About a week before her thirteenth birthday, I took my middle daughter (now just about to start her freshman year of college) to see her pediatrician. She had a sore throat and an ear infection. As we sat in the examination room awaiting the doctor’s arrival, my daughter happened to notice the painting on the wall of a pair of cats, one of whom was playing a violin. Nearby, a cow was jumping near a glowing image of the moon, while two dogs looked very happy and a plate and a spoon were gallivanting away.
“The cats are too fat. Cats can’t be that fat. And look at the tail, it’s all wrong.”
“Hmmm,” I commented. “Cows don’t jump over the moon, last time I checked, either. Overly fat cats seems like a minor fault.”
She rolled her eyes at me.
“It’s a nursery rhyme; a fairy tale. It’s not supposed to be analyzed seriously.”
My daughter continued rolling her eyes. At the time, I was convinced she was going to grow up to be an engineer. Or maybe a lawyer. Instead, she'll be majoring in microbiology.
But I got to thinking about the nursery rhyme, which for some reason refused my call to rise from the stacks of stuff in my middle-aged brain. Thankfully I had my cellphone with me and a quick look on the web brought up the full poem that the painting was attempting to capture:
Hey diddle diddle
the cat and the fiddle
the cow jumped over the moon
the little dog laughed,
to see such fun
and the dish ran away with the spoon.
And we complain about a lot of modern poetry—or music lyrics—not making sense.
Over the years, many different theories have been put forward as explanations for the poem, ranging from the suggestion that it refers to the various constellations of the night sky, to an anti-clerical expression brought on by priests encouraging people to work harder. J.R.R. Tolkien, besides writing The Lord of The Rings trilogy, was a literature professor at Oxford. He wrote a make-believe origin of the poem into the first book of that trilogy.
Older versions of the rhyme have “sport” instead of “fun.” And the earliest version of the poem shows up in a book by John Newbery which was printed in London in the late eighteenth century (perhaps as early as 1765) called Mother Goose’s Melody, while a reference in Thomas Preston’s 1569 work with the very cumbersome title, A lamentable tragedy mixed ful of pleasant mirth, conteyning the the life of Cambises King of Percia, may make reference to the rhyme.
Several of the old nursery rhymes that most of us know were first collected in Tommy Thumb’s Song Book and a sequel, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. It is thought that both were published before 1744. But the bulk of the old nursery rhymes didn’t appear until Newbery’s Mother Goose’s Melody came out. It was later reprinted in the United States about 1833. For most of these children’s poems we have no idea who first authored them or why. But there are a handful for whom the authors and origins are known. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star combines an eighteenth century French tune with a poem by Jane Taylor, an English writer. Jane Taylor composed the words in 1806 when she was 23 years old (she died of cancer at the age of 40). Mary Had a Little Lamb was written by Sarah Josepha Hale in 1830. She lived in Boston, Massachusetts.
Of the other familiar nursery rhymes, not only do not know their origins, we do not have a clue about what hidden meaning might lie behind the silly words. Consistently, all the familiar rhymes first appeared in print during the eighteenth century. Not knowing why they were written or where they came from has not stopped scholars from suggesting serious origins for what are mostly nonsense rhymes, without any evidence whatsoever. Thus, Humpty Dumpty has been identified with Richard III of England. Little Jack Horner has been linked with the dissolution of the monasteries. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary has been identified with Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, being Catholic, was viewed with suspicion by her Scottish subjects and by Elizabeth I of England leading eventually to her imprisonment and execution. And Ring Around the Rosies has been explained as having something to do with the Black Death. Even though the it predates the French Revolution, some have tried to identify the poem, Jack and Jill with the French King and Queen, Louis XVI and Marie “let them eat cake” Antoinette—both of whom had an unfortunate meeting with the guillotine.
In reality, it is likely that our nursery rhymes are no more than what they appear to be: nonsense ditties made to amuse children—and lacking any political or religious significance.
Meanwhile, my daughter let the doctor examine her ears. Afterward, he prescribed ear drops on top the antibiotics.
“You know, I liked Humpty Dumpty a lot,” my daughter commented as we left the doctor’s office. “Do you remember when I covered you with blankets and I took a picture of it?”
“I had a little stuffed Humpty Dumpty and I put it next to your head before I took the picture.” She got a wistful look. When we got home, she started looking for the photo and finally found it. It was just as she remembered it, Humpty Dumpty and all.