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The politics behind nursery rhymes

Behind these innocent and attractive little compositions is a whole world of satire, innuendo, double-speak and the like

The politics behind nursery rhymes

Mary, Mary

BN Goswamy

A nursery rhyme is a traditional poem or song for children in Britain and many other countries, but usage of the term dates only from the late 18th/early 19th century.

— Common definition

The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes, and before I could read them for myself, I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone.

Nursery rhymes were political when they were first written! To me, that’s what it’s about: it’s about using it to say something more than just what the story is.

— Dylan Thomas

Since I did not, in my childhood or growing years, go to an English medium school, or a ‘Convent’ as they call them, there were no ‘Little Stars’ that twinkled in my private firmament; I did not go looking for ‘Three Bags Full of Wool/from a Black Sheep’, nor did I know any ‘Georgie’ who was ‘Kissing the Girls and made them Cry’. These came into my ken much later, and I even committed some to memory. But, truly, I could not make much sense of them. As years rolled on, I developed a healthy suspicion that there was more to them than lullaby-like music or words. But that is where I left it. For years.

Suddenly, however, the other day, reading something in a different context altogether, I came upon a whole lot of writing telling me that my young suspicions were not unfounded. Article upon article has appeared raising the question, sometimes even establishing, that behind these innocent and attractive little compositions was a whole world of satire, innuendo, double-speak and the like. Many articles were focused on how long nursery rhymes went back in England, some of them tracking them to Tudor times; others were keen on proving that the French sang and wrote them before anyone else; and so on. But some in the English context set out to track down how famous names, or even events, were related to what we now know simply as musical-sounding rhymes.

Quite simply, an article began like this: “(we trace the) likely content of Little Jack Horner’s pie, the possible association of Ring a Ring O’Roses with the horrors of the 1665 Great Plague, why hush a-bye baby was rocked in the tree-tops and who the quite contrary Mary was… why they couldn’t put Humpty together again, the tax implications surrounding that Baa Baa Black Sheep, and suggestions as to why ‘when the boys came out to play’, Georgie Porgie ran away… In addition, the tragic love story surrounding that most famous Somerset couple Jack and Jill, as well as suggesting reasons why the weasel goes ‘pop’!’

An outstanding example is the connection between the famous rhyme and a royal personage:

Georgie Porgie,

Pudding and pie,

Kissed the girls and made them cry;

When the boys came out to play,

Georgie Porgie ran away.

Georgie Porgie, it has been asserted, was actually the Prince Regent, later George IV. ‘A tad on the tubby side, George weighed in at more than 17½ stone with a waist of 50 inches (Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie), and as such, he became a constant source of ridicule in the popular press of the time.’

‘Despite his large size, George had also established for himself a rather poor reputation for his lusty romps with the fairer sex that involved several mistresses leaving a string of illegitimate children. He was also well known for his foppish behaviour but in private life was timid (‘when the boys came out to play/Georgie Porgie ran away’.)’ 

A very popular, and innocent sounding, rhyme runs like this:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

And pretty maids all in a row

Theories abound about the origins of this fragrant-sounding verse. However, ‘dark origins’ have also been linked to it. One theory sees the rhyme as connected to Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587), with ‘how does your garden grow’ referring to her reign over her realm, ‘silver bells’ referring to (Catholic) cathedral bells, ‘cockleshells’ insinuating that her husband was not faithful to her, and ‘pretty maids all in a row’ referring to her ladies-in-waiting — ‘The four Maries’.

Mary has also been identified with Mary I of England (‘Bloody Mary’; 1516–1558). ‘How does your garden grow?’ is said to refer to her lack of heirs, or to the common idea that England had become a Catholic vassal or ‘branch’ of Spain and the Habsburgs. It is also said to be a punning reference to her chief minister, Stephen Gardiner. ‘Quite contrary’ is said to be a reference to her unsuccessful attempt to reverse ecclesiastical changes effected by her father Henry VIII and her brother Edward VI. The ‘pretty maids all in a row’ is speculated to be a reference to miscarriages, her execution of Lady Jane Grey, or alternately to her executions of the Protestants.

But what about Humpty-Dumpty: a great favourite of the illustrators, most often represented as an egg with human features even while in conversation with Alice in Wonderland? There are several theories swirling about who Humpty-Dumpty was. First, however, the nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

According to some, it was the name of a huge cannon which fell and broke during a war; some historians believe that ‘Humpty Dumpty was simply a device for a riddle around breakable things’.

In our context, however, the most interesting speculation is that Humpty Dumpty is King Richard III of England, who is supposed to have been humpbacked and who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The assumption then is that Humpty Dumpty is the King, the wall is his reign and fight to preserve power, the fall is his defeat, and ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men’ the army that failed to prevail.

‘Peter, Peter’

All a bit complex? Confusing? But surely there is something more than words and rhymes in these hundreds of compositions which have been around for long, long years. There is no getting away from that. No?


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