Jolly millers, pipers’ sons, kings in counting houses, Little Boy Blues blowing horns and sleeping under haycocks, beggars coming to town: what have all these to say to children raised on Saturday Superstore and the A -Team? Is there still a place for nursery rhymes in our high tech world?
Eric Hadley has an answer.
Amongst the remaindered stock in a second-hand bookshop, I found recently a book by an Italian-American called Allesandro Falassi. It was called Folklore by the Fireside (Scolar Press) and in it Falassi gives an account of the tradition of story-telling, song and poetry still alive until recently in the Tuscan villages from which he, his family and relations came.
There is nothing in my own experience or that of most people I know which matches his account of a community gathering regularly of an evening in each other’s houses. They gathered together around the fireplace – specially prepared for the occasion – to tell stories, sing songs, ask riddles, comment on (and insult) each other through rhymes. The stories and songs, though ancient, were constantly reworked through questions, commentary, topical reference from the audience. That audience (not the passive one of concerts and plays) included adults, adolescents and children. Though there was a special time in the proceedings for them, their stories, songs and rhymes were part of a continuity which led into the mysterious and exciting world of the adults. Before they were hustled off to bed they might just catch one of the young men pouring out his feelings in song for one of the young girls present ,song insulting the prowess of one of his rivals in her affection. As Maurice O’Sullivan remarks of his own early childhood experience of song in the very similar Irish-speaking ceildh tradition: ‘Every word came out clearly. I did not understand the meaning of the words but the other part of the song was plain to me – the voice, the tremor and the sweetness.’
I don’t offer this little account in a spirit of nostalgia. You can’t be nostalgic for what you have never had and that kind of society is for us irrecoverable and unimaginable. Or is it? Though it may have lost its connections with what came after for adolescents and adults, isn’t that tradition still alive in a truncated form every time a parent takes a child upon its knee to sing or say a nursery rhyme? Even more surprising, isn’t that ‘special place’ for song and poetry still made every time an infant teacher invites her pupils to step away from the tables and chairs of conspicuous instruction to gather on he carpet and share a different kind of listening and saying?
The resilience of this part of our story and poetic tradition is all the more surprising when we consider how small a part poetry plays in the lives of adults and how hard it is to assert its place in learning in our education system – how surprised we would be to see poetry pushed in our classrooms with the same financial expenditure and governmental energy as is lavished on micros.
And yet, to stay with the jargon of that world for a moment, the collection of rhymes, songs, ballads, jokes, riddles, puns and tongue twisters we choose to call ‘nursery rhymes’ is the most comprehensive ‘language development programme’ that we have and the user trials have been going on for some hundreds of years now. Those rhymes are not as their designation now suggests a random sample of entertaining ditties fit only for the very young. In one sense, they are severely functional – they help the child to become a member of the language community in which eventually they will have to take up their adult place. Unlike some contemporary designers of ‘language programmes’ the collective wisdom of the historical community understood that inconspicuous learning – learning that we do without realising that we are learning – is a very powerful means. Powerful enough, at least, to ensure that we don’t have too many remedial talkers. As one eminent linguistician has said: ‘. . . songs and rhymes help the learner to effortlessly retain the basic patterns of our grammar’- both the spoken and written forms. What he didn’t go on to explain was how and why this happens-so I’ll make an attempt.
We are saturated as babies and young children in a world of linguistic ‘noise’. What the experience of songs and rhymes encourages is attentiveness and alertness to meaning in that ‘noise’. It is precisely those qualities which ‘mark out’ their difference from ordinary discourse which are so important – melody, repetitions, rhythms, cadences, etc. and, of course, their unchangingness amongst constant change. To put it another way, they help children to become ‘listeners’ – people who attend with the expectation of meaning. It’s hard to separate that expectation of meaning from our entry into a world of shared meaning which itself depends upon human relationship. We learn to listen and talk (and eventually to read) in order to share more fully in the human world which surrounds us. As an old Suffolk saying puts it: ‘The lil’ ol boy sat on this father’s knee while he wor a-telling him a story. And he kept lookin’ at him as though he wor a-pickin’ the words out of his mouth.’
