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Nursery Rhymes

Apropos of absolutely nothing that I could think of, this childhood rhyme came into my head. “A tisket, a tasket/ a green and yellow basket/ I wrote a letter to my love/ and on the way I lost it/ I lost it…” I probably had not recalled that little poem for many years, but they stay with one, somewhere in memory.

I never knew any more of it, I don’t think. Maybe that was all there was. But while this might seem strange, as a little boy I used to puzzle over those nursery rhymes. as if they were about something, maybe something important. I remember feeling bad about this poem; the person wrote a nice letter, and then he lost it. I have a certain propensity to lose things. I wondered if he ever got the letter back, probably not. Just gone. Maybe his love would never know.

As an only child for seven years, with my parents both working after I was two or so, I did have a lot of time to think about such things. I remember thinking, “What does ‘Hi, Ho, the Derry O’ mean?” I was probably not the only child to wonder what a tuffet was, and I didn’t think I would like curds and whey. I wondered about Mary’s lamb following her to school. I loved plums, so I thought that Little Jack Horner was fortunate to have nabbed a plum in his pie. I was very concerned about the pussy which fell into the well; how could that happen?

I pondered the meaning of “Hey, Diddle Diddle/ The Cat and the Fiddle/ The cow jumped over the moon/ The little dog laughed to see such sport/ And the dish ran away with the spoon.” How could a cow jump over the moon? Dishes and spoons could not ambulate. And what did the cat and the fiddle part have to do with any of this?

I am not saying that I believed that everything that was described in the nursery rhymes was actually real. But I greatly pondered why these rhymes were written. Did they have a meaning? What was the writer trying to say?

I have thought from time to time about “Mary, Mary, quite contrary/How does your garden grow?/ With silver bells and cockle shells/ And pretty maids all in row.” That had to have meant something. It is such a haunting rhyme. It has to be about something else. Bells and shells and maids cannot grow in a real garden. Is the rhyme telling us something about a real Mary? “Bloody Mary,” English Queen, and the sister of the later Queen Elizabeth? She was a tormented person. Mary of Scotland? Was the mention of the maids meant to imply lesbianism? Or are they ladies in waiting?

You could research it, and read that the first known published version of that rhyme was in 1744, almost two centuries after the two famous Queen Marys. But that does not assure that one could not have been the original subject. More research might show that some hypothesize that there is religious imagery, maybe even about the schism between Catholics and Protestants. Or a reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus in the New Testament.

The haunting thing about such rhymes is that we often do not know the origin, which might have come out of jealousy, spite, admiration, insinuation. That origin is obscured, and then we have centuries of little children repeating the rhyme.

Who or what was Humpty Dumpty? Charles I of England? A cannon his forces used? When did London Bridge fall down? Who is the fair lady to be locked up?

Agatha Christie knew the power of nursery rhymes, and she titled some of her murder mystery novels based on them “Hickory Dickory Dock.” “A Pocketful of Rye.” “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.” “Five Little Pigs.” (based on “One little pig went to market…” I was so innocent, that I thought the piggie was going shopping). “Three Blind Mice.” (that one always upset me, with its gratuitous cruelty).

Dame Agatha knew that the juxtaposition of what might seem to be an innocent children’s rhyme, with dark motives and acts, could be very unsettling. Sometimes the rhyme would be played out in some way in the story, sometimes it was just a bit of backdrop.

But those were great titles to pick up and read for the first time. There was a sense of ominousness which the title created, even before the story began. And usually the novels began harmlessly enough, before the darker events occurred. So like the nursery rhyme can be initially seen as innocuous, but one might then consider more unsettling aspects of it, so did the stories potentially follow that path.

Now, what may seem very obvious to you, but never was so much to me, is that most of the rhymes were just rhymes. They could be alliterative or assonative, or with interesting imagery. They may mean nothing at all beyond the words. The mouse never ran up the clock. Dishes do not run away with spoons. There was no Johnny and no fair that he stayed too long at. But then again what happened to all those people who went to Widecombe fair, with a grey mare? And there is an elegantly scary movie from 1951, “So Long at the Fair.”

The old nursery rhymes do have a power. They can be lighthearted, or perhaps not. Which are which? Their brevity almost inevitably causes one to wonder about them, because it is never all spelled out, some of them just end. We have all read stories or seen movies where a few lines, or even one letter on a torn scrap of paper offer the key to an otherwise indecipherable set of events. What was he trying to tell us?

We hear or read something once, and the nature of how it sounds or the images it creates, does not vanish. It has been passed down through hundreds of years. Why? There is virtually never a definitive explanation as to why the words of the rhyme are what they are. Maybe if there were, it would be dated, and locked into a particular period, like marching songs from wars hundreds of years ago which no one sings now.

But simple but evocative words can seem to be about something deeper and perhaps archetypal. Or maybe we wish that we could go back in time for a brief period, and solve the mystery. Maybe we can rescue the lady from the tower, or restore Humpty-Dumpty, or find Johnny for the woman missing him. Otherwise, they might remain as shards of collective memory which we cannot put together and mend.


25 Responses

  1. William, you got me thinking about the one I always wondered about: Goosey Goosey Gander, so I had a google and found this. Has an explanation of a few rhymes. Including Mary, Mary, and you were correct it’s Mary 1. Have a look.

