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[livejournal.com profile] nineweaving has a fascinating post on the dirge from Cymbeline; specifically on the lines Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

It transpires that in 1971 a Canadian critic, Hugh Kenner, writing on Ezra Pound, reported that 'In the mid-20th century a visitor to Shakespeare’s Warwickshire met a countryman blowing the grey head off a dandelion: ‘We call these golden boys chimney-sweepers when they go to seed.' Apparently, Kenner had the story from Guy Davenport, a US writer and friend of Pound, who claimed to have had it from William Arrowsmith: presumably the US classical scholar of that name. Arrowsmith himself seems to have been the 'visitor' who received (but did not, apparently, record) this scrap of folk tradition.

As [livejournal.com profile] nineweaving notes, none of the great folklorists and/or dialect specialists of the great age of folklore collecting report 'golden boy/lad' or 'chimney-sweeper' as dialect names for the dandelion. This intrigued me, and, I admit, made me sceptical. I don't believe that much passed Geoffrey Grigson when he compiled his Englishman's Flora. So I decided to do a bit of digging on Google Books.

(No, I don't disapprove of Google Books, though because of my opposition to the Google Book Settlement, many people assume that I do. Scanning and indexing out-of-copyright books: who could object to that? Or to indexing in-copyright books, so long as permission has been duly obtained from the relevant rights-holder(s).)

One of the first things I found on Google was a preview of the page in Kenner's book. Kenner states, in explanation, 'They [dandelion seedheads] are shaped like a chimney-sweeper's broom.' Wha-at?

The standard English sweep's broom, which has been in use certainly since Victorian times, and is still used now, is shaped like a disc, not a ball: a coltsfoot seedhead resembles it in shape, but not a dandelion clock.

But what did a seventeenth-century sweep use for a broom? Well, here, courtesy of the incomparable Internet Archive, is an engraving of a sweep, 'Mulled Sack', a famous London street-character, from a broadside printed in the first half of the seventeenth-century. Over his shoulder he is carrying - a bundle of holly stems tied to a pole. (If you can't see it clearly, let me assure you that that is what is represented. I have the book.) Not much like a dandelion clock. Nor was this just an eccentricity of the admittedly quirky Mulled Sack:

The Chimney-Sweeper thinks it no disgrace
For Money's sake to have his Hands and Face
Besmear'd with Soot, and nasty to the sight;
For tho' He's all o'er Black, he cries all White:
His filthy loathsome Clothes, and noisom smell,
And Soot in's Eyes, he can endure full well.
If Money comes but in he then is jolly,
And round about does trudge with's Poles and Holly:
He into any smutty Hole will creep,
And nasty stuff upon himself will sweep.
O Money, Money! for thy charming sake
Men any Drudgery will undertake,
Think no Imploy disgraceful or unfit,
If Money may be gain'd and got by it.

L. Menton

from Money masters all things (1698)

Randle Holme's great heraldic encyclopaedia, The Academy of Armory (1688), has no image of a sweep, but contains a verbal description: 'a Man in a Gown, and Broad Brimmed Hat, with a Bag and his poles on his Shoulder, with a Beazom or Brush at the ends.' A round besom? Can't imagine how you'd make such a thing. The one Holme pictures, elsewhere in his book, looks pretty much like the ones you can still buy in garden shops. Brushes, according to Holme, might be made of 'Heath stripped from the leaves and boiled to make them red, and gentle, and apt to bend'; or bristles, or horse hair. He does not picture one. There are brushes in seventeenth-century pictures that look more or less cylindrical, but none that I have seen appear to be ball-shaped.*

A further thought on sweep's brushes -- all the ones I have ever seen have been (of course) black, not white.

I also note that 'sweeper' usually and more naturally means the person doing the action, not the tool with which it is done. OED claims that in modern times, at any rate, a 'chimney-sweeper' can sometimes mean the brush; but oddly enough, it gives no citations. I have never come across that usage myself. The primary meaning of chimney-sweeper given in OED is 'One whose business it is to sweep chimneys'. With a citation, interestingly, from Shakespeare: Love's Labour's Lost, IV. iii. 266.

Digging deeper into Google Books I found - a couple of sources that predate Kenner!

