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I came across the following sentence in the context of four professional men discussing a plot to retrieve their lost $1 million, swindled from them by a nouveau riche American banker in Jeffery Archer’s novel, “Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less”:

The man that once did sell the lion’s skin
While the beast liv’d was killed with hunting him.

The line reminded me of a Japanese proverb, “ミイラ取りがミイラになる - A mummy searcher always ends up as a mummy,” which I think is close to an English saying, “Go for wool and come home shorn.”

What is the exact meaning of the above two lines? Is this a popular English metaphor?

Why is there no period at the end of the first line while the second line starts with the capital?

Is it wrong to rearrange the sentence as follows?

The man that once did sell the lion’s skin was killed with hunting a lion while the beast liv’d.

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It's not an idiom at all. I think you've understood what Archer meant, except you should note that the rhythm, and "weak rhyme" are an integral part of the construction. So Archer would certainly never have bothered with it in your rephrased version, which lacks these qualities. It's presented as (and may even be, for all I know) a couple of lines from a poem. –  FumbleFingers Feb 22 '12 at 4:01
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...actually, it's a couple of lines from Shakespeare's King Henry V –  FumbleFingers Feb 22 '12 at 4:06
    
I think this is better suited to writers.se –  Matt Эллен Feb 22 '12 at 11:41
    
@Matt: Does Writers.SE care about analyzing old poetry? Is there a Literature.SE? –  Mitch Feb 22 '12 at 13:49
    
@Mitch oh! yeah I think there is a literature.se –  Matt Эллен Feb 22 '12 at 14:03
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

As FumbleFingers pointed out in his comment, it's from Shakespeare's King Henry V (Google sample). Seeing it in the context of the script (with its original punctuation) makes it easier to understand. The man sold the lion's skin while the lion was alive, but was killed by hunting the lion. The meaning behind it seems to be that the man sold something he did not have (the lion's skin) and failed to get it (died). Not only did he fail to deliver, he was ruined by his folly.

This could be used in two different ways in the novel (I'm not familiar with it, so I can't say which it is):

  • The banker swindled the men (akin to selling a lion skin he does not have) and will be punished for it (killed in the hunt)
  • The four men are depending on their money that they have not yet gotten back from the banker, and pursuing it will be their downfall.
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Good answer, but you don't make clear that, as a quotation, it can't be rearranged or re-punctuated for clarity. –  TimLymington Feb 22 '12 at 10:42
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Not only is the order fixed because of its lineage, the suggested reordering also changes the meaning completely. "while the beast liv'd" can't refer to the time of the hunting since, well, it would be silly to hunt a dead lion. It is the selling of the skin before you have it that's the point. –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Feb 22 '12 at 21:33
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I may be wrong, but my interpretation of these lines is that the man was consumed by his obsession with hunting a certain lion, but once he had caught and killed it, he lost interest to the point where eventually he sold the skin, as a person might sell any possession he no longer cares much about.

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