In this entry for The 1951 Club, I reread The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie. I love excavating the history behind the relics of history cast up as sayings and idioms, and as nursery rhymes. When I was little, reading the Puffin nursery rhymes book that I still own, tattered and torn though it is, I thought this was the saddest rhyme I had ever read.
Here am I
Little Jumping Joan
When nobody’s with me
I’m all alone
Existential crisis or what? But according to the Opies, who made the study of the nursery rhyme and playground song an academic discipline in its own right, this is about a 17th-century prostitute. Well! That certainly makes a difference to how I might also think about Little Miss Muffet. The Opies list many theoretical origins for Miss Muffet, but my favourite is that she was one of many parodies (along with ‘Little Mary Easter sat on a tester’, ‘Little Miss Mopsey sat in the shopsey’, ‘Little Polly Flinders’, ‘ Little Poll Parrot’ and ‘Little Jack Horner’) of the cushion dance in which someone had to sit and wait for something. Maybe it was a May Day ritual, or a marriage rite, or a folk custom lost in prehistoric mists. What the Opies don’t say is that these rhymes follow (more or less) the metre of dactylic trimeter or tetrameter, ie a waltz tune. Maybe it was a dance around the sitting person?
The Opies said of their Dictionary ‘we believe we have assembled here almost everything so far known about nursery rhymes together with a considerable amount of material hitherto unpublished’. In their Dictionary they included ‘nonsense jingles, humorous songs, and character rhymes, the more common lullabies, infant amusements, nursery counting-out formulas, baby puzzles and riddles, rhyming alphabets, tongue twisters, nursery prayers, and singing games’. It doesn’t include ‘rhymes of divination, magic spells and fairy tales in verse’, which is perhaps a good thing.
I wonder about ‘the more common lullabies’: I don’t think I ever sang a lullaby to my children in the 1990s, because singing to them in their cots meant to infant minds that it was time for them to get up and dance. How common were lullabies in the 1950s, or earlier? This is perhaps the point, that in 1951 it was felt necessary to record and collate in a scholarly way the lineage of traditional rhymes, whether destined for nursery or schoolroom, because they were dying out. The collected scraps and snippets of ancient poetry are also garlanded with historical context: ‘a knowledge of their past adds to the pleasure of them in the present’. The Opies researched thoroughly in the standard collections, but also advertised for contributions, especially for material ‘never seen in print’, to try to capture the oral tradition that stretched its fingers of memory back to the nineteenth century and beyond. Their research crosses the sea: many of the ‘English’ rhymes are actually American (‘Three little kittens they lost their mittens’) and British rhymes have North American variants.
The Dictionary is a treasure, especially if you’re looking for historical events preserved in folk rhyme. ‘To market, to market, to buy a fat pig’ is from the sixteenth century, as is ‘Ding dong bell, pussy’s in the well’. ‘London Bridge is falling down’ dates from the seventeenth century. ‘Hot cross buns’ is from the eighteenth century. It has apparently been suggested that ‘Dr Foster went to Gloucester’ derives from an incident in the reign of Edward 1, from the thirteenth century. I don’t actually care whether that is true or not true: it’s a wonderful idea that oral traditions preserve the words that people sang for pleasure, and what they sang about, reused and revived periodically.