Most of us would be able to recite a nursery rhyme if we were asked to do so. Some might even begin to sing it, since the tune was often an integral part of the initial learning of the ditties when we were children. Nursery rhymes (or Mother Goose rhymes as they are often called in the United States) are part of childrens' early literacy as they listen and memorize stories and poems, chanting them in games.
Young children can recite nursery rhymes even though they may not know, or question, the meaning of the words or verses. Some of the ideas like "Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" or "Lavender blue, dillydilly" seem nonsensical but have strong appeal because of their rhyme and rhythm that embeds in the memory."Pease porridge hot" or "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man" can be acted our with fingers and hands, and "London Bridge is falling down" becomes a minidrama played over and over with fullbody actions. Each is a tiny story set to a pattern as lilting as it was centuries ago.
Children in every culture have nursery rhymes that reflect the history and customs of the people. For example, British rhymes refer repeatedly to London, Wales, Queen Anne, King George and many places and events in the history of England. Many rhymes such as "Humpty Dumpty" and "Jack and Jill" have counterparts in every European language and in several Asiatic and African dialects. Analogues of such rhymes like "Pat-a-cake" and "The House that Jack Built" have been found in oral traditions of people all over the world.
American nursery rhymes include "Yankee Doodle," which appeared during the American Revolution, and "Mary Had a Little Lamb," (1930) supposedly based on a true incident. It is said that Sarah Josepha Hale was the author of the verse; however Mary Elizabeth Sawyer of Sterling, Mass., claims to be the original "Mary." It seems that she rescued a lamb, nursed it back to health and even dressed the animal in pantalets. Because it followed her everywhere, her brother suggested they take it along to school. John Roulstone, who was visiting the school, saw the phenomenon and wrote out the first 12 lines as we know it today. Regardless of the actual authorship, it has been a favorite of children for 65 years.
Some adults consider nursery rhymes doggerel and protest their use. One was Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, historian, who sought nursery rhyme reform in 1952, saying that, "expressions of fear, weeping, moans of anguish, biting, pain and evidence of supreme selfishness may be found in almost every other page."
The "anti-Mother-Goose-group" calls attention to "bad poetry, bad example of behavior, a waste of time" at national language conventions, annually. It is always interesting to listen to those who, like the "Flat-Earth Society," never seem to make inroads into the basic philosophies or practices of the majority. Certainly, the "anti-Mother-Goose-group" has done little to stop the printing and buying of classical and new versions of Mother Goose books, even though that is their major objective.
Today, there are more Mother Goose books on the market than every before. In defense of the verses, many writers and linguists have proclaimed their worth. Poet Walter de la Mare wrote that they "free the fancy, charm tongue and ear, delight the inward eye, and many of them are tiny masterpieces of word craftsmanship." Robert Graves said that many were closer to poetry than "The Oxford Book of English Verse," and G.K. Chesterton stated that some of the lines coming from the nursery such as "Over the hills and far away" are "some of the most beautiful in all English poetry." This may be true, since at least six famous poets have claimed those exact sentiments as their own!
Writer and publisher Zena Sutherland says, "The verses are a perfect introduction to poetry, containing alliteration, cumulation, repetition and rhyme. They encourage the development of a wide range of language skills, and some have the fluidity, shifting patterns of wordplay, and flashes of vivid imagery that are the touchstones of fine poetic style."
While most of the verses were not intended for children, Chesterton would have been accurate in stating that the verses were "perpetuated by the nursery" rather than actually "coming from the nursery." The source of the rhymes continues to be of major interest. If they weren't originally intended for the young, where did they originate?
Many of the verses are attributed to adult humor and jibes about social issues of the time. In their original wording, it is safe to say that they were not suitable for childrens' ears even though parents at that time saw nothing unusual in them listening to such strong language. The fragments that have been retained in the rhymes and gradual modifications over nine and 10 centuries have made them obscure enough to continue being used by generation after generation even with many Puritanical objections.
