Friday, February 20, 2009

More Bone-Rattling on Neil Gaiman's Sources

"Rattle His Bones"
(Image from The Graveyard Book)

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 posted.

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 [1991]), 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:

"Rattle his bones
Over the stones --
Only a pauper
Whom nobody owns."

Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas), June 22, 1883
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), July 20, 1891
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

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), 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
In reference to a concert:
He sang Homer's "Rattle His Bones Over the Stones,"...

The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), November 6, 1909
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.
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."

Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio), October 15, 1902
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.
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 says so.

And perhaps, finally, I have taken this far enough.

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At 7:44 AM, Blogger Liana Weiland said...

Wow! How wonderfully thorough!

At 8:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Liana W.W., thanks for the wonderful compliment. Some might not think my obsessiveness so wonderful.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:39 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Anyone who goes by the name Horace Jeffery Hodges should be thorough! To be anything else would disappoint me.

I got lost in a few spots, but that's because the article rattled my bones and I couldn't think!

Karey Shane

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Karey, I'll take that as a compliment . . . though I always found my name embarrassing as a child.

Would that I had been raised in a graveyard.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Belated comments on the whole Gaiman game...

Gaiman wrote a book called Anansi Boys, which tells the story of the two sons of the trickster deity Anansi. The catch is that it's set in a realistic universe and still manages to be perfectly believable. I enjoyed the book immensely (I am a sucker for fantasy injected into modern reality), despite the fact that it was technically research for my diss.

When I get around to writing the section on tricksters in modern lit/society, I am definitely going to have to email Mr. Gaiman for his thoughts.

Also: when I publish my first masterpiece of fiction and make reference to some obscure bit of poetry, remind me to not tell you about it.

See you in Oktober(fest)!

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Charles, I'll be sure to remind you if you don't forget to warn me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:51 AM, Blogger Deplorably Bonnie Blue said...

You got me hooked on this poem now! I think I am going to save a couple of the different printed versions I found, which by the way, I finally did run across one that used quotation marks for the refrain.

Thanks for the interesting posts on this. I am as of late, quite distracted by the old newspapers and have been transcribing articles and poems from them, so this was fun. They sure printed a lot of poetry in the papers way back when. Of course, most of the ones I transcribe are silly, political propaganda, or reference the time period, so not really "great" poetry, but interesting, none the less.


At 1:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cynthia, thanks for making my own 'job' easier by your research.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeffery, I don't know if you check your emails or blog first, but I sent you info on David Lynn Jones on your email.


At 7:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, I got that email. I always check email first.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:34 PM, Blogger Rob said...

The esteemed Mr. Hodges,

That site for ordering books and movies in Korea that your wife can help you with is

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Rob.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

did Mr. Neil actually write 'grammer'? I hope that's a typo on your part!

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, he did type the word with an "-er."

I considered correcting the spelling to "-ar" but only noticed the mistake after I had already posted his message to my blog . . . so I left it.

I own up to having often made the same error myself when I don't have time to proofread.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:26 AM, Anonymous Robert Tally said...

Excellent sleuthing. Just so you know, the "who, whom, or that" controversy is quite recent in English, and the Victorians (and earlier) did not use the terms consistently. Hence, any of the three might have appeared in various versions of the poem.

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Mr. Tally. There's always more to think about in these investigations.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:27 PM, Blogger Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I wonder if the news clipper at pewsitters who took offense at Willy Herteleer getting a decent burial place among princes and bishops were perhaps indebted to this English, originally very possibly anti-Catholic rhyme.

I mean, I have sides which I possibly owe more to Astrid Lindgren than to the Catholic Church, as being a Swede.

But as being a Catholic I also avoid agreeing with her endorsement of euthanasia. An English Catholic or English roots Catholic (including US) should not agree with this Capitalist and un-Catholic rhyme.

At 7:54 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'd never seen this old rhyme in quite that light.


Jeffery Hodges

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