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 awayTake a little, and leave a littleAnd 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.