Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nursery Rhymes

I was looking through an old book of nursery rhymes recently. I like nursery rhymes for two reasons. Firstly, they are usually the first exposure kids have to rhythm and rhyme, which although largely distained by the current poetry establishment, I feel are something integral to our enjoyment of language and even what makes us human. Secondly, they seem so ancient that it feels like tapping into some vast historical consciousness just to recite them. There’s something particularly interesting to me about folk culture that has survived this long. We can easily listen to music and poetry that is hundreds of years old (even thousands, for poetry), but that is usually in the form of J. S. Bach or John Milton—the old stuff that got popular and was kept in print or in repertory for centuries. For some reason I get more excited upon finding folk culture preserved, as if it is somehow older, even though it isn’t. I marvel more when a Victorian novel mentions a folk dance I know rather than a famous poet.

So, back to the book of nursery rhymes. Some I knew. Some I didn’t know I knew until I read them, and then the memory of them came rushing back to me from wherever it was buried:
A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar,
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o’clock,
But now you come at noon.
Some I had never heard, but seemed to fit exactly with the intriguing nonsense that makes up Mother Goose:

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread and some gave them brown.
Some gave them plumb cake and drummed them out of town.
I find myself wondering if there is hidden historical significance buried in this poem, as there is reputed to be in “Froggy Went a-Courting”, for instance. The lion and the unicorn are both supporters of the British monarchy’s coat of arms… It sounds like there was some internal conflict… Do the baked goods have particular significances? There may be something there.

Some rhymes I had never heard before, and easily saw why:

See saw, Margery Daw
Sold her bed to lay in the straw.
Was she not a dirty slut
To sell her bed and lie in dirt!
Er… yeah. Like the version of Cinderella where the wicked step sisters cut off their toes, that one is better left out of library storytime.

The purpose of this post, though, was the discovery of further verses to “Little Bo-Peep”. I thought about Frank McCourt’s account in his memoir Teacher Man of discussing “Little Bo-Peep” with his class of high school students. His analysis of the poem was that even though Bo-Peep worried, everything turned out OK in the end:

Leave them alone and they’ll come home
Bringing their tails behind them
McCourt extended this into a metaphor about his own students, and his realization that as a teacher he didn’t need to fret about them. They would get there eventually. Some may be a little slow, some may go in the wrong direction at first, but leave them alone, and they’ll succeed in their own time. I liked the interpretation, and didn’t think more of it until I found the following verses:
Little Bo-Peep fell fast asleep
And dreamt she heard them bleating
But when she awoke she found it a joke
For they were still a-fleeting

Then she took up her little crook
Determined for to find them.
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they’d left their tails behind them.
Maybe it’s the English major in me, but this seems fraught with loss of innocence and coming of age. I almost could have believed that William Blake wrote it. Negligence leads to loss, and the recovery is incomplete. Innocence is not restored. But here’s the thing: the sheep were always going to lose their tails anyway. It was just a matter of time. It wasn’t Little Bo-Peep’s fault, though she saw it as her fault, and the poem even kind of implies that it is her fault, too. The lambs went through the bloody rite of passage, and Mary wasn’t there to protect them. But she couldn’t really have protected them anyway. There’s food for thought for high school teachers.

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