Some of the rhymes come from ballads ("Old Woman, old woman, shall we go a-shearing?") or events ("Ladybird, ladybird") - some of which have disastrous outcomes ("your house is on fire!")
The street songs and vendor calls were often made into chants such as "Hot Cross Buns," which in turn became a mummers play, "On Christmas night I turned the spit."
Bar rooms and taverns were the source and also a topic in many rhymes like "Nose, nose, jolly red nose," and refrains from army barracks were sung as well. ("Go to bed, Tom").
Religious themes came through in proverbs such as "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John" or "If wishes were horses," and often theological beliefs were parodied. "Good morning, Father Francis" is one example. Many rhymes were based on rude jokes, romantic intentions or a puzzle/riddle regarding a political intrusion on one's life.
Some of the rhymes are sly satires on real people, such as "Old King Cole," which appeared in print for the first time around 1708 in a volume called "Useful Transactions in Philosophy" by Dr. William King, where he chided the royalty. Twenty years later in the "History of Great Britain," three kings named Cole were also mentioned. The King Cole of the nursery rhyme is said to have reigned in Britain in the third century. This king was a popular ruler; and an earthwork, supposedly a Roman amphitheater at Colchester, is known as the "King Cole Kitchen."
Another example of linking nursery rhymes to actual people are the dozen or more possible interpretations of "Hey diddle diddle." One printed in 1569 says this ditty refers to "a lamentable tragedy mixed full of pleasant mirth, containing the life of Cambises King of Persia."
Historians have also attributed the nonsense verse to Hathor worship, Queen Elizabeth and Lady Katherine Grey.
No one seems to be immune from being identified - often ridiculed - through the rhymes: children ("Little Miss Muffett"), grownups ("There was an Old Woman That Lived in a Shoe"), imaginary people ("Old Mother Goose when she wanted to wander"), the prankster ("Ding, dong, dell"), royalty ("The Queen of Hearts"), the obese and thin ("Jack Sprat could eat no fat") or the grotesque ("There was a crooked man"). There are verses about domestic farm animals, birds and fowl, the weather ("Rain, rain, go away") and stories that are cumulative ("This is the house that Jack built").
According to Ione and Peter Opie, historians of nursery rhymes, "We can say almost without hesitation that, of those pieces that date from before 1800, the only true nursery rhymes (i.e. rhymes composed especially for the nursery) are the rhyming alphabets ("A, is an apple pie") the infant amusements (verses which accompany a game) and the lullabies ("Sleep, little baby, don't say a word"). Even the riddles were in the first place designed for adult perplexity.
The earliest known collection of nursery rhymes, "Tommy Thumb's Pretty Songbook," was conceived in 1744 by a printer's widow named Mary Cooper. But the first time "nursery rhymes" appeared in a title was in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, in 1824, a Scottish periodical. Previously they had been called ditties or songs.
The history of Mother Goose is clouded by at least one legend that arose during the 19th century of a man named Tom Fleet who married Elizabeth Goose. Fleet's mother-in-law, also named Elizabeth, sang to the grandchildren over the years; and since Tom was a proprietor of a printing house, he copied the songs and published them in England and later in America as "Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose Melodies for the Children." The price was 2 coopers. It is claimed that this book - "the most elusive `ghost' volume in the history of American letters" - displayed a gooselike creature with a long neck on the title page.
The progenitors of the Fleet and Goose families give credence to the book, even though there is no known copy of it available. They also point to the Boston's Old Granary Burying Ground, where a grave is marked (without a headstone) "Madam Goose."
Some literary figures believe that the original Mother Goose was the mother of French Emperor Charlemagne (742-814). This woman, who was called Goose-Footed Bertha, was famous for the tales that she told the children.
The most respected belief about the origin of Mother Goose (and thus the version that circulated for centuries) is French scholar Charles Perrault's "Histoireas ou Contes du Temps Passe avec des Moralites" (1729) (History or Tales of Past Times with Morals) that contained, on the title page, a picture of an old woman sitting beneath a plaque reading, "Contes de Ma Mere L'Oye" (Stories of My Mother the Goose). John Newbery used her name for the collection of nursery rhymes that he published in 1760 and was published by Isaiah Thomas 25 years later.
