I have a book I love greatly. In august buckram, of a deep navy blue, with gold embossed letters on the spine, it is the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, compiled in 1951 by Iona and Peter Opie. It is more than an anthology; it is a deeply researched tome of scholarship, as one would expect from the Universitatis Oxoniensis.
Each rhyme is compiled with variorum versions and usually several pages of history, interpretation and arcana. Humpty Dumpty covers four pages, with footnotes. We learn that versions exist in Sweden (“Thille Lille”); in Switzerland (“Annebadadeli”); Germany (“Rüntzelkien-Püntzelken”); France (“Boule Boule”) and elsewhere. That Humpty-Dumpty is the name of a boiled ale-and-brandy drink; that there is a little girls’ game by the same name; that the name was also given to a siege engine in the English Civil War.
And we learn that there is a commonly-held belief that the rhyme (I can’t really call it a poem) is really about the fall of “My kingdom for a horse” Richard III. Not, apparently, true.
If there is a common theme in the book, it is that although so many people believe there is a “secret” meaning to so many of these nonsensical nursery rhymes, and seek out who in history is really being referenced, almost always such belief is unfounded. The poems are either attested to much earlier than the historical figure, or we know by internal evidence, it could not be.
How many people believe “Ring around the rosey” is about the Black Death or the Great Plague of 1665? This folk etymology doesn’t appear until after World War II, but now seems universally accepted, despite all evidence to the contrary. The symptoms in the verse are simply not the symptoms of the disease.
Or take “Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye; Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie.” The Opies relate several “interpretations” of the rhyme: “Theories upon which too much ink has been expended are (1) that the twenty-four blackbirds are the hours of the day; the king, the sun; the queen, the moon; (2) that the blackbirds are the choirs of the about-to-be dissolved monasteries making a dainty pie for Henry; the queen, Katherine; the maid, Anne Boleyn; (3) that the king, again, is Henry VIII; the rye, tribute in kind; the birds, twenty-four manorial title deeds presented under a crust; (4) that the maid is a sinner; the blackbird, the demon snapping off the maid’s nose to reach her soul; (5) that the printing of the English Bible is celebrated, blackbirds being the letters of the alphabet which were ‘baked in a pie’ when set up by the printers in pica form. … If any particular explanation is required of the rhyme, the straightforward one that it is a description of a familiar entertainment is the most probable.”
Occam’s razor, once again.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey, largely destitute of what Bruno Bettelheim called the “enchantment of childhood.” I never read any fairy tales until college. And the child rhymes I had about me were not usually the ancyent classiques, but rather, the newer comic ones.
Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy
Oo-ee Goo-ee was a worm
A mighty worm was he
He sat upon the railroad track
The train he did not see
Then there were the spelling rhymes:
Chicken in the car
The car won’t go
That’s how you spell
A bottle and a cork
That’s the way to spell
There were those set to familiar tunes, like the “Great green gobs of gooey grimy gopher guts,” or:
Be kind to your webfooted friends
For a duck may be somebody’s mother.
Be kind to your friends in the swamp,
where the weather is very, very damp.
Now you may think that this is the end —
Well, it is!
That abrupt ending was a theme, as in “Ooey-Gooey” and in
There was an old crow
Sat upon a clod;
That’s the end of my song.
When I was a kid, I thought that kind of deconstruction of the scansion was hilarious.
Later, I learned such eternal classics as:
O I had a little chicken and she wouldn’t lay an egg
So I ran hot water up and down her leg
O the little chickie cried and the little chickie begged
And the little chickie laid me a hard boiled egg.
Which we rounded off with the modern rewrite of “Shave and a haircut, Five cents:”
Match in the gas tank:
On top of spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball
When somebody sneezed.
It rolled off the table
And onto the floor,
And then my poor meatball
Rolled right out the door.
“Rolled right out the door,” had me rolling on the floor.
Almost as much as:
I see London, I see France;
I see someone’s underpants.
Underwear being, of course, in grade school second in delirious comedy only to farts.
Such rhymes may refer to real personages, of course, as:
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
(Although court records tell us Lizzie’s stepmother received 18 blows and her father, 11. Still, we don’t go to children’s doggerel for historical research.)
The fact is, this stuff is just nonsense verse, and we loved it, not only because we were immature little brats who found bodily functions risible, but because rhyme and meter delight the mind and ear. The children’s rhymes we recited when we were bairns were one of the ways we acquired language. (It has often been pointed out that we don’t “learn” our native tongue, but rather “acquire” it, picking it up by example, and examples that are memorable are easier to remember, QED.)
I don’t mean to imply these versicles were understood to be, or designed to be pedagogical, but that their effect was to make language magical and something we didn’t simply use, but delighted in.
Of course, sometimes the stupid rhymes were meant to teach, like “In Fourteen-hundred and Ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Or, in even more egregious form, causing lifelong damage to those required to memorize them in music-appreciation classes, those mnemonics that taught classical music:
This is the symphony
That Schubert wrote
And never finished.
In the hall of the Mountain King
In the hall of the Mountain King
Was written by Edvard Grieg.
Can’t unhear what you’ve heard. Such things led to parodies, also, sung to the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40:
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a Mozart
Shoot him down, shoot him down, shoot him down…
So, as we grew up, we still loved the silliness that we first encountered with our nursery rhymes and nonsense verse. It is why Walt Kelly’s Christmas carols are sung even by people who don’t know where they come from:
Deck us all with Boston Charlie
Walla-Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo
Nora’s freezing on the trolley
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!
It is why we love Shel Silverstein’s ditties:
The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.
He may catch all the others, but he
won’t catch me.
No you won’t catch me, old slithergadee,
you may catch all the others, but you wo—
My brother says he doesn’t even remember writing this one, but I wrote it down many, many years ago:
Watch your scotch
Or it’ll get brittle.
And I was once asked to be a Cyrano for a college roommate I detested and to write a poem that he could pretend he wrote for a girl he fancied. Her name?
If you have a yen,
Don’t ask if, ask Gwen.
I don’t remember how that romance turned out, but, you know, “Match in the gas tank; Boom-boom.”