These songs and rhymes offer an invitation to the child – an invitation to participate in and gain mastery over words’. Gaining mastery over words involves taking risks and sorting yourself out in this kind of minefield:
Betty Botter bought some butter
But, she said, the butter’s bitter,
If I put it in my butter…
Are you saying the words or are they saying you? Gaining mastery also involves playing with language, seeing how far you can go – like the infant pupil I met recently who had discovered the power of the word ‘very’ – especially if you had repeated it five times in the same sentence. Nursery rhymes commit outrages with language – rhyme almost invariably dominates meaning –
Little Poll Parrot
Sat in his garret …
and they encourage further outrages and improvisations. I won’t go into the changes that my son can ring upon the following at the expense of his poor father:
Bring Daddy home
With a fiddle and a drum
A pocket full of spices
An apple and a plum.
And that brings me indirectly to riddles. I used to think the appeal of riddles lay mainly in their linguistic puzzles. I’m now more inclined to the view that their real appeal lies in the asking – power over words is one thing but power over others through words expands the possibilities enormously.
Earlier I stressed the didactic function of nursery rhymes – linguistic rules, conceptual rules, rules for living – but there is a strong critical and subversive strand. They permit what in ordinary discourse would be unspeakable and impermissible to the young child – expressions of rage, anger, disgust, undiluted plain-speaking:
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell
But this I know, and know full well
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.
This is the area in which institutionalized and collected rhyme begins to shade off into children’s own culture with its rich vein of insults, jeering, double entendres and sotto voce risky remarks devised to test the adult’s ‘official’ hearing.
But children are not only hard and resilient, they are also susceptible. How else can I explain how my raging, self-willed two-year-old lets himself drift away on:
Hush-a-bye baby on the tree-top
When the wind blows the cradle will rock …
Even he can feel the ‘voice, the tremor and the sweetness’.
Like all great poetry and unlike so much anaemic verse written for children nursery rhymes don’t moralise. Even the gallery of monsters which haunt the collections is not primarily intended to terrorise children to make them good. At two years old, the pressure came from my son and not me to ‘Read Giant!’:
Fee, fi, to, turn,
I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he alive or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my
Just as you have to learn how to listen you have to learn what to be afraid of – passing through the stage of being at the mercy of your generalised fears to that of fearing a specific creature. What more exquisite pleasure can there be than playing out and practising those fears (What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’). Emotions, that is, become more real and more known through the definitions they achieve in metaphor, play and dramatisation. Not that the range of emotions in nursery rhyme is limited to fear and anxiety. How could that be so when they were fashioned, as that great respecter of nursery rhymes, Wordsworth, recognised, for:
‘A race of real children; not too
Too learned or too good; but
And bandied up and down by love
and hate …
… May books and Nature be their
Eric Hadley teaches in the South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education.
Bill Boyle and Pat Triggs back him up.
Speculations about what nursery rhymes mean in the form of scholarly investigations of their historical, political and folklore origins are fascinating – to adults. Children aren’t usually concerned to have it explained that Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary is probably Mary Queen of Scots or that the pig stolen by Tom the piper’s son was an eighteenth-century sweetmeat and not a real pig as depicted in so many Mother Goose collections. What connects children to this motley collection of songs, chants, prayers, riddles, jokes and jingles which we have accumulated over centuries is the irresistible combination of rhythm, rhyme and story. There can be no better introduction to the world of story than these highly condensed narratives; their very brevity leaves plenty of space for listeners or sayers to roam around in making of them what they will. And there’s no doubt that all human life is here. Little Polly Flinders whipped by her mother for spoiling her nice new clothes, Little Tommy Tittlemouse who caught fishes in other men’s ditches and
Tommy Trot, a man of law, who
Sold his bed and lay upon straw,
Sold the straw and slept on grass
To buy his wife a looking glass.