The earliest was a passage in Troy Chimneys (1952), by Margaret Kennedy. I don't know the book, but from online reports it seems to be a historical novel set in Regency England. Google served me up this snippet: 'Sukey remembered that our mother called them 'golden lads', and the seeds, which are here sometimes called dandelion clocks, she called ' chimney sweepers ' on account of their likeness to the brushes which are used for that purpose. ...' Genuine folklore, collected by the author? Or a novelist's ad-hoc invention? Kennedy died in 1967. I wonder whether anybody ever asked her. [See more on the passage in Kennedy's novel at the end, under Additional Note.]

Just a few years later later we have a reference in G. B. Stern's novel For All We Know (1956). Google snippet: 'A note at the end of her school edition had informed her that in Shakespeare's Warwickshire " golden lads and girls " were dandelions, called " chimney-sweepers " when they faded and lost their gold ; and knowing this lent the couplet ...' I cannot find out anything about this novel. Was this a real 'school edition', or is it an invention? Did Stern's fictional purposes require a different and more authoritative-sounding source than a historical novel published four years earlier? I wouldn't rule that out. [More on the passage in Stern's novel under Additional Note.]

As I don't know anything about Stern's character, I cannot guess when she might have been supposed to have been educated. To the best of my knowledge, the standard school Shakespeares in 1956 and for decades earlier were the editions in the lightly bowdlerized 'Warwick' series. When I was at school in the sixties, the English stock cupboard was crammed with well-thumbed sets. Alfred J. Wyatt edited Cymbeline for the Warwick Shakespeare in 1897. There's a copy in the Internet Archive - no note (or appendix) on dandelions. The standard unbowdlerized Shakespeare (for sixth-formers and undergraduates) was the Arden series. Edward Dowden edited Cymbeline for the original Arden series in 1903. No note on dandelions. And none in Nosworthy's edition for the second series, published in 1955.

There were quite a number of school editions of Cymbeline between c. 1870 and the early fifties. Editors who didn't say anything about dandelions: Sir Israel Gollancz; A. W. Verity; Henry N. Hudson; Kenneth Deighton; W. J. Rolfe; C. M. Ingleby. There is nothing, either, in the rather handsome edition whose general editor was Henry Irving, which might, I suppose, have found a place in school libraries. That leaves, according to COPAC, school or student editions of Cymbeline by Samuel B. Hemingway (Yale Shakespeare, 1924); Rev. John Hunter (Longmans, 1872); W.F. Baugust (Blackie's Junior School Shakespeare, 1896); George Brandes (Heinemann 1904); an edition for Cassell's by the prolific Henry Morley (1905); and a few more. It is just possible, I suppose, that somewhere there is an edition with a note or appendix explaining that 'golden boys' are really dandelions - an edition so obscure no other editor has noted it, even to disagree.

But really, on balance of probabilities, I don't think Stern's 'school edition' exists. I think she had read the Kennedy novel. And to me, the existence of the passage in the Kennedy novel makes the 'visitor to Shakespeare's Warwickshire' less, not more convincing.

(How do you visit 'Shakespeare's Warwickshire' in any case? Warwickshire I know; it's just down the M69... But Shakespeare's Warwickshire - I'd be pushed to travel there.)

I'm struck by likenesses in the phrasing of these passages to the anecdote retailed by Kenner. Stern refers to 'Shakespeare's Warwickshire'. Kennedy mentions the supposed likeness of dandelion clocks to the brushes that are used for sweeping chimneys. Chance similarities? Perhaps, but I find it suspicious.

From Google Books I learned that the anecdote first published by Kenner has been cited and/or quoted a lot. Along the way it has become embellished. So we read that 'even today** in Shakespeare's native Warwickshire, dandelions, those common weedy yellow flowers that appear in early spring, are called "golden lads" in their first blooming and then are called "chimney-sweepers"': really? Has anyone ever gone to find out? I mean systematic folklore collecting, asking if there are any dialect names for common plants, not nudging some elderly gardener for the required answer. And we are told that '[some] readers know that in seventeenth-century English, a spent dandelion was called a chimney-sweeper and the young blossom a golden lad'. So we have leapt from the mid-twentieth-century countryman of the anecdote to 'seventeenth-century English'. It will be in the glossaries next.

