Is ‘Humpty Dumpty’ a historical retelling of Richard III falling off his horse at the Battle of Bosworth, or a cautionary metaphor for falling from a great height, or just about an unlucky egg? Ricky Gervais said, “I’ve never worked out what the moral of Humpty Dumpty is. I can only think of: Don’t sit on a wall if you’re an egg.” There are many interpretations for every nursery rhyme, but each tends to defy theory and live on regardless, handed down happily from generation to generation.
Nursery rhymes are toys for the mind. The term, first recorded in 1816, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a simple or traditional poem or song for children’. They are playful and tend to be short and easy to remember, full of rhythm, rhyme and repetition. The archetype of poetry, they are preserved by an oral tradition, traditionally sung by a parent, or in a market square by a balladeer to a population that would have been largely illiterate, just as we are when first hearing them, at the age before we can read, write or even talk.
The writer Vita Sackville-West said of nursery rhymes that they lead children (who can talk) to insist, ‘Tell it again, tell it the same.’ However, this very characteristic of constant recitation is precisely how small changes have crept in over time, and these small adaptations are key to their immortality.
Despite being mainly orally reproduced, this hasn’t stopped us anthologists from trying to capture them like pressed flowers. While there is evidence in historic plays (among other sources) that nursery rhymes were being sung and spoken hundreds of years before this, the first collection seems not to have been printed until Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book appeared in 1744. Then in 1781 Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the Cradle became a publishing sensation, leading to a 1785 reprint in the United States. Mother Goose’s name is still associated with the gathering of rhymes today, although there is no evidence that any such historical figure ever existed. The name first appeared in France in Charles Perrault’s early eighteenth-century anthology of fairy tales, Les Contes de ma mère l’Oye, whose translation for the English-speaking world was Tales of Mother Goose.
Nursery rhymes can be whimsical or strictly didactic, and take a variety of forms, including limericks, tongue-twisters, skipping rhymes, story ballads, alphabet songs and lullabies. Many are utterly beautiful – the poet Robert Graves said the best of nursery rhymes are nearer to poetry than the greater part of The Oxford Book of English Verse. Learned within the safe confines of home, there are myriad themes with allegorical meanings or a warning: from Humpty Dumpty’s fall to the old man who bumped his head, or the baby who fell out of the cradle. The meaning often only reveals itself later in life.
Many have recognised their worth and they continue to be an inspiration for artists such as Paula Rego, football fans who adapt them to chant on the terraces, and lyricists like Taylor Swift who references the last lines of ‘Humpty Dumpty’ in her song, ‘The Archer’ when she writes ‘All the king’s horses, all the king’s men, / Couldn’t put me together again’.
I hope that the 365 nursery rhymes gathered in my new book lead young readers to move on to a love of poetry. After all, a poem is just a nursery rhyme that has grown up.
Allie Esiri is an award-winning anthologist and curator and host of live poetry events at London’s National Theatre, Bridge Theatre, and at major international literary festivals. Her bestselling anthologies Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year, A Poem for Every Day of the Year, A Poem for Every Night of the Year and A Poet for Every Day of the Year have been bestsellers. Stand out live performances at theatres, festivals and on audio with poems read by some of our best-known actors are capturing and enthralling a new generation of poetry lovers.
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