A Jollier Crew?

The Skull Beneath the Skin

Bodley MS Rawl D 403, woodcut 3

The last couple of months – well, since the summer, really, I have had this grin daily before my eyes. He’s not the pleasantest of sights: that almost reptilian spine… that grin… but in this (?) C16th woodcut he certainly seems to be enjoying his role at the foot of the Apocalyptic Son of Man more than the Bridgettine brother he is attacking. And here’s where we take off from this image – into the ways in which the zygomatic muscles pull the face into a smile, widening the mouth in something of the way the jaws go. The smile is present in the skull – sort of.

De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

This is T S Eliot‘s notion that I have discussed before, when thinking about Funnybones. It gives a smile to the Three Dead in the medieval legend (well explored by the British Library here – but do check out the plain daft expression of the revenant, far right). There just seems a suspicion that the dead have a good time being dead – and it all seems down to That Grin. Ignore the worms, the rotting grave clothes; the menace is underscored by the manic possibilities that these figures are having fun. The C13th – C14th story is more moral than this: the memento mori, however it comes, is a stark reminder to ground oneself, to make a good and pious life before going to join these creatures. In this they are reminiscent of the disgruntled undead urging Jack, the American Werewolf in London, to “do the right thing” and end the curse of the werewolf.

The Danse Macabre of Saint-Saëns is much more of a celebration, a wild dance by night, out of control, perhaps, but fun? Yes, I think so, and the comic operetta of Gilbert and Sullivan, Ruddigore, picks up the theme: dance, enjoyment and return to the grave as the day dawns, beginning with the line that I have used for a title:

We spectres are a jollier crew than you, perhaps, suppose.

In this (cheesy but entertaining) animated version of the ghostly Sir Roderic Murgatroyd’s song, the airy glee is evident, as “with a mop and a mow” the ghosts take their luckless descendant (it’s complicated) to show him their revels. Perhaps this version is closer to the stage productions – but I digress.

Jack Pelutsky’s poem is driven on by the ghoulish subject – the dominating theme throughout the collection, and a clever use of of just-slightly-over-the-top phrasing: the spirits work their will… they flex their fleshless knees…a soft susurrous sound. Alliteration really does a lot of work here, and very effective it is, too. This is a poem for performance. It isn’t a simple response to When the Night Wind Howls from Ruddigore, however: note the wintry graveyard, which might suggest to today’s reader The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the insubstantiality of these undulating spectres as they shimmer in the moonlight:

In a snow-enshrouded graveyard

gripped by winter’s bitter chill,

not a single soul is stirring,

all is silent, all is still

till a distant bell tolls midnight

and the spirits work their will.

For emerging from their coffins

Arnold Lobel’s Thirteen Skeletons

buried deep beneath the snow,

thirteen bony apparitions

now commence their spectral show,

and they gather in the moonlight

undulating as they go.

And they’ll dance in their bones,

in their bare bare bones,

with the click and the clack

and the chatter and the chack

and the clatter and the chatter

of their bare bare bones.

They shake their flimsy shoulders

and they flex their fleshless knees

and they nod their skulls in greeting

in the penetrating breeze

as they form an eerie circle

near the gnarled and twisted trees.

They link their spindly fingers

as they promenade around

casting otherworldly shadows

on the silver-mantled ground

and their footfalls in the snowdrift

make a soft, susurrous sound.

And they dance in their bones,

in their bare bare bones,

with the click and the clack

and the chatter and the chack

and the clatter and the chatter

of their bare bare bones.

The thirteen grinning skeletons

continue on their way

as to strains of soundless music

they begin to swing and sway

and they circle ever faster

in their ghastly roundelay.

Faster, faster ever faster

and yet faster now they race,

winding, whirling, ever swirling

in the frenzy of their pace

and they shimmer in the moonlight

as they spin themselves through space.

And they dance in their bones,

in their bare bare bones,

with the click and the clack

and the chatter and the chack

and the clatter and the chatter

of their bare bare bones.

Then as quickly as it started 

their nocturnal dance is done

for the bell that is their signal

loudly tolls the hour of one

and they bow to one another 

in their bony unison.

Then they vanish to their coffins

by their ghostly thoroughfare

and the emptiness of silence

once more fills the frosted air

and the snows that mask their footprints

show no sign that they were there.

But they danced in their bones,

in their bare bare bones,

with the click and the clack

and the chatter and the chack

and the clatter and the chatter

of their bare bare bones.

Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Arnold Lobel [NB: in the book this is stanza’d, something I am miserably bad at replicating]

Just in W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s collaboration, music and words contain pastiche and musical and literary nods to other work, in Prelutsky and Lobel’s Dance of the Thirteen Skeletons in the collection Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep we are into the Danse Macabre in a big way: the graveyard, the distant bell, those clattering onomatopoeias. And in the artwork, a cascade of skeletons, sudden insights into their joyous dance, and – to bring is back to the start of this post – the grin.

It is a scene that has also been represented by poets of the calibre of Sylvia Plath. Here her grim insights seem to extend beyond the grave, to point to the futility of our passing lives:

Down among strict roots and rocks,
eclipsed beneath blind lid of land
goes the grass-embroidered box.

Arranged in sheets of ice, the fond
skeleton still craves to have
fever from the world behind.

Hands reach back to relics of
nippled moons, extinct and cold,
frozen in designs of love.

At twelve, each skull is aureoled
with recollection’s ticking thorns
winding up the raveled mold.

Needles nag like unicorns,
assault a sleeping virgin’s shroud
till her stubborn body burns.

Lured by brigands in the blood,
shanks of bone now resurrect,
inveigled to forsake the sod.

Eloping from their slabs, abstract
couples court by milk of moon:
sheer silver blurs their phantom act.

Luminous, the town of stone
anticipates the warning sound
of cockcrow crying up the dawn.

With kiss of cinders, ghosts descend,
compelled to deadlock underground.

For Plath, while they are very human, the dead are not so jolly. That line “recollections ticking thorns” is particularly harsh, as if these ghosts are seduced into a nighttime of regret before turning back to their graveyards and the deadlock of their afterlife domesticity.

Revels, lust, delight and regret: the task seems to be that of humanising the skeleton-revenant – but how can we humanise what is already human? I suggest that we do so by seeing our common experiences, that the dead are not something other than us, but simply part of what it is to be human: to exchange the shimmering abstract for an earthier monster, we have to acknowledge that this thing of darkness is already ours.

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