Nursery rhymes are short lyrics for children with apparently no meaning. We call it nonsense poetry. Children get captivated by their catchy, rhythmic music and they love to sing. In all human cultures ditties for their children in varying forms are present. Some of them are fabricated from imagination, some taken from the folklore, some from their religion and history, some coming to their ears with floating waves from far -off oceans, and some a medley woven from all these yarns. Stories that travelled from all sides were carried on in oral tradition and were kept alive. The purpose of these rhymes is mainly to make children happy but invariably it is also used as an educational tool to playfully teach and make them aware of their past. Their first form was lullabies which makes a strong bond between parent and child. First published collection of songs entitled Tommy Thumb’s Song Book came around 1744. Most of us have grown up listening and singing Twinkle Twinkle little star with an impetus passion which evaporated gradually as we grew up never to be found again in its carefree original way. In this write- up my focus is on some popular English nursery rhymes having significant historical reflections which blissfully never disturbed our childhood.
The most playful and ironically the most morbid of these is Ring-a-ring o’ roses. The poem obliquely points at the 1665 Great Plague of London. “Rosie’ refers to the red rashes the victim of plague suffers and ‘pocket full of posies’ needed to safeguard its strong odor. ‘We all fall down’ is a sad reminder that black epidemic wiped off 15% of British population.‘A –tishoo A -tishoo’ indicating sneezing – the first symptom of catching the illness. Another gory page of history is captured in ironically a light-hearted poem loved by children- Jack and Jill who went up the the hill. ‘Went up the hill’ is figuratively used as trying to amass wealth by hook or by crook and the reference is to the insatiable desires of King Louis XVI and Queen Mary Antoinette of France. As a result, Jack lost his crown and Jill was beheaded after his death- ‘came tumbling after’. People, though weak to confront, never forget and never forgive the black deeds of their monarchs. Open revolutions as in the case of Mary Antoinette and secret gossips as revealed in this case of Queen Mary 1 of England known as bloody Mary, are the examples. In the poem Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary the word ‘contrary’ indicates how despite the hatred of the people for the queen for getting 280 people murdered, her garden in fact a graveyard, is still beautiful. ‘Silver bells and cockle shells’ is a veiled reference to the torture devices and ‘Pretty maids’ all standing ‘in a row’ to be executed. Wicked queen Mary appears in another poem entitled Three Blind Mice portrayed as a farmer’s wife who cuts off the tails of ‘Three blind mice’ ‘with a carving knife’. Blind mice were three noble men who plotted against her and were burnt alive at stake. Rock –a- bye- Baby has many interesting theories surrounding it and making it a popular poem across the globe. In its original publication it came with a note that said “This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last.” making the poem satirical in nature. The poem has reference to the secret, dark, unscrupulous manipulations of the royalty. It was written in retaliation of King’s (James II) conversion to Catholicism that created a lot of political upheaval in Britain at that time. It was widely believed that the child in the poem was someone else’s child and brought from outside into the inner quarters of the palace of King in order to give him a Roman Catholic heir. ‘Cradle’ points out to the palace, ‘wind’ to the family members who wanted to overthrow the child. Another theory suggests that the poem was composed by an English immigrant to America who was fascinated by the custom of native Indian mothers who used to place their babies in cradles made from birch bark, hung on birch boughs letting the wind rock and baby to sleep. This idyllic picture transmutes the satiric vein of the poem and cheerfulness takes place of morbidity. In the poem London Bridge is Falling Down the sinisterly air again returns. It was said that the foundation of the Bridge was filled with the bodies of children and to fix it the offering of a human child is needed. According to another theory the Bridge was attacked by the Vikings. However, there is no such evidence in history either of attack or the superstition of chilling human sacrifice.
Many popular poems have been lifted as if directly from history. Humpty Dumpty is one such poem. It was the name of a massive canon used by the Royalists during the English. Civil War. During the siege it was placed at the top of the Church Tower- ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’, from where it attacked the troops of Parliamentarians but when the wall of Church Tower was blown up by them, the canon exploded and fell into the deep marshes. Thus Humpty Dumpty ‘had a great fall’ and ‘All the King’s horses and all the king’s men /Couldn’t put Humpty together again’. Published in 1810 it is also speculated that the poem refers to King Richard III who had a hump back, probably because he was very tall. In the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, he fell-off his horse, was captured by enemy, killed and buried in Greyfriars. This story however, is not substantiated by history but recently according to a BBC news skeletal remains found in a carpark in Greyfriars were confirmed via DNA testing as the remains of Richard III. Richard III and Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) were descendants of King Edward III and were rivals for the throne. The DNA analysis of the remains makes this story interesting and mysterious too as it showed evidence of infidelity in his family tree. In Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, Humpty Dumpty comes as a round egg. Georgie Porgie who ate ‘Pudding and pie’ who ‘kissed the girls’ and ‘made them cry’ is an amusing portrayal of the rolly polly, lecherous Prince Regent (later King George1V) who said to have weighed nearly 245 pounds. He had many mistresses and left them all miserable with several illegitimate children and obviously shunned the company of boys-‘When the boys came out to play,/ Georgie Porgie ran away.’ It may also refer to the Duke George Villiers in the court of King James 1. He was a lewd involved in several offensive sex scandals. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, one of the most popular English poems, has a direct reference to the wool tax levied by King Edward in the 13th century. According to this law one third of a sack of wool was paid to the ‘master’, the King, another went to the ‘Dame’, the Church and the remainder was left for the farmer meaning virtually nothing for ‘the little boy who cries in the lane’. The black sheep stands for bad luck for the farmer. Hickory Dickory Dock is a real 17th century astronomical clock placed in Exeter Cathedral. It was quite big with a huge hole at the bottom so that a ‘mouse went up the clock’ to escape from the resident cat. Very popular with children Little Jack Horner is a story that refers to the dismissal of monasteries but has no mention in history. Jack, a common name given to Thomas Horner, was a steward to the abbey of Glastonbury who was sent to the court of King Henry VIII with deeds of a dozen manors as gift with a request not to nationalise Church lands. On his way Jack took out the deed of Mells Manor- a plum piece of real estate and thus ‘pulled out a plum’ from the ‘Christmas pie’.
Nursery rhymes are written for children and these nonsensical but captivating rhythmic compositions with their thumping beats certainly do offer unadulterated joy to their uncomplicated mind. With their fertile imagination they weave a cocoon in their wishful world untouched by the thrashing waves of reality. Amusingly these rhymes never cease to entertain when we grow old. We adults see through the surface, the constantly moving cycle of Time and with it the rise and fall of empires and Man. The captured zeitgeist in the poems perfectly mirrors the working of the Law of Karma establishing balance in creation.