Some nursery rhymes have political histories

Published 1:16 am Saturday, January 19, 2019

Did somebody read poems and nursery rhymes to you when you were little? I bet you still remember this one: “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November. February has twenty-eight alone, all the rest have thirty-one, except in Leap Year, that’s the time when February’s days are twenty-nine.” My mother read it to me many times. I recite it to myself occasionally to verify a month has thirty or thirty-one days.

I loved nursery rhymes and poems as a child. When our son and daughter came along, I read them the same ones my mother read to me from a book with beautiful illustrations of each one. They fitted the rhymes perfectly.

One day, I pulled a, paperback nursery rhyme book from my bookshelf. I decided to research some of my favorites. I certainly did not find what I expected. It shocked me. Many of them had political connotations or references to wars and tragedies as a background. I won’t share them here. Right then, I resolved to continue to see them the same way I did as a wide-eyed child at my mother’s knee.

How many times did you clasp hands with other children, run around in a circle and fall down still chanting “Ring around the roses?” I recall everyone came up laughing and out of breath. “Ring-a-ring of roses, A pocketful of posies, A tishhoo, a tishoo, We all fall down.” “Mummy in the teapot, Daddy in the cup, Baby in the saucer, We all stand up.” .(A tishoo represents a sneeze.)

Accompanying the lines of “The cows are in the meadow, eating buttercups, a-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down,” I see a cow nibbling some yellow flowers in a lush, green meadow. This rhyme is similar to the Ring-a-ring (or ring around) of roses rhyme, where children make a circle, fall down, and pop right back up.

It is easy to imagine my own picture of “The Crooked Man “There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile, He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile, He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse, And they all lived together in a little crooked house.” I picture a crooked legged man with a crooked-tailed cat beside him. A crooked mouse dangles out of its mouth. They all walk toward a tumbled-down old house.

I liked for Mother to turn the pages to a picture of a pretty curly-headed blonde girl walking in a garden. It is filled with beautiful flowers. She carries a watering can. The verse beside it was “Mary, Mary, quite contrary,” followed by “How does your garden grow?”

When Mother found ”Little Miss Muffet, who sat on a tuffet,” I paid special attention to the three last lines: “Along came a spider, And sat down beside her, And frightened Miss Muffet away.” It was illustrated with a big spider moving close to the little girl. Was she frightened? Yes, and so was I.

Nina Keenam is a former newspaper reporter.