There’s many a novel which takes longer to say less about the tongue-tied communications of boy-girl relationships than these four lines:
As Tommy Snooks and Bessy Brooks
Were walking out one Sunday Says
Tommy Snooks to Bessy Brooks
Tomorrow will be Monday.
Nursery rhymes are resonant with possible meanings and the joy is that there is no pressure to `understand’ them. Who is wandering ‘upstairs downstairs and in my lady’s chamber’? Who is this ‘old man who wouldn’t say his prayers’, who gets ‘thrown downstairs’ so precisely ‘by the left leg’? What’s he doing in my lady’s chamber? Who is telling this story? Why is someone talking to a goose?
One mark of an experienced reader we are told is tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity – three and four-year-olds seem to be off to a good start.
Sharers of nursery rhymes can feel the sadness of I had a Little Pony, the moral indignation of Ding Dong Bell; they can relish nonsense and word play, bounce to Ride a Cock Horse, tickle toes with This Little Piggy. An involvement of all the senses which is held together by the controlling sense of rhythm.
Rhythm is part of all poetry, from the nursery rhyme and witty limerick to the moving love poem. From the banal street chant of:
Tell tale tit
Your mother can’t knit
Your father can’t walk
With a walking stick.
to the playgroup sound of:
Dip, dip, dip
My blue ship
Sails on the water,
Like a cup and saucer,
the common factor is rhythm. Rhythm gives the rhyme or poem its shape, it defines the sound and makes it easier to remember. This sense of rhythm in the early experience of the child as he is exposed to nursery rhymes, enables him to develop a sensitivity to the musical qualities inherent in any future appreciation of language. The combination of strong rhythms and memorisable rhymes must explain why Mother Goose stood the test of time.
The words are crafted to provide sounds that give pleasure to the small child. It is in this that the real ‘success’ of nursery rhymes must be measured. From the attraction of Baa Baa Black Sheep and Mary had a Little Lamb, the progression is natural to the world of narrative poetry and the subtleties of nonsense verse. But without the initial attraction of Hey diddle diddle and Goosey, Goosey Gander, how many of us would have started on that progression? How many of the youngsters who now relish the `story style’ poetry of Michael Rosen and Roger McGough, would have done so without a dose of Desperate Dan that dirtiest of old men, who ‘washed his face in a frying pan’? The nonsense verse of such as Colin West and Spike Milligan will be better appreciated by those who have cut their teeth on:
Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John,
Went to bed with his trousers on.
One shoe off, and one shoe on,
Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John.
Because of their mesmeric rhythm and simple rhymes, nursery rhymes are easily remembered or memorised by their young audience, which enhances the sense of sharing the fun later. Children can express within their own circle, be it family or nursery group, the pleasure that they feel in the sound of the words. Our adult, more sophisticated (?) reaction to poetry or prose is simply an extension or mature progression of the same feelings, the same responses.
Take Your Pick … from our recommendations of new titles and in-print editions.
The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book
Edited by Iona and Peter Opie, Oxford University Press, 019 869112 2, £6.95
The essential reference book for all students of nursery rhyme. First published in 1955, the collection contains over 800 rhymes. Illustrated with early woodcuts, and additional designs by Joan Hassall. (See also The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes by the same authors, 019 869111 4, £6.95.)
Popular Nursery Rhymes
Edited by Jennifer Mulherin, Granada, 0 246 11492 4, £5.95
Also mainly for adults. Notes on possible origins and explanations and illustrations from a variety of past collections, including many from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Compiled by Kathleen Lines, illustrated by Harold Jones, OUP, 0 19 279537 6, £6.95
A classic collection in traditional style.
