Notes on Nursery Rhymes

January 28, 2014

I think what terrifies us about children the most is the knowledge that they are frail, that they have very little physical power, that they could die. That fear is justified because children, for most of history, died a lot. To be attached to any one child , say, before the twentieth century was a great risk, an emotional excess. Better to have lots of children and hope that a few would survive. One thinks of Plutarch’s Consolatio ad Uxorem, a letter of consolation to his wife upon the death of their two-year-old daughter, when he tells his wife that they should “not sit idle and shut ourselves in” and implores her not to grieve too much.

But the absence of children who have died mark mothers’ lives. When I was in college, I was a file clerk in a dentist’s office in Beverly Hills and one day the dental hygienist asked me to housesit for her while she was out of town. When I explored her house, I discovered a nursery with a basinet and sheer white curtains hanging in the windows. There were teddy bears and stuffed elephants and the walls were painted light blue. But she didn’t have a kid. I had entered the negative space of the child who was gone and that realization spooks me to this day.

And it is that spooky feeling that I got reading through the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford University Press, 1998). I felt the echoing sounds of the children of history singing, half-singing, laughing or crying on playgrounds, on farms and cities and in fields. I conjured up the image a little English village boy on a cold February morning in 1650, seven years old, close to my son’s age, throwing seeds to the birds while singing these words:

Away, birds away
Take a little, and leave a little
And do not come again;
For if you do,
I will shoot you through,
And there is an end of you.

Indeed, I have often understood the nursery rhymes in terms of my own children: the way toddlers laugh at funny sounds and how they are especially fond of nonsense language. I thought about the way they love to add physical gestures to language. I tried this one out on my daughter Charlotte, who is eighteen months old, and she loved it. The mother is supposed to take the infant’s hands and repeat the following words:

Clap, clap handies,
Mamie’s wee wee ain,
Clap, clap handies,
Dadie’s comin hame,
Hame till his wee bonnie wee bit laddie;
Clap, clap handies.

The language here links the child’s new wonder and joy at the world to the made-up, song-like language itself. The imaginary becomes embodied through the interlacing of various sounds, and the child is also physically linked to the mother in the clapping gesture.

You’re probably familiar with the counting rhyme, “Eenie meenie miney mo” but there are other ones sure to bring joy to any poet’s ear: “Inty, minty, tipsy toe, Alabama, domino” or “Ocheke, pochake, domincanochake, Out she go.”

Other aspects of the joys of nonsense or of coded language such as games and riddles are explicitly connected to cognitive development. This is one of my personal favorites in the anthology:

In fir tar is,                                                                                     
In oak none is,
In mud eels are,
In clay none are.
Goat eat ivy;
Mare eat oats.

I don’t know Latin, but apparently, when you say this over and over again and very quickly, it is supposed to sound like that dead language. I can see schoolchildren in 1842 having a laugh about this. I also found a nursery rhyme from 1633 that deals directly with the fear of losing children:

Some Christian people all give eare,
Unto the greife of us,
Caus’d by the death of three Chidren deare,
That which it happened to us.
Three Children sliding there abouts,
Upon a place too thin,
That so at last it did fall out,
That they did all fall in.
Yee parents all that Children have.
And yee that have none yet;
Preserve your Children from the Grave,
And teach them home to sit.

As poets, what can we learn from all of these nursery rhymes? The first thing is that sound itself intoxicates and that we connect sound, rhythm, and rhyme to form very early on, probably from infancy. The music of language forms our understanding of the world and that is why it seems so fundemental, in poems, to follow the music and sounds over sense, and to trust that your ear will take you where you want to go. We also learn that language is deeply connected to play—riddles, jokes, nonsense, and, for lack of a better word, fun. But it is also wedded to tragic losses, lost time, lost childhood, the loss of the child itself and the body of the child. Even when we survive childhood, some part of us has fallen through the ice never to return. Children are connected to that loss too. They are constantly warned about strangers, about the instability of their surroundings, constantly reminded about how small they are. As poets, we take that smallness with us into adulthood and turn it into poetry.

