Nursery Rhymes as a Remembrance of Childhood

Children in their childhood have something to do with rhyme as lullaby, song, or a-story-before-sleep. Rhyme seems ear-catchy on them and easy to remember; they like to recite catchy rhymes and listen to bouncy rhythms. First time knowing what nursery rhymes is, maybe we connect it with poetry. Poetry itself has many different types. Rhymes and verse are two of them and it will be explained because their presence in children poetry. According to its meaning by Oxford Online Dictionaries,

  • Poetry means ‘literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature’

As we can see, there is a relation between poetry and rhythms which relates to rhymes also and if we detail the term and meaning of rhymes, then we will find the bridge which relates nursery rhymes, verse, and poetry. According to Online Etymology Dictionary,

  • Rhyme =              “agreement in terminal sounds,” 1560s, partially restored spelling
  • Later “rhymed verse”
  • Earlier *ritme, from Latin rithmus, from Greek rhythmos “measured motion, time, proportion”

As it is said above, rhymes are easy to remember, especially for children. It is because rhymes have the repetition of the similar sound at the end of two or more words most at the ends of lines. Therefore it is often used in nursery rhymes besides this kind of technique develops children’s skill in vocabulary, memorizing, spelling, listening, also learning some morals. Yet it helps children to understand how the language works and sounds.  In addition, nursery rhyme is hereditary creations. When mothers lullaby or tell it to their children perhaps they got it from their parents too and next time we will continue to pass it to our next generation. Henry Bett said that nursery rhymes “… date from prehistoric times, and have spread over the world with the migrations of races and the forgotten commerce of many thousands of years”. (Bett, 1968). Therefore, different country has different language then makes different culture finally produces different nursery rhymes.

Two examples of nursery rhymes which are still stay all over the world for years are Mother Goose and Humpty-Dumpty (from French nursery rhyme hero, the rhyme first attested in English 1810). Based on Online Etymology Dictionaries Mother Goose is

‘probably a translation of mid-17c. Fr. contes de ma mère l’oye, which meant “fairy tales.” The phrase appeared on the frontispiece of Charles Perrault’s 1697 collection of eight fairy tales (“Contes du Temps Passé”), which was translated in Eng. 1729 as “Mother Goose’s Tales”, and a very popular collection of traditional nursery rhymes published by John Newbery c.1765 was called “Mother Goose’s Melody.” Her own biographical story is no earlier than 1806. Old Mother Hubbard, nursery rhyme, was printed 1805, written by Sarah Catherine Martin (1768-1826) but based on earlier material of unknown origin (the name is attested from 1591).’

One of the content of Mother Goose (Smith, The Little Mother Goose,),

Rock-a-bye, baby,

Thy cradle is green,

Father’s a nobleman,

Mother’s a queen;

And Betty’s a lady,

And wears a gold ring,

And Johnny’s a drummer,

And drums for the king.

On the other hand, verse as another kind of poetry, based on Oxford Online Dictionaries means ‘writing arranged with a metrical rhythm, typically having a rhyme’. Verse is also defined as opposed to prose which uses grammatical units like sentences and paragraphs; and because it is a single metrical line of poetry, it is used as a general term for metrical composition. C.Sansom had written one of children poetry in verse (Colwell 1962: 11)

Robin Redbreast

Little Robin Redbreast

Sat upon a rail,

Niddle-noddle went his head,

And waggle went his tail.

Niddle-noddle went his head,

As little Robin Redbreast

Sat upon a rail

“Children’s literature is an amorphous, ambiguous creature; its relationship to its audience is difficult; its relationship to the rest of literature, problematic.” (Hunt 1992: 1). If we pay attention to nursery rhyme, we will find out that it is not only lines and words. It has meaning, moral, and special purpose by the author or like C.S. Lewis’s famous remark, “because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say” (Lewis 1982: 32). Meanwhile Borgia said “They were used to satirize the famous and ‘noble’” (Borgia 2003: 1). Nursery rhymes are for children but the background of it and the meaning behind it sometimes is not simple as it looks; then we can get confused to relate the rhyme with the target of it, the children. Delamar explains that “tracing the origins of nomenclature and identification leads the scholar of children’s literature along many paths. Some are clear, and others are fogged with the haze of poorly documented history.” (1987: 2). Moreover, many people have their own interpretation about the nursery rhymes. There are always pros and contras like in the ‘Ring around the Rosie’. These are some evolution of the rhyme itself.

