Sunday, December 06, 2009

William Kemp Performs the Morris Dance, from the frontispiece to his book Kemp's Nine Daies Wonder, Performed in a Daunce
Morris Dance-1458, moreys daunce "Moorish dance," from Flem. mooriske dans, from O.Fr. morois "Moor." Unknown why the Eng. dance was called this, unless in ref. to fantastic dancing or costumes (cf. It. Moresco, a related dance, lit. "Moorish," Ger. moriskentanz, Fr. moresque).-Online Etymology Dictionary

The Nine Days Wonder

A story from July of this year, "Tracking The Life And Death Of News"by Bill Steele LINK gives a scientific gloss to the notion of the "Nine Days Wonder". Jon Kleinberg, Tisch University Professor of Computer Science at Cornell, has tried to quantify what we know to be an ancient concept. However, the term 'Nine Days Wonder' is not explicitly used in Steele's story.

But, First Things Come First: Where does the term "Nine Days Wonder" originate? And what does it mean? I am convinced it is a very ancient thing, which had its birth in the days before we had the means to write about it, or even before we could articulate beyond excited grunts and gesticulations. But here is one account from

"In 1600, William Kemp, an Elizabethan clown actor, who is thought to have been the original Dogberry in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, danced a morris dance between London and Norwich. He took up the challenge for a bet and covered the distance of a hundred miles or more in nine days (spread over a few weeks). Some doubted that he had achieved this and, to quell dissent, he wrote 'Kemps nine daies vvonder' published in 1600:

"Wherein euery dayes iourney is pleasantly set downe, to satisfie his friends the truth, against all lying Ballad-makers; what he did, how hee was welcome, and by whome entertained."

There is little doubt that the event did take place. The ample evidence to support it includes the 17th century records of the Norwich Town Council, which lists the payment of his prize money.

So, we have a well-authenticated historical event called 'Kemp's Nine Days' Wonder', dating back to 1600. That might be thought to be enough to establish Kemp as the source of the phrase.

Actually, he wasn't. The phrase dates from well before the 17th century. As well as the date, there's the meaning of the phrase, which isn't 'something wonderful that took nine days to achieve', but 'something which becomes boring after nine days'.

The earliest citation, in Old English, is in the 'Harley Lyrics', circa 1325. The earliest record in print that most people today would be able to decipher is in 'Poems written in English during his captivity in England, after the battle of Agincourt' by Charles, Duke of Orleans, 1465:

"For this a wondir last but dayes nyne, An oold proverbe is seid."

The first record in print of the phrase as we now use it is from Jane Barker's Patch-work Screen for Ladies, 1723:

"The Parents were very well content, only wish'd she had proceeded otherwise, and not made herself the Publick Subject of a Nine Days Wonder."

In more recent years, more than one rock band has adopted the phrase as a self-deprecatory name. That's more likely as an allusion to another phrase with a related meaning - one hit wonder, than it is a homage to the dancing Kemp. Some of them have lasted several years."-

An Anecdote Of Kemp's Morris Dance

It seems that the jestmonger Kemp's Morris Dancing wager was a more arduous task than we might imagine. It may have been as taxing as break dancing a hundred miles. But it did have its rewards. Here he describes an episode from his dance when spectators, including a lusty wench, joined him in his "pace of dauncing" which "is not ordinary". I have provided a link at the end of the passage for a PDF copy of the 1840 reprint courtesy of the Internet Archive.

"In this towne of Sudbury there came a lusty, tall fellow, a butcher by his profession, that would in a Morrice keepe mee company to Bury: I being glad of his friendly offer, gaue him thankes, and forward wee did set; but ere euer wee had measur'd halfe a mile of our way, he gaue me ouer in the plain field, protesting, that if he might get a 100 pound, he would not hold out with me; for indeed my pace in dauncing is not ordinary.
As he and I were parting, a lusty Country lasse being among the people, cal'd him a faint hearted lout, saying, "If I had begun to daunce, I would haue held out one myle though it had cost my life." At which wordes many laughed. "Nay," saith she, "if the Dauncer will lend me a leash of his belles, He venter to treade one mile with him my selfe." I lookt vpon her, saw mirth in her eies, heard boldnes in her words, and beheld her ready to tucke vp her russet petticoate; I fitted Vier with bels,which [s]he merrily taking, garnisht her thicke short legs, and with a smooth brow bad the Tabrer begin. The Drum strucke ; forward marcht I with my merry Maydemarian, who shooke her fat sides, and footed it merrily to Melfoord, being a long myle. There parting with her, I gaue her (besides her skinfull of drinke) an English crowne to buy more drinke; for, good wench, she was in a pittious heate : my kindnes she requited with dropping some dozen of short courtsies, and bidding God blesse the Dauncer. I bad her adieu; and to giue her her due, she had a good eare, daunst truely, and wee parted friendly. But ere I part with her, a good fellow, my friend, hauin writ an odde Rime of her, I will make bolde to set it downe.