Other historians claim that the term Mother Goose simply came from the older woman in the villages whose task it was to watch the geese. Since these women were also the village storytellers, they might have been called ma mere l'oie.
It is a known fact that a majority of the rhymes were a part of oral tradition - storytelling, lullabies, games, rituals and jokes - for generations before they appeared in print.
An analysis of more than 500 nursery rhymes shows that less than one-fourth originated before 1599. Most of the better-known verses such as "Jack and Jill" (1765), "The Queen of Hearts" (1782), and "Little Bo-Peep" (1805) are not old in terms of the classical literature and folklore. At least one-half of the rhymes are traced to the years between 1650 and 1800.
Many well-known illustrators have contributed to their own versions of the verses, from Arthur Rackham (1913) to Maurice Sendak (1993). The books appear in every conceivable price, shape size and interpretation. For example, "The Christian Mother Goose Treasury" has eliminated much of the violence from the verses. In "There was an old woman that lived in the shoe," in the traditional version she "spanked them all soundly and sent them to bed," but now is found to "kiss them all soundly" before tucking them in for the night.
Modern versions of the rhymes have appeared as satires on political and social issues. "Mother Goose in 1940" was a parody on F.D. Roosevelt, "The Nixon Poems" and "The Watergate Mother Goose" are lampoons on the issues of their time. "The Inner City Mother Goose" is a strong statement about our urban areas, as does Sendak's "We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy."
Some recent editions of Mother Goose reflect the continued interest and research on these verses:
- "The Real Mother Goose Book of American Rhymes" selected by Debby Slier (Scholastic) is a collection of 300 poems, chants and rhymes with a distinctive American flavor.
- Scott Cook's "Mother Goose" (Knopf) is a spirited group of familiar rhymes with animated pictures that enhance the classical nature.
- "The Little Dog Laughed and Other Nursery Rhymes," illustrated by Lucy Cousins (Puffin) is a modern expressionistic look at 64 short verses. This art work is wonderfully childlike. (See illustrations on the cover.)
- "Come Back, Jack!" (Candlewick) is a novel approach to the rhymes, as it ties a little girl (who didn't like books) and her brother Jack (who did like books) into an adventure in storyland. Catherine and Laurence Anholt have included many subtle notions about reading and traditional literature into this funny little book.
- Andrews and McMeel have published "Traditional Nursery Rhymes," a reprint of an 1877 edition with old color illustrations by Walter Crane. Green Tiger Press has done the same with "Favorite Poems of Childhood."
Ranging from the traditional paintings to very contemporary art styles there are many new versions of Mother Goose: For the youngest reader, HarperCollins has issued two pop-up books - "Old King Cole" and "Hey Diddle Diddle" in small format and clever paper engineering. Salley Mayor has produced fabric relief (applique, embroidery, dyeing and soft sculpture) to illustrate Sarah Josepha Hale's "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (Orchard), and Robin Page has developed "The Mother Goose Sticker Book" (Ticknor and Field), which is a matching game for young readers as they find the stickers that fit the picture.
Three new versions of the nursery rhymes show the varied use in all cultures. "No Hickory, No Dickory, No Dock," written by John Agard and Grace Nichols (Candlewick), features Caribbean nursery rhymes. "Dragon Kites and Dragonflies," adapted and illustrated by Demi (Harcourt Brace), is a masterful collection of Chinese rhymes; while "Babushka's Mother Goose" by Patricia Polacco (Philomel) is an compilation of poems with a Russian flavor.
"Tickle Day: Poems From Father Goose" by Charles Ghigna, illustrated by Cyd Moore (Hyperion), is a collection from the author's original work that he says combines all the elements that make the traditional rhymes popular. Since he is known as Father Goose to children, why not?