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11:50am on Sunday, 28th May, 2006:
Here's an extract from Act 4, Scene II of William Shakespeare's Cymbeline:
Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
It's the first verse of a song sung by Guiderius and Arviragus to honour Cloten, whom Guiderius has just killed in a fight. Don't worry about the plot; all you really need to know here is that as stepson to the king, Cloten could be considered a "golden lad".
OK, already in this scene the word "dust" has been used twice in puns to refer to the human body (as a vessel for the soul) and to a point of similarity. Here's the first occasion, where there's some serious word-play:
[To IMOGEN] Brother, stay here
Are we not brothers?
So man and man should be;
But clay and clay differs in dignity,
Whose dust is both alike.
Arviragus really is Imogen's brother, but she's disguised as a man so he doesn't know that — he means "brother" in a "brothers in arms" sense. Imogen is saying that she and he are the same at a fundamental level (ie. their dust is alike), but also suggests that the way this stuff of similarity is put together (ie. clay) makes them different.
OK, let's return to the "golden lads" quote.
So, the "dust" that Shakespeare is referring to in this song/poem is the stuff of which people are made. Even the highest-born people in the land, when they die, return to the same form as does everyone else. The song has three verses, and they all make reference to dust in the last line. This being just the first verse that we're looking at, it establishes the tone of the eulogy; the second verse develops it, and the third (which is really quite beautiful) hammers it home.
To illustrate the fact that even the high-born are just the same as everyone else when they die, Shakespeare uses this reference to chimney-sweepers (note: not chimney-sweeps; this is important!). People who sweep chimneys are low-born types; the reason they were chosen to contrast with the golden lads is because they're grimey (the opposite of golden) and they work with dust — soot — all the time. Shakespeare is using them three times: he's contrasting their low-born status with the high-born status of Cloten; he's implicitly following through the lustrous metaphor he used for Cloten ("golden") with its antithesis (the blackness of soot); he's saying, in a fairly jestful way, that death is as inevitable as a chimney-sweep's finding soot.
All in two lines: that's pretty classy stuff.
If you don't know what's coming, prepare to be amazed.
A chimney-sweeper can either be a chimney-sweep (the person who sweeps the chimney) or the brush they use for their job. The brush bears some resemblance to a dandelion when it's gone to seed, which is why, in Warwickshire around Stratford-on-Avon, the locals call them "chimney-sweepers". Before the dandelions turn to seed, when they're yellow, they're called "golden boys and girls".
My blood ran cold when I found that out.
A nondescript couplet at the end of the first verse of a song in the middle of a development scene in an over-long play: he could have written anything, really, it wouldn't have mattered.
If you ever need an example of genius, look no further.
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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (firstname.lastname@example.org).