Wednesday 25 January 2012

Dust and Dustmen

Dust used to be the subject of poetry. Hamlet, in his great prose speech, asks of mankind:

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not

Because men are made of dust, and to dust we return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, fun to funky. So Auden also asked:

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

In which he merely adds sexual appetite to the vacuum-fodder. It was therefore rather pleasant to find this entry in an old slang dictionary of 1811:

DUSTMAN. A dead man: your father is a dustman.

Which lends a certain poignancy to this song:


  1. Genesis 3:19
    By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
    until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
    for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

  2. In the Dungeons & Dragons setting 'Planescape' there's a faction called Dustmen, who dwell in the Mortuary and deal with all the dead that come in. I can see where the name came from now :)

  3. Depends what the dust is made of. Gold dust was valued by the miners in the Gold Rush. It still had value even if it wasn't a nugget. And in India, some of the best teas are made from tea dust. So dust is just very fine stuff.
    I think some of your early quotes refer back to the Biblical description of God making man 'from the dust of the earth'.
    And of course Dickens thought it worth having mounds of it hiding some treasure in Our Mutual Friend.
    Great stuff dust. Can be used in metaphor, poetry, literature. Shame I have to work so hard getting rid of it every week!

  4. I have a friend who is an antique restorer and who collects dust from wherever he can get good stuff, so that he can fill repaired cracks and joints with appropriate period dust, thus making his restorations more complete. So even ordinary dust has a value to someone.

  5. And then there's Quentin Crisp, who took a more prosaic attitude. btw, Anon, I have some vintage material if your restorer cares to get in touch. Buyer collects.

  6. And, of course, "dust" features critically in the HIs Dark Materials trilogy.