To ask where nursery rhymes come from is akin to asking where they are going. They are anonymous, collective, and altered slightly along the way to fit the historic and geographic moods of specific points in time and space and political situations. Many of these songs have traveled far and wide, rippling through the generations, and they are still traveling almost already from the future. They were probably the first poems that you encountered and internalized, and they are also the children of poetry who outlive us always over the hills and far away, navigating history in an extravagantly playful yet serious form. 

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I love the comment on the "music of language," especially with regard to nursery rhymes. Although I am somewhat biased as a musician, the rhymes and the outgrowth in song-games of children serve as a foundation for so much development, and the image of death is often nearby.
One of my favorites is quoted in Orwell's 1984 (Oranges and Lemons) , but I only learned the melody for it when I was in college and played the game when I was kind of like London Bridge with the children passing under the chopper, which descends upon their heads at the "chip, chop" section and finally one is captured and presumably decapitated.
"Oranges and lemons" say the bells of St. Clements
"You owe me five farthings" say the bells of St. Martins
"When will you pay me" say the bells of Old Bailey
"When I grow rich" say the bells of Shoreditch
"When will that be" say the bells of Stepney
"I do not know said the great bell of Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head
Chip, chop, chip, chop, the old man's head!
This version includes some verses I never knew

Thanks for the comment, Karl. Anyone else have any favorite Nursery Rhymes?
I was surprised to learn, after reading through the anthology, that Shakespeare was probably (they are not sure) familiar with a lot of nursery rhymes and apparently 2/3 of all nursery rhymes were in circulation / popular culture by the time he was alive. 

As a small first-grader in 1961, Mrs. Mack, my half-crazy teacher in a flowery dress decided all on her own that I, Gordon Hilgers, was "retarded" because I would not read the "See Dick Run, See Jane Follow" easy readers.  Mrs. Mack panicked, called my mother and demanded I be put into a psyhicatrist's office for treatment. 

That was "news" to my mother, mainly because I would not quit begging for them, she would reward me every Friday night with a new volume of the old Golden Book Encyclopedia.  I was often so excited I would read the entire volume, scanning all the pictures, the entire 10 yards in a single evening.  Retarded?  Nope.  Merely bored. 

I have always enjoyed the Grimms fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, mainly because, most certainly during the long-gone days when wandering away from home and into the Black Forest could be a death sentence or a kidnapping for typically defenseless children.  It was a warning, a quite Germanic means of keeping kids in a state of both fear and vigilance.  Homeland Security, after all, has done plenty of deals with local news outlets to "keep fear alive", mainly because the almost entirely infantilized population of the United States is so glued to the boob-tube that the "fear-as-vigilance" bit works like a Lucky Charm, lephrucauns not inclued in the cereal box.  The shows ramp-up our hard-wired "hunting mechanism", especially in males, who want to hunt-down the typically slobbily-dressed "bad" guys with weapons, whille their wifeys want to go shopping for goods advertised these days to relax the programmed into becoming consumers with consumerism OCD.  That is truly depressing for a nation with one of the highest literacy rates in the world.  Currently smashed to bits, save for us smart people who continue to read and read--long after graduation.  What is wrong with having a mentor?  Why do people who demonstrate skill need a "P-slip" to get validation as a professional?  That bugs me sometimes, but not all the freaking time.  Shouldn't literacy skills be a matter of demonstration and not franking? 

Back to Hansel and Gretel and the wicked witch with the gingerbread house in the woods, in the dale, so to speak.  The feminine side of those seeking to control the Germanic instinct to fight, rob, steal, rape and obliterate an enemy was, of course, the Catholic Church's sexual and guilt-ridden totalitarian "soft machine".  This is why British colonists in the 13 states seceded from the "ancien regime" and began again, freeing themselves (albeit temporarily) from the church-is-state schtick. 

When Hansel and Gretel put the wicked witch into the oven, I get chills because I am a sorta war child who grew up an a center of military and federal government intelligence operations, mainly because my very first friend, Phyllis, was the offspring of a man who lived through Treblinka, 14 numbers on the soft side of his forearm, and a wolfen-cold look in his eyes.  I never saw Phhllis or her father after my family was transferred to the ever-so-hateful city called Dallas, Texas. 