The Mother Goose Treasury
Illustrated by Raymond Briggs, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 90800 0, £8.95; Picture Puffin, 014 050.088 X, £4.95
A collection of over 400 rhymes, each one given an individual Raymond Briggs’ interpretation. Amazing value.
Illustrated by Brian Wildsmith, OUP, 0 19 279611 9, £5.95
Wildsmith’s geometric style and’ magical use of colour make this another collection that youngsters will marvel over as a ‘read aloud’ or private reading book.
The Great Big Book of Nursery Rhymes
Compiled by Peggy Blakeley, A & C Black, 0 7136 1644 X, £7.50
Well spaced rhymes, large colour illustrations – another good collection which will be enjoyed by infants and lower juniors.
Nicola Bayley’s Book of Nursery Rhymes
Jonathan Cape, 0 224 01337 8, £4.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.371 4, £1.50
A good collection, illustrated in Nicola Bayley’s by now distinctively hallmarked style.
Tomie de Paola, Methuen, 0 416 54940 3, £9.95
A sumptuous collection of 200 rhymes, beautifully designed and produced, and rich with de Paola’s gorgeous colours.
Over the Moon
Charlotte Voake, Walker Books, 0 7445 0337 X, £6.95
Over 100 rhymes in another beautifully designed and produced collection. Charlotte Voake’s illustrations take a child’s eye view and are both witty and warmly humorous.
The Mother Goose Book
Compiled and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, Beaver Books, 0 600 20478 2, £1.95 pbk
Over 160 rhymes in the close packed sixty pages. All arranged by theme, with humorous illustrations.
Rub a Dub Dub
Alan Rogers, Granada Dragon, 0 246 12327 3, £2.95 pbk
Cartoon-style illustrations in strong colours which don’t draw forth such a strong imaginative response as the pictures in other collections. May be familiar though, from the TV series. (Also Rub a Dub Dub 2 – More Nursery Rhymes, 0 246 12571 3, £4.95 hbk; 0 246 12328 1, £2.95 pbk, in the same style and format.)
The Faber Book of Nursery Songs
Selected by Donald Mitchell, arranged by Carey Blyton, Faber, 0 571 13472 6, £4.95 pbk
Paperback edition of this 1968 collection of 90 rhymes which has become an established classic. Piano accompaniments for the non-specialist and a simple percussion line make it attractive to even the minimally musical. Alan Howard’s black and white illustrations are a bonus.
Oranges and Lemons
Compiled by Karen King, illustrated by Ian Beck, OUP, 0 19 279796 4, £5.95
A good companion to Round and Round the Garden, Sarah Williams’ collection of fingerplay rhymes. Singing and dancing games (traditional and modem) with musical accompaniment – including guitar chords – and how-to-do-it in words and pictures. Karen King is a playgroup leader so the songs are guaranteed tried and tested. Audio-cassette of all the songs also available – 0 19 279821 9, £3.50 inc. VAT.
Collected and illustrated by Marc Brown, Collins, 0 00 195306 0, £4.95
Fourteen hand rhymes with accompanying picture instructions and delightful, large, full-colour illustrations with lots to look at and talk about.
Cynthia Mitchell, illustrated by Eileen Browne, Heinemann, 0 434 95140 4, £4.50 Lots of skipping rhymes for every occasion. Some amazingly catchy chants which could restore a dying playground heritage!
Hairy Tales and Nursery Crimes
Mike Rosen, Deutsch, 0 233 97708 2, £3.95
‘What does Jack find at the top of the Tinstalk?’ When you can appreciate the in-jokes of any group you really belong. Young readers and listeners with a rich background of tales and rhymes can claim their place in the literate community as they enjoy the word play and jokes arising from the outrageous liberties Mike Rosen takes with our traditional story heritage.
Bill Boyle is the author of What’s In a Poem (Collins) and recently scripted the Thames TV poetry documentary Words Joined Together, in the Middle English Series.