    • This is very interesting, as all the explanations seem consistent. But I have seen other ones, particularly with regard to “Mary, Mary.” That is the fascinating thing, there are no essays or even written comments about the rhyme until much later, at least as far as I know. So all one can do is deduce, and this site does a very credible job of it here..

  2. See the classic reference work “The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes” by Iona and Peter Opie. It is a wonderful book, well worth owning.

    The Opies, who were British folklorists (and husband and wife), are considered the foremost experts on nursery rhymes.

  3. The nursery rhyme that always fascinated me as a child was “Sing a Song of Sixpence”. All those blackbirds baked in a pie! And then they began to sing! Scary.

    • The oldest published version cited in Wikipedia is a bit more gruesome:

      Sing a Song of Sixpence,
      A bag full of Rye,
      Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
      Baked in a Pye.[1]

      Which kind of reminds me of the myth of Tantalus.

      It also reminds me of the origin of the curse on the House of Atreus in Greek mythology (which connects to our previous discussion about the origin of the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings).

      There is some deeply weird stuff encoded in myths and folk rhymes.

      • Yes, indeed. Some of the traditional folk songs my father sang to me when I was a little girl were very gruesome. Lullabies, they were not.

  4. William, I am even more of an innocent than you are. I didn’t realize until I read your essay today that the little piggy wasn’t going shopping!

    I have always pictured the piggy going off to the market to shop with its mother, carrying a pretty little basket to fill with goodies and having a glorious time. Now I am traumatized.

    So did the other little piggy not have roast beef for supper? I don’t really want to know. Just let me keep my illusions. They are comforting.

    • Well, it is just a rhyme,, no actual piggies were a part of it. And the fact that one had roast beef, is a good sign that they were independent. And usually a mother will refer to a baby’s toes when reciting it. So it is harmless. But nursery rhymes from medieval times are a bit unsettling in general, simply because we don’t know the origin.

      I never minded the one about Simple Simon wanting to taste the wares of the pieman when going to the fair, but I always wondered whey he was called Simple,. however, think it is just for meter. I guess in those days someone would bake pies and take them to the fair to sell. I wondered why the poem was so brief, however, what happened next? And I just looked it up, and there is more, and I have no idea what is meant by it, it anything. I’ll stick with the pies part.

      • It isn’t that brief. There are actually several more verses. See the Wikipedia entry on this rhyme: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simple_Simon_(nursery_rhyme)

        • Well, this is not so bad. Simple Simon was just not very effectual. But nothing really bad ever happened to him. Actually, it seems as if that it is one of the few rhymes which were fairly benign, which is interesting in itself. Agatha had the right sense of it. Oh, the Farmer in the Dell was pretty tame, unless there were worse verses for that. I know that Robert Cormier used the last line to devastating effect in his novel “I Am The Cheese.”

          • It seems that the name “Simple Simon” is a play on the word “simpleton”.

            So he is just rather a dull blade, nothing more.

          • Well, the Fool or the foolish trickster (like Coyote in many Native American stories and of course Warner Brothers cartoons or Anansi in many African cultures) is one of those universal cultural archetypes that surfaces everywhere. Simple Simon has a long and distinguished lineage.

    • An earlier version of “This Little Piggy” has one piggy having “roast meat”, not “roast beef”, leading one to wonder if perhaps a certain piggy that “went to market” later appeared at the Piggy family supper table on a plate.

      I may have to sleep with the light on tonight.

  5. That an old rhyme would not appear in published form until centuries after the subject of the rhyme happened is to be expected. Many of the classic rhymes were part of the oral tradition for a very long time, as were songs and ballads. They would have been memorized, not written down, and would have had many variations as they passed from person to person, and through time and place. That’s why it’s so difficult to find a definitive date or version of the old rhymes, songs and ballads, and why the original meaning behind them is often obscured.

    (So says the daughter of a folklorist/ethnomusicologist who learned such things a long time ago from her daddy.)

  6. Somewhere, long ago, I read that “Hickory dickory dock” was a corruption of “1, 2, 3, 4” in Romany (which is closely related to Sanskrit and therefore would have been something like “Eka, dvi, tri, chatur”). Can’t for the life of me recall where I read that. It’s probably just some figment of my aged imagination/

    This is vaguely reminiscent of “hocus pocus” , which is a corruption of “Hoc est enim corpus” from the consecration of the host in the Latin mass.

  7. Re: “A tisket, a tasket”

    There is an Old Norse word “taska” which means a “bag” or “pouch”. Something used to carry things.

    As we all know, Old Norse had a great impact on the English language so to find a form of it in an old rhyme makes sense.

    • You do tend to see retention of ancient words, particularly in rural areas. For example, the tendency to name cows “Bossie” or for farmers (even in the US) to call cattle by saying “come boss!” or “ho boss!”. It almost certainly goes back to Roman Britain (“bos” is Latin for cow or ox).

      • My grandfather, who was of colonial English and Scots-Irish ancestry, grew up on a farm in the Midwest and later graduated from Columbia Medical School. He always called a chimney a “chimley” and a bag a “poke”. It drove my grandmother nuts.

        • The word “chimley” dates back to at least the 1500’s in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. “Poke” (meaning bag) dates to the 1200’s in England and Scotland.

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