Recently I have been spending a lot of time listening to nursery rhymes. It’s been at least three decades since I last paid attention to most of these songs, and I certainly didn’t notice the first time around how very odd many of them are. Take “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,” for instance:
It’s raining; it’s pouring.
The old man is snoring.
He went to bed and he bumped his head,
And he wouldn’t get up in the morning.
Now maybe this old man just wasn’t a morning person, but it seems more likely that he has suffered some sort of terminal head trauma. Not that, present weather excluded, you get to sing this song much in Texas anyway. The persistently sunny climate just doesn’t lend itself to the sub-genre of nursery rhymes dealing with rain. These songs bespeak their origin in a damper, drearier clime, where you might want it to stop raining so that children may play. (“The Sun Has Got His Hat On” also doesn’t get much play here, since it seems to point out the blindingly obvious).
Even the less odd (or perhaps just more familiar) rhymes start to seem peculiar the more you think about them. Take “Humpty Dumpty,” for instance. As the song goes, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Really, what help could a horse be expected to offer in such a situation of accidental dismemberment? In the absence of opposable thumbs (or even fingers), what were the horses trying to do? Nose Humpty back to his original wholeness?
But the undoubted winner of nursery rhyme weirdness is “This Old Man,” a careering, repetitive ditty featuring an ominous ancient who plays a wild game of “knick knack” on various objects and body parts. The questions raised by this narrative are multiple: Who is this old man? What is knick knack exactly? What is meant by “rolling home”? (it’s hard not to connote this latter as drunkenness).
The more you think about it, in fact, the more you find violence, excess, and ethnically inappropriate sentiments (Paddywhack, for instance) coursing through these songs. To be sure, they are vehicles that teach skills like counting and color recognition and, as such, perhaps it doesn’t really matter what their particular content is, as long as it has a good beat and you can dance to it. For the adult listener, however, these rhymes fascinate because a coherent and fully historicized interpretation seems to wait just around the corner, a reading that will explain away all their oddities and surprising juxtapositions. The history of scholarship on nursery rhymes has offered many such interpretations, probably the most well-known of which is the connection between “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” and the bubonic plague. According to this reading, the “roses” of the song refers to the rosy rash presaging the illness; the “posies” to the flowers or herbs carried because they were thought to ward off infection; “atishoo” to the sneezing symptom; and “all fall down” to the most likely outcome of contracting the plague.
Although most such specific historical readings of nursery rhymes have been discredited, especially since the majority of these songs were written down for the first time only in the late eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, the rhymes themselves continue to delight with their quirky, even post-modern lack of regard for realism, reason, and closure (Polly never gets her tea). They are a rare place of survival for what must be, in many cases, an ancient tradition that is still passed on orally, even in today’s highly literate culture. They allow you glimpses into the societies that originally produced them (I never heard “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” as a child, for instance, because it is an American song about American issues) but they never completely reveal themselves.
And what does this all have to do with English? In short, it reminds me that our subject is, well, the world—and that, for us, the pleasure and promise of a recalcitrant text is almost as great as belting out a round of “This Old Man” at the top of our lungs. Go on. Try it.