Friday, January 26, 2018

On a Doornail



Memorably enough, Dickens decrees that Marley is dead: "dead as a doornail." Hence, the first paragraph of Charles Dickens 1844 A Christmas Carol. But what is a "doornail" and how is it "dead"?

I have known certain devout Christians to wear about their necks, rough-looking nails crudely welded together to form the "X" of a cross. Doors are thresholds marking the intersection of worlds. Accordingly, I have always thought of a "doornail" as liminal, that is, the sentry guarding the threshold between the inside, that is life, and the ultimate outside, icy and forlorn death. To me, nails are cruel, inert, cold – iron instruments intended to pierce. Accordingly, I associate the phrase "dead as a doornail" with Christ’s crucifixion and the shivery threshold between the living and dead – the door in Dickens is a passage through which dead Jacob Marley appears, first, I think, as a face superimposed on the knocker on the door itself. Dickens himself questions the simile on his very first page: he acknowledges that "coffin nails" are dead, but why a "doornail"? Without answering the question, the author defers to the ancient "wisdom of the race", that is the intelligence in the English language from which this peculiar phrase originates.

The earliest source for the phrase is, possibly, William Langland’s Piers Plowman. In that Middle English text, Langland notes that "Fey withouten fait febelose than nought / And ded as a dor-nayl."

This sentence (derived from the Epistle of James at 2:20) may be translated that "Faith without works (feats) is more feeble than nothing/ And dead as a door-nail." A roughly contemporaneous source tells us that "For but I have bote of mi bale...I am ded as a dore-nail." – that is, "Unless I have benefit from my suffering...I am dead as a door-nail." A French romance, Guillaume de Polerne, translated into English within a decade before or after these sources, describes a character’s demise "Dede as a dore nayl doun was he fallen" – that is, "he fell down dead as a door-nail." William of Polerne, as the French romance was called in translation, is an early werewolf story, one of the primordial sources for the story of Beauty and the Beast.

The appearance of the phrase "dead as a door-nail" in the first half of the 14th century suggests a previous tradition unknown to us. At least by 1325, the phrase has something like its modern meaning and is fully established in the vernacular.

But we still don’t know how the phrase originated? Researchers on this subject, it seems, have examined medieval wooden doors to learn what a "door-nail" looks like. Medieval doors are typically made from a combination of vertical planks overlaid with horizontal "stretcher" boards. A long spike is pounded through both the vertical and horizontal pieces of wood. Door-nails were long enough that several inches of the spike protruded from the opposite side of the door assembly. These nail points had be "deadened" – that is, pounded flat against the wood surface. In medieval carpentry, a nail was said to be "dead" when it could not be pulled out and used again. (Hand-forged nails were costly and, if possible, retrieved from earlier construction to be used in later buildings.) A door-spike with protruding tip pounded flat against the wood surface was, therefore, a "dead’ nail with respect to, at least, two aspects: the tip of the nail was flattened and lying horizontally on the wood, therefore assuming a "dead" habitus or posture; second, the nail was "dead" because it could not be extracted from the boards and re-used. Inspection of pictures of medieval doors, indeed, shows that some of them have quasi-ornamental patterns of dead spike-points flattened into the wood surface on their interior surfaces.

Around the time that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, the phrase "dead as a door-nail" had migrated into nautical argot. In the decade before the Civil War, writers began to mention "sea ditties" or "sea shanties" – these were work songs intended to enhance the efficiency of sailors laboring on ships. (Melville’s Moby Dick contains references to oarsmen "singing out" and, similarly, Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast published in 1842 mentions songs of this kind.) Scholars of the merchant marine industry observe that crews were required to work with a greater degree of precision and efficiency in the years between the War of 1812 and the innovation of steam-powered engines that monopolized sea-faring after 1870. The golden age of sail navigation involved heavy labor at the capstan as well as prodigious amounts of rowing in smaller vessels. In this context, rhythmic sea chants, known as sea shanties, developed to coordinate human muscle-power required in sailing. During this same period, intercontinental trade in slaves exposed merchant marines to African call-and-response songs. African singing techniques, accordingly, also influenced these types of "sea ditties" or "shanties."

Mechanical steam power put an end to sea shanty singing. Nostalgic antiquarians began to collect "sea shanties" around 1914 and the texts of these chants were published in folklore collections. The Smithsonian began recording sea shanties in the 1930's at a time when the practice of singing these tunes on the high-seas had ended. Influential collections of transcribed sea shanties were published in the United Kingdom as early as 1890, and continued in full spate through the twenties. One poet who was interested in these songs was W. H. Auden. In Auden’s 1937 Oxford Book of Light Verse, a number of sea shanties are transcribed, presumably snatched from earlier published sources. One such shanty is entitled "Old Joe". The shanty seems to have a mixed African and merchant marine source.

"Old Joe is dead and gone to hell," the shanty begins. There is a refrain between each line:

"Oh we say so and we hope so." This is the response to the Blues’ call. Each stanza consists of a new line, the refrain, a repeat of the new line, and the refrain also repeated. The additional new lines are: "The ship did sail and the seas did roar" and, then, "He’s as dead as a nail in the lamp-room door" and, finally, "He won’t come hazing us no more." There are many variants to this shanty. Many of the longer versions refer to "horses" and, then, drowning the "horses" so that the nefarious "Old Joe" won’t "come hazing us no more."

The poem refers to the practice of hazing new seamen during their first month under sail. During his first month on the sea, the new sailor was compelled to act as a servant to the more seasoned crew – noisome jobs were assigned to the "green" sailors and they were forced to perform menial and useless tasks, for instance, shinnying up the main mast over and over again or laboriously picking apart rope. Each fresh seaman was called a "horse". Experienced sailors whittled primitive horses to represent each new man. At the end of the first month at sea, the new sailor’s horses were gathered together, harnessed to ropes, and "drowned" in the ocean – a sign that the "hazing" period was completed and that the new men were now fully fledged sailors.

"Old Joe" the seasoned sailor "hazing" the new men "dies" at the end of the first month under sail. The horses are drowned and the new men are recognized as members of the fraternity of the sea. A "lamp-room" is a place where lamps are kept. Presumably, it could refer to a part of sailing ship but the more likely reference is to the "lamp room" of a lighthouse. The big reflectors and fresnel amplifying lenses in 19th century light houses are atop the brick column of a light-house in the so-called "lamp-room."

Here, we must acknowledge, that poetic sensibility exercises dominion over the words in the shanty. The brilliant guardian light emitted by the light-house is exactly the opposite of the sullen, inert, and heavy black iron used for door-nails. The place from which emerges the sweeping beam of salvific radiance is protected by door-nails pounded dead into the door atop the high spiral staircase leading to lamp-room. The wild and dark waves rage around the shoal of rocks where the lighthouse stands guard and a mild, even sweet, beam of radiance illumines the elemental chaos, guiding and protecting the sailors "in peril on the sea". We can imagine these door-nails as heavy, dense, brutal as the spikes that pierced Christ’s hands and feet. They are dead and immobile in the "lamp-room door", pounded flat. "Dead as a doornail" alliterates with the two plosive "d" sounds – each represents the crash of a hammer on a nail, the sound of pounding, and, then, the tortured wail in the howl of s word "nail."

John Henry Newman, before he was Cardinal Newman, experienced the beam of a lighthouse guiding a ship at sea:

"Lead, kindly light, lead...amid the encircling gloom" are the words to hymn that he penned.


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