A Country Lasse, browne as a berry,
Blith of blee, in heart as merry,
Cheekes well fed, and sides well larded,
Euery bone with fat flesh guarded,
Meeting merry Kemp by chaunce.
Was Marrian in his Morrice daunce.
Her stump legs with bels were garnisht,
Her browne browes with sweating varnish [t] ;
Her browne hips, when she was lag
To win her ground, went swig a swag;
Which to see all that came after
Were repleate with mirth full laughter.
Yet she thumpt it on her way
With a sportly hey de gay:
At a mile her daunce she ended,
Kindly paide and well commended."
-From Kemp's Nine Daies Wonder, Performed in a Daunce PDF LINK

Who can doubt that the crowd's enthusiasm for the fanciful, spectacular story of questionable significance yet overwhelming short term interest goes back to the beginnings of language or even before? Human beings are attracted to new things. Homo sapiens' behavior is not limited to specific modes. We adapt and we are always on the alert for the novel because our large brains can potentially learn useful things from unusual occurences. We demand that others examine these new wondrous events. Two heads (or more) are better than one and the group as a whole can analyze "the wonder" to extract useful information. Most of the things that elicit immediate excitement turn out to be of little long term utility and we lose interest.

The "Nine Days" is an approximate, but accurate enough length of time for the growth, development and death of the whimsical interest in these stories. For the study cited at the beginning of this post Cornell scientists tracked over 1.6 million online news sites and "a vast array" of blogs to track 2008 election stories.

Perhaps the election is not insignificant enough to constitute a Nine Days Wonder story.

Oh, Great Caesar's Ghost! I recant. What is a political campaign but a furious repetitive comical Morris Dance performed solely for entertainment purposes by clown actors? I get a decisive feeling that the Nine Days Wonder phenomenom has a practical use to certain parties as a distraction from more important issues. I cannot help but wonder if some of these media events are manufactured for the purpose. By the way, does each revelation of a new mistress in the employ of Tiger Woods deserve its own nine days?

"They found a consistent rhythm as stories rose into prominence and then fell off over just a few days, with a "heartbeat" pattern of handoffs between blogs and mainstream media. In mainstream media, they found, a story rises to prominence slowly then dies quickly; in the blogosphere, stories rise in popularity very quickly but then stay around longer, as discussion goes back and forth. Eventually though, almost every story is pushed aside by something newer."
-"Tracking The Life And Death Of News"by Bill Steele

This chart generated by Kleinberg's research LINK shows the life and death of stories in the period prior to the 2008 elections. The parabola of popularity does indeed seem to track about nine days from birth to death. In Kemp's time the Nine Day Wonder would have been a local phenomenom, but today, instant universal communications have synchronized the effect world wide.

Oldest Potential Quote Yet of Nine Days Of Wonder

Don't envy men
Because they seem to have a run of luck,
Since luck's a nine day's wonder,
Wait their end.
-Euripides (mid fifth century BC)

This quote is widely attributed to Euripides. William Safire in his book Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice reproduces it without a specific work cited. I am always suspicious when a quote, no matter how widely spread, has no work cited by anyone. If you know the source of the Euripides quote please communicate with me.

Other and Newer Quotes

"Ek wonder last but nyne nyght nevere in towne."-Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde (1380's)

I was seven of the nine days out of the wonder before you came;
for look here what I found on a
palm-tree: I was never so berhymed since
Pythagoras' time, that I was an Irish rat, which
I can hardly remember.-Shakespeare, As You Like It, III.ii Rosalind

"Nothing is talked about here today except the strange coincidence. The officials of the Board of Trade have been most exacting in seeing that every compliance has been made with existing regulations. As the matter is to be a 'nine days wonder', they are evidently determined that there shall be no cause of other complaint."-Bram Stoker, Dracula, on the arrival of the derelict ship, Demeter

"God the Compassionate and the Merciful, Tolerance incarnate, allows Mammon to have his nine days' wonder."-Mahatma Gandhi

First Snow

Last night the first real snow of the season fell. About six inches covered the land. Here is this morning's view outside my study window. Of course, 2AM heralded the first appearance of the snow plow. My mailbox is now lying in that snow and I go now to place it back on its stand. Yea, I shall move the stand even further from the road and the depradations of the plowman.
Further Note: The mailbox has been moved 3 1/2 feet further back from the road. If the plowman is to try to hit it now he will find that the wheels on the right side of his truck will drop into a drainage ditch. My mailbox was one of many knocked down last night by the nefarious and obviously drunken plowman.

Quote of the Day

Machinery of a mass electrical dream! A war-creating Whore of
Babylon bellowing over Capitols and Academies!
Money ! Money ! Money ! shrieking mad celestial money of
illusion ! Money made of nothing, starvation, suicide !
Money of failure ! Money of death !
Money against Eternity ! and eternity's strong mills grind out
vast paper of Illusion !
-Allen Ginsberg, final lines from "Death To Van Gogh's Ear", Paris 1958

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