
When we were copyediting, we wondered about the grammer on who and whom and that.
I hadn't recalled finding a version with "that," but upon Googling, I did find one also, in Experiments in Rethinking History
(Routledge, 2004), edited by Alun Munslow and Robert A. Rosenstone, specifically, in an article by Chris Ward, "Impressions of the Somme: An Experiment":
Nineteenth-century English children's ryhme: 'Rattle his bones / Over the stones / He's only a pauper / That nobody owns' (page 120, note 40)
Note that Mr. Ward refers to these lines as a "Nineteenth-century English children's ryhme," which gets us rather close to Gaiman's attribution of the lines as a "Traditional Nursery Rhyme."
I had also previously wondered about a remark made by Trevor May on page 11 of his book The Victorian Undertaker
(1996). He quotes a version of the lines in question:
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns
Mr. May then identifies this as "the refrain of a widely sung song, 'The Pauper's Drive', set to music 1839." I noted that this was odd, for the poem was published in 1841 by Thomas Noel in his book of poetry Rymes and Roundelayes
. However, I found a second reference to an 1839 date. The appropriately named Julie-Marie Strange -- appropriate for my strange inquiry -- gives this date of 1839 for Noel's poem on page 1 of her book Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870-1914
(Cambridge University Press, 2005). She seems a little uncertain, however, for she notes "c. 1839" (i.e., "circa"), but she cites page 56 of Burial Reform and Funeral Costs
(London: Oxford University Press, 1938), by A. Wilson and H. Levy as her source.
After I had located these references, I found that a regular commenter, Cynthia, had also done some lugubrious grave digging
(but note that the Galveston Daily News
misattributes the lines to Thomas Hood, a common error, it seems):
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:Another reference, but not attributed:
"Rattle his bones
Over the stones --
Only a pauper
Whom nobody owns."
Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas), June 22, 1883
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,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), June 29, 1876
"Rattle his bones
Over the stones,
It's only a pauper
Whom nobody owns."
Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), July 20, 1891
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.In reference to a concert:
Rattle his bones
Over the stones,
It's candidate Harrison,
Whom nobody owns.
--Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Hornellsville Weekly Tribune (Hornellsville, New York), July 13, 1888
"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), May 31, 1869
He sang Homer's "Rattle His Bones Over the Stones,"...I also found a Buz Sawyer comic in the newspapers from 1953, that uses "Rattle his bones over the stones."
The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), November 6, 1909
No references to nursery rhymes.
After a bit, Cynthia dug some more:
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 [but see below in my comments - HJH]. Noel also wrote the words of the familiar song, "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep."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.
Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio), October 15, 1902
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.
Cynthia's digging turned up that discrepancy again between an 1841 publication of "The Pauper's Drive" and an 1839 date for when it was set to music. She also found that the poem was "often wrongly attributed to Thomas Hood," as I noted above and have frequently seen. This misattribution goes back at least as far as 1860 (one year before Thomas Noel's own death), for I found an erring reference in an article, "South Australian Institutions. The Adelaide Cemetery
," printed in The South Australian Advertiser
(Monday, February 20, 1860), which says of a poor man's funeral:
It was the ideal of a pauper's funeral, and the lines of Thomas Hood might have been appropriately quoted on the occasion
"Rattle his bones over the stones,
He is but a pauper whom nobody owns"
But the misattribution might even go back to 1846, as Cynthia has implied, for the link provided above
by Cynthia states that "Henry Russell popularized the words by setting them to music, attributing them to Hood, and singing the piece when on tour," which "no doubt gave rise to the mis-apprehension as to the name of the author." Added to this is the information at this website
on "The Music of Henry Russell (1812-1900)" that Russell set the words to music in 1846 (and surely not 1839, despite other sources), thus pushing the date of misattribution back almost to the time of the poem's publication in 1841! Perhaps the similarity of themes and names of the two poets Thomas Hood and Thomas Noel resulted in this confusion.
Thomas Noel (1799-1861) was well known in his day, but he should not be confused with his father Thomas Noel (1774-1853), the Leicestershire clergyman . . . though I think that I previously did confuse the two. I found a reference to Noel's father, the clergyman, on page 250 of Peter Quennell's Byron: The Years of Fame: The Years of Fame
(2006) informing me that Reverend Noel presided as clergyman at the ceremony in which Lord Byron wed Annabella Milbanke
-- and also that Mr. Noel was an illegitimate son of the aptly titled Lord Wentworth
, whose name (i.e., "Thomas Noel") he was given.
Incidentally, the poet Thomas Noel -- who would be the grandson of Lord Wentworth -- was a friend to Lord Byrons' wife, Annabella Milbanke (Anne Isabella Byron
), or at least Wikipedia
And perhaps, finally, I have taken this far enough.
Labels: Literary Criticism, Neil Gaiman, Poetry, Thomas Noel