Friday, March 21, 2008

For Whom the Bells Toll, or, Everything That's Blogged Must Converge

{Bells (2006), by secretagentmartens. All rights reserved.}

Reading Thomas De Quincey's wry, deliciously nasty essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" (1827) on the bus this morning, I suddenly realized that nearly everyone I wrote about this week can be unexpectedly connected--which means it's time to play Chase That Topic!

In "On Murder," De Quincey jokingly refers to the old saying that Dorothy L. Sayers drew on for the title of The Nine Tailors (1934), "Nine tailors make a man":
The subject chosen [for a murder] ought to be in good health: for it is absolutely barbarous to murder a sick person, who is usually quite unable to bear it. On this principle, no Cockney ought to be chosen who is above twenty-five, for after that age he is sure to be dyspeptic. Or at least, if a man will hunt in that warren, he ought to murder a couple at a time; if the Cockneys chosen should be tailors, he will of course think it his duty, on the old established equation, to murder eighteen--And, here, in this attention to the comfort of sick people, you will observe the usual effect of a fine art to soften and refine the feelings.
De Quincey is employing the saying in its most literal interpretation, which is the first offered by the 1898 edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:
Nine tailors make a man.

The present scope of this expression is that a tailor is so much more feeble than another man that it would take nine of them to make a man of average stature and strength. There is a tradition that an orphan lad, in 1742, applied to a fashionable London tailor for alms. There were nine journeymen in the establishment, each of whom contributed something to set the little orphan up with a fruit barrow. The little merchant in time became rich, and adopted for his motto, “Nine tailors made me a man,” or “Nine tailors make a man.” This certainly is not the origin of the expression, inasmuch as we find a similar one used by Taylor a century before that date, and referred to as of old standing, even then.

“Some foolish knave, I thinke, at first began
The slander that three taylers are one man.”
Taylor: Workes, iii. 73" (1630)
Sayers, however, was referring to a different interpretation of the phrase; after reading in yesterday's post about the prominence of church bells in The Nine Tailors, you probably won't be surprised to learn that her version originates in bell-ringing. Brewer's places that interpretation second:
Another suggestion is this: At the death of a man the tolling bell is rung thrice three tolls; at the death of a woman it is rung only three-two tolls. Hence nine tolls indicate the death of a man. Halliwell gives telled = told, and a tolling-bell is a teller. In regard to “make,” it is the French faire, as On le faisait mort, i.e. some one gave out or made it known that he was dead.

“The fourme of the Trinitie was founded in manne… . Adam our forefather… . and Eve of Adam the secunde personne, and of them both was the third persone. At the death of a manne three bells schulde be ronge as his knyll, in worscheppe of the Trinitie—for a womanne, who is the secunde personne of the Trinitie, two belles schulde be rungen.”—An old English Homily for Trinity Sunday
Throughout The Nine Tailors, Sayers offers bell-related epigraphs. She does not, however, draw on Byron, who also made an appearance this week--perhaps because his writing on bells, in Don Juan, focuses on those of a considerably less heavenly cast:
Canto XLIX

But I digress: of all appeals--although
I grant the power of pathos and of gold
Of beauty, flattery, threats, a shilling--no
Method's more sure at moments to take hold
Of the best feelings of mankind, which take grow
More tender as we every day behold
Than that all-softening, overpowering knell,
The tocsin of the soul--the dinner-bell.
John Aubrey, meanwhile, whose endless riches I cabbaged from yet again this week, gathered some oddities having to do with church bells in his Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects (1696):
At Paris, when it begin to Thunder and Lighten, they do presently Ring out the great Bell at the Abbey of St. German, which they do believe makes it cease. The like was wont to be done heretofore in Wiltshire; when it Thundered and Lightned, they did Ring St. Adelm's at Malmsebury Abbey. The curious do say, that the Ringing of Bells exceedingly disturbs Spirits.
Given his experience in The Nine Tailors, I think Lord Peter Wimsey might agree with the curious in that last point.

Aubrey's brief life of Thomas Hobbes, which itself served as blog fodder this week, also unexpectedly includes some church bells, in Aubrey's description of Hobbes's birthplace and the depredations it suffered during the English Civil War:
Westport is the Parish without the West-gate (which is now demolished) which Gate stood on the neck of land that joines Malmesbury to Westport. Here was, before the late Warres, a very pretty church, consisting of 3 aisles, or rather a nave and two aisles, dedicated to St. Mary; and a fair spire-steeple, with five tuneable Bells, which, when the Towne was taken by Sir W. Waller, were converted into Ordinance, and the church pulled-downe to the ground, that the Enemie might not shelter themselves against the Garrison.
Hobbes, meanwhile, brings us full circle to De Quincey, who in the most inventively ridiculous section of "On Murder" proclaims,
For, gentlemen, it is a fact, that every philosopher of eminence for the last two centuries has either been murdered, or, at the least, been very near it; insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him.
After offering some rather sketchy, amused accounts of an attempt on Descartes' life and the purported murder by poison of Spinoza, De Quincey draws his satiric sword on Hobbes:
Hobbes, but why, or on what principle, I never could understand, was not murdered. This was a capital oversight of the professional man in the seventeenth century; because in every light he was a fine subject for murder, except, indeed, that he was lean and skinny; for I can prove that he had money, and (what is very funny,) he had no right to make the least resistance; for, according to himself, irresistible power creates the very highest species of right, so that it is rebellion of the blackest die to refuse to be murdered, when a competent force appears to murder you.
Acknowledging which, and facing the irresistible power of a waiting martini, I will surrender this post to its fate.

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