Still digging, I found that Kenner himself had revisited the anecdote in a book published in 2000 (The Elsewhere Community, p. 150). 'A few years ago, a friend of mine was visiting England. In Stratford, he saw a farmer gently blowing off the top of a dandelion that had gone to seed. "We call these golden lads chimney sweepers when they come to dust," the farmer told my friend...' A farmer blowing at a dandelion clock? Oh, what? Come off it. A 'countryman' I might just about be able to buy, so long as the fellow in question was only a 'countryman' by virtue of living in the country, and had a rather whimsical, childlike way of behaving. But a farmer - this smells of fish. Even I, sluggish gardener that I am, try to deal with the dandelions before they run to seed. For as any British gardener knows, they seed themselves easily all over the place, and once they have put down roots, they are very, very difficult to kill. The idea that anyone who worked on the land would deliberately seed dandelions - I don't believe it. (I also note that in the years since Kenner first reported the story, the farmer's language has grown notably more Shakespearean.)

One more interesting thing that I found on Google Books was an article entitled 'On the Diseases of Wheat', published in the Farmer's Magazine (2 ser, III, Jan to June 1841; place of publication London). It was based on a lecture delivered to the Hadleigh Farmers' Club by John S. Henslow, Professor of Botany at Cambridge. Hadleigh is in Suffolk.

One of the diseases Henslow described was the fungus called smut, which in some places was known as 'chimney sweepers'. The fungus was especially likely to be found in barley or oats. It deformed the ear, and then consumed it, until 'it appeared in the state of brown powder'... (p. 9).

In a lecture on 'The Parasitic Fungi of the British Farm' delivered in Norwich in 1849 by Edwin Sidney, a correspondent of Henslow's, he explained that 'The sooty powder on the flowering parts of corn-plants, called smut, chimney-sweepers, and dust-brand, is formed of the spores of ... uredo segetum. It renders the whole interior abortive; the pedicel of the flower swells, and a black dust occupies the whole' (Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, vol. 10, 1849, p. 387).

And that, I think, is enough on the diseases of corn. (Though I may add that I have found other nineteenth-century citations for the dialect use of 'chimney-sweepers' to mean uredo segetum.)

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

The golden barley will be ground to powder as surely as the blackened ears will crumble into sooty dust.


Hey, the dusty miller,
And his dusty coat;
He will win a shilling,
Or he spend a groat.
Dusty was the coat,
Dusty was the colour,
Dusty was the kiss
That I got frae the miller.

Hey, the dusty miller,
And his dusty sack ;
Leeze me on the calling
Fills the dusty peck.
Fills the dusty peck,
Brings the dusty siller;
I wad gie my coatie
For the dusty miller.

Robert Burns (1759–1796)

Do I think that the lines in Cymbeline are 'really' about ears of golden barley, and the blackened ruin of an infected crop? Well, no, not in the way that some people seem to have concluded that they are 'really' about dandelions. But that there may be a punning alllusion to the fungus - I wouldn't rule that out. To me it makes more metaphorical sense than the dandelion image, and it adds a touch of sardonic humour that I don't find out of place (or unlike Shakespeare). In Restoration England the disease was known as 'smut' (see OED). So far all my sources for its being also known as 'chimney-sweepers' are nineteenth-century.

And in any case I think the primary image is the sooty chimney sweeper and the dust in which he is smothered.

Additional note: There being no copy of Troy Chimneys in any library I have easy access to right now, I have squeezed a bit more out of Google Books. The relevant passage reads:

She reminded me that our mother had her own names for many wild flowers - not the names common among the country people here. She must have learnt them from her Irish mother. We passed by Ribstone Pit which was full of the weeds which, round here, are called dandelions. Sukey remembered that our mother called them 'golden lads', and the seeds, which are here sometimes called dandelion clocks, she called ' chimney sweepers ' on account of their likeness to the brushes which are used for that purpose.

So: we have what is fairly clearly an allusion to a song by Shakespeare (who, however, doesn't seem to be mentioned at this point in the book) offered as a piece of traditional Irish lore in a mid-twentieth-century historical novel set in Regency England.

DNB says that Kennedy herself, born in London, was descended on her father's side 'from a Scottish family settled in Ulster since the seventeenth century'. So she might have had access to obscure Irish flower names; and the place to check would be Irish, not English, folklore books and regional dictionaries.

But I don't see why country people in Ireland would allude to Shakespeare in the names they gave to flowers; or on the other hand how it might have happened that Shakespeare should allude to Irish flower names. As for Kenner's Warwickshire farmer, as far as I am concerned his credibility has dropped to vanishing point.

