As my niece Ainsley grows up, my mom keeps bringing out all kinds of books and toys that my brother and I played with as kids. They are often things that I had completely forgotten about but instantly remember once I see them again. On a recent visit, we read a nursery rhyme book that was a favourite of mine when I was three or four years old. I wasn’t sure I could remember any of the rhymes when I first saw it, but I did know exactly what the picture of the cow jumping over the moon was going to look like when I opened it.
In the introduction to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie write: “An oft-doubted fact attested by the study of nursery rhymes is the vitality of oral tradition. This vitality is particularly noticeable where children are concerned…as V. Sackville-West has put it, children say ‘tell it again, tell it just the same’, and will tenaciously correct the teller who varies in the slightest particular from the original recital.”[i]
That must have been the case with my book of nursery rhymes. If you asked me how many rhymes I knew before I looked at the book again, I would have said I couldn’t remember many of them. Yet, once I read the first line of most of them, the rest of the rhyme came back to me. At The Osborne Collection I found many of my same old favourites and many more that were new to me.
Humpty Dumpty is one of the oldest and most familiar nursery rhymes today. The entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes says students of linguistics believe that its age “is to be measured in thousands of years, or rather it is so great that it cannot be measured at all”.[ii] It was once a riddle, but it has been linked the picture of an egg so often that most people know the why the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Other familiar rhymes are associated with games. I remember playing “Keep the Castle” as a kid. One person would stand on something high—when I played it was often the top of a slide—while the others attempt to push or pull them down. When someone succeeded, they would occupy the place at the top and yell: I’m the king of the castle, get down you dirty rascals! There is a Scottish version of the game, called “Haud the Bowerique,” but the rhyme was slightly different:
I William of the Wastle
Am now in my Castle,
And awe the Dogs in the Town
Shan’t gar me gang down.[iii]
I also remember playing the “Patty Cake” clapping game with my grandma when I was very young. It was not in my nursery rhyme book but it was in one of the books at The Osborne Collection. It was book it was written:
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Pat it and prick it, and mark it with B,
Put it in the oven for Baby and me.
Now that I have been reminded of it, I’m looking forward to teaching it to my niece. Of course, the cake will be marked with an A for Ainsley though. I’m also likely to say “patty cake,” even though “pat-a-cake” makes so much more sense now that I have seen it.
This one was also one of my favourites when I was younger and I liked this photo, by Claud Lovat Fraser. But as I mentioned above, many of the nursery rhymes at The Osborne Collection were new to me. For example:
Why here’s a foolish little man,
Laugh at him, donkey if you can;
A cat, and dog, and cow, and calf
Come every one of you and laugh.
For only think, he runs away
If honest donkey does by bray!
And when the bull begins to bellow,
He’s like a crazy little fellow.[iv]
Most of the rhymes that were unfamiliar to me were in an older volume by Jane Taylor, published in 1854. There are many volumes to choose from though and at least one book of nursery rhymes with illustrations by Arthur Rackham.
If you are interested in looking at some of the nursery rhyme books and would like to take some sort of reference books with you, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, by Iona and Peter Opie is really helpful. The Annotated Mother Goose: Nursery rhymes old and new, arranged and explained by William S. and Cecil Barring-Gould is also very good. It list rhymes chronologically, approximate date of first appearance in print, starting with Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (c. 1744). Also, there is a book by Katherine Elwes Thomas that attempts to fit the rhymes into an historical framework called, The Real Personages of Mother Goose (1930). When I was looking for information about the rhymes I used in this post I also came across an interesting book by Felix Dennis, called When Jack Sued Jill – Nursery Rhymes for Modern Times (2006). He has a couple of illustrated examples on his website.
All photos were taken at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library:
1. Taylor, Jane. Rhymes for the Nursery. London: Arthur Hall, Virtue, & Co., 1854.
2. Fraser, Claud Lovat. Nursery Rhymes. London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1919.
3. Chisholm, Louey. Nursery Rhymes and Fables. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1920.
[i] Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: The Clarendon Press), page 8.
[ii] Henry Bett, quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, page 215.
[iii] Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: The Clarendon Press), page 254.
[iv] Jane Taylor, Rhymes for the Nursery. (London: Arthur Hall, Virtue, & Co., 1854), page 84