My father went "aggro" when The Dallas Morning News printed that "public service" warning to JFK about changing his decision to come to Dallas: the wicked witch, first Catholic president, thrown to the dogs like so much hamburger meat. 

That is past now.  Dallas still reels in hatred, but is is on "the down-low".  I am fed-up with being pushed ever rightward by unpredictable forces designed to bully me "into the deal, the arrangement" as if I was their plastic Jesus. 

In Grimm-world, the Jewish-Christian sexual and warrior-stopping totalitarianism kept the Germanic tribes under an invisible bootheel for centuries, and if one looks at the paintings by Durer , one will find paintings of people bearing a heavy burden.  That resentment, sans any freedom at all to express their more-than-likely hard-wired predillection to fight, fight, fight, and to wander, wander, wander, grew and grew until it manifest in the ugliness of a Holocaust. 

That's what Grimm did to Germans.  The hate took centuries to build, and no, those fairy tales are teaching devices.  See Dick run.  See Jane follow Dick. 

I am not Spot.  No matter how hard anyone on the planet tries to turn me into "their rover".  Arf.  That's the only bark I'll give them.  Have a happy day, guys.  Interesting article. 

I love your reflection that "even when we survive childhood, some part of us has fallen through the ice never to
return."  That imagery conveys the same mix of blunt realism, eerie loss, and simple beauty as the darker nursery
rhymes do.  On the brighter side of the ice, your point about nursery rhymes’ invitation to act them out reminded me of a
favorite from my childhood that turned me and my sister into farmers.

Oats, peas, beans and barley grow, Oats, peas, beans and barley grow,

Can you or I or anyone know
How oats, peas, beans and barley grow?

First the farmer sows his seed, Stands erect and takes his ease,

He stamps his foot and claps his hands,
And turns around to view his lands.

Next the farmer waters the seed, Stands erect and takes his ease,

He stamps his foot and claps his hands,
And turns around to view his lands.

Next the farmer hoes the weeds, Stands erect and takes his ease,

He stamps his foot and claps his hands,
And turns around to view his lands.

Last the farmer harvests his seed, Stands erect and takes his ease,

He stamps his foot and claps his hands,
And turns around to view his lands.


From Basil Bunting‘s brief “A Poet’s Point of View” (1966)


Reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry.  Without the sound, the reader looks at the lines as he looks at prose, seeking a meaning. Prose exists to convey meaning, and no meaning such as prose conveys can be expressed as well in poetry. That is not poetry’s business.


Poetry is seeking to make not meaning, but beauty; or if you insist on misusing words, its “meaning” is of another kind, and lies in the relation to one another of lines and patterns of sound, perhaps harmonious, perhaps contrasting and clashing, which the hearer feels rather than understands, lines of sound drawn in the air which stir deep emotions which have not even a name in prose….


Very few artists have clear, analytical minds. They do what they do because they must.  Some think about it afterwards in a muddled way and try unskilfully to reason about their art . Thus theories are produced which mislead critics and tyros, and sometimes disfigure the work of artists who try to carry out their own theories.


There is no need of any theory for what gives pleasure through the ear, music or poetry. The theoreticians will follow the artist and fail to explain him….


Do not let the people who set examinations kid you that you are any nearer understanding a poem when you have parsed and analysed every sentence, scanned every line, looked up the words in the Oxford Dictionary and the allusions in a library of reference books. That sort of knowledge will make it harder for you to understand the poem because, when you listen to it, you will be distracted by a multitude of irrelevant scraps of knowledge. You will not hear the meaning, which is in the sound.


All the arts are plagued by charlatans seeking money, or fame, or just an excuse to idle. The less the public understands the art, the easier it is for charlatans to flourish.

My grandmother's favourite rhyme:
Mary-Ellen at the church turned up
and her Ma turned up
and her Pa turned up
but no bridegroom with a ring turned up.
Then a telegram boy with his nose turned up
brought a telegram to say
the groom weren't on his way
and they found him in the river with his toes turned up.

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