  • Kate Greenaway, Mother Goose, 1881.

Ring-a-ring o’roses 

A pocket full of poises

Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush!

We’re all tumbled down 

  • William Wells Newell, Games and Songs of American Children, 1883. Wells dates it to 1790 in New Bedford, Mass.

Ring a ring a rosie

A bottle full of posie

All the girls in our town

Ring for little Josie

There are numerous other variants in the late 19th and early 20th century in collections of children’s rhymes and songs

  •                                                   Ring-a-ring o’roses

A pocket full of poises,

One for Jack and one for Jim

And one for Little Moses

A-tischa! A-tischa! A-tischa!

  •                                                   Ring, a ring o’roses

A pocket full o’poises;

Up-stairs and down-stairs.

In my lady’s chamber—

Husher! Husher! Cuckoo! 

Some people say it has something to do with Black Plague and some do not.We often have heard that “Ring around the Rosie” refers to a red mark (first sign of the plague), “A pocket full of posies” refers to the medicine and herbs people carried with them to prevent the plague, “Ashes, ashes” refers to the cremation of plague victims. “We all fall down” refers to the collapse of one who died having the plague. On the other hand, Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton in her essay which is The “Real” Meaning of “Ring around the Rosie” served her argument based on Philip Hiscock theory that various versions of this rhyme clearly cannot possibly has something to do with the plague. They probably refer to such dancing games that might have been a way to get around Protestant bans on dancing in the late 18th and 19th centuries (Hiscock, 1991).

Despite many different opinions of nursery rhymes, one thing for sure is the grandeur of the author who had created the everlasting rhymes through ages. It should be emphasized that the rhymes often began as poetries or a verse of “… song which (had) been truncated, simplified, and so severed from its original context…” (Opie 1951: 5). It is no longer resembled its original form and became known within the nursery. This statement is supported by Vikki Harris’s opinion in her essay, The History of Nursery Rhymes & Mother Goose, that do not problematize the originality of the rhyme, maybe because many nursery rhymes have been evoluted; but the concept is clear that nursery rhymes “… are fragments of ballads or of folk songs, remnants of ancient custom and ritual and may hold the last echoes of long-forgotten evil” (Opie 1951: 34).

The content of nursery rhyme is not only about the controversy. Mostly the rhymes introduce many kinds of animal to children. For instance, within The Mocking Bird by American Folk there are mocking bird, Billy-goat, dog, and horse with their special names. Besides, in Mother Goose,

And Betty’s a lady,

And wears a gold ring,

And Johnny’s a drummer,

And drums for the king

It shows the difference of gender; it shapes children’s mind that girl should be feminine and boy should be masculine. The author who creates the nursery rhyme also influence the content and the issue behind it as it is the first point of Hollindale’s Three levels of ideology, “The first and most tractable is made up of the explicit social, political or moral beliefs of the individual writer, and his wish to recommend them to children through the story.” (Hollindale, 1988). Langston Hughes’s Mother to Son is about life is hard to live; it refers to the line, ‘Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair’. Her background as African-American is clearly influences the usage of language in her rhyme. The way we speak, write, and think reflect our ideology.

“… When a text is written, ideology works to make some things more natural to write; when a text is read, it works to conceal struggles and repressions, to force language into conveying only those meanings reinforced by the dominant forces of our society.”

(Waller 1986: 10)

Nursery Rhymes are spread everywhere and whatever the meaning is, it will continue to pass the era and to express nostalgia for a childhood we no longer share is to deny the actual significance and humanity of children. Nursery itself has a positive meaning and it should be rewarded for the “… preservation of our nursery rhymes and nursery tales from remote ages to the astonishing persistence of popular tradition, reinforced by the characteristic conservatism of childhood” (Bett, 1968). We owe the nursery rhymes for it.

Works Cited

Bett, H. (1968). Nursery Rhymes and Tales-Their Origin and History. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.

Borgia, V. (2003). Origins of Nursery Rhymes.

Colwell, E. (1962). Tell Me a Story. Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc.

Delamar, G. T. (1987). Mother Goose – From Nursery to Literature. North California: McFarland and Company, Inc.

Hiscock, P. (1991). Said and Done. St. John’s (Newfoundland) Express.

Hollindale, P. (1988). Ideology and the Children’s Book. Signal 55.

Hunt, P. (1992). Literature for Children. London: Routledge.

Lewis, C. S. (1982). On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. Ed. Walter Hooper. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Opie, I. a. (1951). eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press.


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