I have also excavated a little more of the passage from Stern's novel:

A note at the end of her school edition had informed her that in Shakespeare's Warwickshire " golden lads and girls " were dandelions, called " chimney-sweepers " when they faded and lost their gold ; and knowing this lent the couplet an enchantment no longer marred by the uncouth image of men with sooty faces and long brushes.

Well, we know a bit more now about where Stern's character is coming from.

* Quotations from the British Library's wonderful CD of Holme's ms. (And if authentic drawings, engravings and descriptions of seventeenth-century objects and workers are the kind of thing you like, well, I venture to suggest that it's a snip at the current price. Ignore the stuff about Netscape; it is plain html and loads in any browser. This article on brewing history will give you a small taste of the joys of Holme's magnum opus.)

** 1988

(no subject)

Date: September 8th, 2010 03:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ethelmay.livejournal.com
_Troy Chimneys_ seems to suggest that the weed isn't a regular dandelion at all, but only CALLED so, as far as I can make out from this further snippet from Google Books: "We passed by Ribstone Pit which was full of the weeds which, round here, are called dandelions. Sukey remembered that our mother called them 'golden lads', and the seeds, which are here sometimes called dandelion clocks"

The "Ribstone" immediately makes me wonder about the "Ribwort" Nineweaving mentioned, but the plantain doesn't make dandelion clocks.

(no subject)

Date: September 8th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] wolfinthewood.livejournal.com
Thank you for this. I looked up dandelions in Grigson, but it does seem as though the only English flower known as the dandelion was the one everyone knows by that name.

Meanwhile, piecing together the context of the passage in Kennedy's novel, I have now found that she attributes the folknames for the dandelion to her character's Irish grandmother. Which casts a whole new light on things: and inclines me yet more to the belief that Kennedy made the whole scrap of 'folk tradition' up. (And why not? After all, she was a novelist.) I've added more to my post about this.

(no subject)

Date: September 8th, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ethelmay.livejournal.com
In my experience, people quite often call yellow hawkweed "dandelion," even though it has a solid branching stem rather than a single hollow one.

From an article in the American Catholic Quarterly Review, 1919 ("Plants: Their Roots and Names," by Harriette Wilbur), via Google Books:

"The ribwort plantain is the "chimney sweep," as the blackened stalks of the ripe seed-heads clearly indicate. In England they call the hawkweed "Grimm the Collier," on account of its black hairs and after a comedy of the same title which was popular during the reign of Queen Elizabeth."

Interesting, and I did find independent verification of the Grimm the Collier name. Except it seems to be the orange hawkweed that is so called, not the yellow (well, there are thousands of hawkweeds, so who knows).

(no subject)

Date: September 8th, 2010 04:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nineweaving.livejournal.com
Fabulous work. Just brilliant. I scanted.

Now where does we find stuff on corn-smut? It's not a topic that engaged folklorists, though it should have.

Really, should we work this up and try to send it to a Shakespeare journal, if only as a Note or Query?


(no subject)

Date: September 8th, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] wolfinthewood.livejournal.com
I had wondered about Notes and Queries. Eventually. Or one of the Shakespeare periodicals, as you say.

Perhaps someone should undertake an exhaustive study of the folk-lore of corn diseases: Folklore would probably take it. But I'll leave that to someone else, I think.

The dandelion idea, however, has seeded itself in so many places now that I think attention should be drawn to the Kennedy passage. Even more so in that, having dug a little deeper, I have found that Kennedy attributes the folknames for the dandelion to her character's Irish grandmother. (I have added an Additional Note to my post.)

There may well be references to corn diseases in farming manuals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But there are quite a lot of those extant. Farming books sold well, I believe.

(no subject)

Date: September 8th, 2010 09:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nineweaving.livejournal.com
Somewhere I have Henry Best's farming books, 1641...

This is--erm--flowering nicely I do think we have an article.


(no subject)

Date: February 12th, 2015 10:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mike leadbetter (from livejournal.com)
I love this kind of chase but would take issue that sweeps, smut and dust are the primary image. The emotional payload lies in the Biblical force of the comparison of the lowest and highest in society all coming to the same end when tied to the compassionate setting the poet has found for his reflections on mortality.

If I had to put money on what else was in his his head as he wrote the lines, I would take flowers at evens and mushrooms at 5/1.