(11 October 1998)
In a 1985 column, world's greatest columnist Jon Carroll asked for information about the phrase "I stand before you to sit behind you..." He was deluged with comments. Like many of his correspondents, I had heard a version of the phrase as a child; it's the start of a contradictory nonsense verse. The verse generally consists of a prologue followed by a brief (though bloody) story.
For this week's column, I performed an extensive Web search on the story part (which usually starts "One bright day in the middle of the night"), resulting in over a hundred Web pages which contained some version of the verse; most versions had the same basic structure, but almost every page had some slight difference from other versions.
With the results of that search in hand, combined with a couple of other sources, I now present to you the deluxe edition of the saga of the two dead boys. This version combines what I consider the best (most contradictory and best scansion) pieces of all the versions I've encountered:
The famous speaker who no one had heard of said:
Ladies and jellyspoons, hobos and tramps,
cross-eyed mosquitos and bow-legged ants,
I stand before you to sit behind you
to tell you something I know nothing about.
Next Thursday, which is Good Friday,
there's a Mother's Day meeting for fathers only;
wear your best clothes if you haven't any.
Please come if you can't; if you can, stay at home.
Admission is free, pay at the door;
pull up a chair and sit on the floor.
It makes no difference where you sit,
the man in the gallery's sure to spit.
The show is over, but before you go,
let me tell you a story I don't really know.
One bright day in the middle of the night,
two dead boys got up to fight.
(The blind man went to see fair play;
the mute man went to shout "hooray!")
Back to back they faced each other,
drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
and came and killed the two dead boys.
A paralysed donkey passing by
kicked the blind man in the eye;
knocked him through a nine-inch wall,
into a dry ditch and drowned them all.
If you don't believe this lie is true,
ask the blind man; he saw it too,
through a knothole in a wooden brick wall.
And the man with no legs walked away.
Many of the Web versions provide titles (such as "The Backward Rhyme" or "Contradiction Poem"), but almost all of the attributions are to "anonymous" or "unknown," with most people having learned it from a relative or as a jump-rope rhyme. Carment Chimento notes: "This poem was taught to me a long time ago by nobody, but her name escapes me." (That version is particularly unusual; it goes into more detail (the boys are identical twins, one black and one white) and continues the story: the boys sue the police officer, and the jury sentences them to hang in the electric chair.) One of Jon Carroll's long-ago correspondents said the poem was in a book of verse entitled Rocket in My Pocket; one of the Web pages cited "The Island of Dr. Brain" (which I believe was a computer game, and thus certainly not the original source of the rhyme).
Whatever its origins, the verse has obviously long since passed into folklore; comparing the different versions provides a fascinating snapshot of the folk process at work. Some versions are almost certainly misremembered variants of the more standard versions; others are almost certainly mishearings, misinterpretations, or perhaps simply misspellings (as with "a death policeman" in one version, and "through their swords they shot each other" in another). Some versions provide clearly intentional changes, as in "Dead Boys," a song by a musical group called Isotope Finis. The verse has been around the block a time or two; it's known in Alaska, Australia, Boston, California, Indiana, Virginia, and presumably much of the rest of the English-speaking world. (Perhaps readers can tell me if there are non-English versions extant?) It's been around since at least 1940, and is clearly still being passed along. (A surprising number of the Web versions were on "guest book" pages.)
These verses are related to other nonsense/contradictory verses, both folklore and otherwise, from songs like "Nottamun Town" ("From saddle to stirrup I mounted again / And on my ten toes I rode over the plain") to Stephen Foster's "Oh, Susannah" ("It rained so hard the day I left, the weather it was dry; / it was so hot I froze to death..."). British schoolchildren say rhymes like:
One midsummer's night in winter
The snow was raining fast,
A bare-footed girl with clogs on
Stood sitting on the grass.
I went to the pictures tomorrow
I took a front seat in the back,
I fell from the pit to the gallery
And broke a front bone in my back.
A lady she gave me some chocolate,
I ate it and gave it her back.
I phoned for a taxi and walked it,
And that's why I never came back.
'Tis midnight and the setting sun
Is slowly rising in the west.
The rapid rivers slowly run.
The frog is on his downy nest.
The pensive goat and sportive cow,
Hilarious, leap from bough to bough.
And one more to end with:
While on a Thursday morning, one Sunday night,
I saw, ten thousand miles away, a house just out of sight.
Its walls reflected inward, its front was at its back.
It stood alone between two more
and its walls were whitewash black.
Sources include the aforementioned Jon Carroll column (titled "I Stand Before You To Sit Behind You"), dozens of Web pages, and A Book of Puzzlements by Herbert (36 Children) Kohl (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), pp. 98-99, which quotes The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Peter Opie (London: Oxford Paperbacks, 1967).