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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, October 7, 2013

“And the Dirt Came Out”, “And Smelt So, Pah!” & “O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven” The Big Poopture on Jane Austen’s Biblical & Shakespearean “Dirt”

 Inspired by a brilliant insight by Diana Birchall two weeks ago…..

…as to the organic post-digestive origin (to put it delicately) of the “mud” on Lizzy Bennet’s petticoat after she walks through the lanes, stiles, and meadows en route ot Netherfield early in Pride & Prejudice, I, during the past two weeks, posted six variations on Diana’s theme, making a comprehensive, multi-faceted argument for Jane Austen having alluded not only in P&P, but also in Emma and Persuasion, to poop---mostly but not all of the equine variety--on both the rural paths and the urban streets where her heroines:

What I did not attempt till today, however, was to determine whether JA, serial alluder that she was, had any literary antecedents which inspired her to use “dirt” as code for “poop” in her writing. Given that her two most favorite literary sources were Shakespeare and the Bible, I started there, by the simple expedient of searching the word “dirt” in databases for those respective sources, and I struck gold (of the intellectual variety) in both cases, gold which, as you will see by the end of my tale, is interconnected!


Judges 3:12-30 of the Hebrew Bible, the brief tale of Ehud and Eglon, is not long, so I will reproduce it in full, here (from King James Version, the one Jane Austen would have had at hand). I have set apart in the middle of this chapter the line which uses the word “dirt” as code for “poop”:

And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the LORD: and the LORD strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the LORD. And he gathered unto him the children of Ammon and Amalek, and went and smote Israel, and possessed the city of palm trees. So the children of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years. But when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised them up a deliverer, Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite, a man lefthanded: and by him the children of Israel sent a present unto Eglon the king of Moab. But Ehud made him a dagger which had two edges, of a cubit length; and he did gird it under his raiment upon his right thigh. And he brought the present unto Eglon king of Moab: and Eglon was a very fat man. And when he had made an end to offer the present, he sent away the people that bare the present. But he himself turned again from the quarries that were by Gilgal, and said, I have a secret errand unto thee, O king: who said, Keep silence. And all that stood by him went out from him. And Ehud came unto him; and he was sitting in a summer parlour, which he had for himself alone. And Ehud said, I have a message from God unto thee. And he arose out of his seat. And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly

And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly; AND THE DIRT CAME OUT.

Then Ehud went forth through the porch, and shut the doors of the parlour upon him, and locked them. When he was gone out, his servants came; and when they saw that, behold, the doors of the parlour were locked, they said, Surely he covereth his feet in his summer chamber. And they tarried till they were ashamed: and, behold, he opened not the doors of the parlour; therefore they took a key, and opened them: and, behold, their lord was fallen down dead on the earth. And Ehud escaped while they tarried, and passed beyond the quarries, and escaped unto Seirath.  And it came to pass, when he was come, that he blew a trumpet in the mountain of Ephraim, and the children of Israel went down with him from the mount, and he before them. And he said unto them, Follow after me: for the LORD hath delivered your enemies the Moabites into your hand. And they went down after him, and took the fords of Jordan toward Moab, and suffered not a man to pass over. And they slew of Moab at that time about ten thousand men, all lusty, and all men of valour; and there escaped not a man. So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest fourscore years.  END QUOTE

Simply and tactfully put, the phrase “and the dirt came out” was the translator’s discreet way of saying that when Ehud stabbed Eglon to death, Eglon involuntarily defecated as he died. My point is simple—the code word for poop that the translator chose, which was the word every reader of the story of Eglon and Ehud in the King James Bible would have seen, was DIRT. 


In Act 5, Scene 1, of Hamlet, Hamlet considers human mortality very closely indeed, as he chats with Horatio, and they observe the Gravediggers (getting ready, as it turns out, for Ophelia’s interment). Hamlet reflects on the odor and the dirt of the undiscovered country we all, emperor, lawyer and common man, must eventually arrive at:

Horatio: E'en so.
Puts down the skull

I always laugh out loud when reading Horatio’s marvelously understated graveside humor in that last riposte to Hamlet. It reminds me of the other line of Horatio’s that also makes me laugh every time ---his response to Hamlet’s report that There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark But he's an arrant knave”:

But I quoted the above passage from Hamlet 5.1 not (just) to make you laugh, but to show that Hamlet uses the word “dirt” twice in Hamlet’s first quoted speech, the latter of them referring to the contents of a skull; and then, in the exchange with Horatio that follows shortly thereafter, Hamlet comments on the foul smell of a skull he is holding, and then in effect connects that smell to a graphic image of human remains as being relocated to just inside a human rear end.

So, there is, I claim, a second major, world-famous literary source and inspiration for JA to use “dirt” as code for “poop” in her novels.


Even though the above would have been probative enough, the capper of these two allusive sources is that I had already previously determined, during my extensive research on Hamlet some years ago, that Shakespeare very consciously and spectacularly alluded to this same episode of Eglon and Ehud, in Act 3, Scene 3 of Hamlet, when Hamlet contemplates Claudius alone in his “closet”, and debates whether to kill Claudius then, or to wait (and of course he makes the latter choice). 

Claudius begins his famous soliloquy with the line “O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven”—I don’t think I need to explain to anyone how that connects to the tale of Eglon and Ehud!

So, to sum up, I suggest that both Hamlet, with its full Second Quarto published in 1603, and its First Folio version in 1623, and the King James Bible published in 1611 after 7 years of work, are both using the word “dirt” to refer to poop, in a coordinated manner, and there are no two works of literature with which Jane Austen was more familiar, I assert, than those two.

But it turned out that it did  need a scholar come from the Internet to tell you all that Jane Austen used “dirt” as code for “poop” in several of her novels, but particularly in Emma and Persuasion, and she was in doing so very slyly alluding to the Bible and Shakespeare!

Which also tells you what I think about the current universal opinion that JA (or Shakespeare, for that matter) would never have engaged in such a sacrilegious enterprise! I say, she, like Shakespeare, felt it was her sacred right as an author of fine literature to appropriate what she needed from the amazing literary source known as the Bible, including its graphically profane as well as its ethereally holy content.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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