Reflection 270: Nursery Rhymes

June 1, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

We learn to engage the world around us in earliest childhood, starting in the womb when our mother is our environment, and then expanding on that beginning when we are born. Sooner or later we encounter nursery rhymes, which help us consolidate loops of engagement we have begun on our own. Take this one, for example:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Imagine engaging with the stars! But even though we haven’t a clue what they might be, we gape nonetheless at their splendor because they’re unlike anything else in our experience. In this case, that little star is probably the planet Venus, apt to be the most striking object in the western sky before bedtime. That point of light fills us with wonder and curiosity. As children, we aren’t likely to compare such a sight to a diamond in the sky. That would be be the voice of our culture speaking. But the salience of the sensory impression alone would arouse us, kindling consciousness at the same time so that both the image and the rhyme stay with us for a lifetime.

Mirror, mirror, tell me,
Am I pretty or plain?
Or am I downright ugly
And ugly to remain?

Shall I marry a gentleman?
Shall I marry a clown?
Or shall I marry old Knives-and-Scissors
Shouting through the town?

Here is youthful curiosity again, looking toward the future at the possibilities for engagement it might offer. The issue seems to be driven more by wonder than anxiety: what will be my lot in life when I grow up? The one approaching the mirror is asking what fate has in store for her, not what she can bring about for herself. Old Knives and Scissors would be every bit as worthy as clown or gentleman. Being pretty, plain, or ugly is not under her control; it is destiny’s call. The culture she is growing into is preparing her to accept her fate however it turns out. In the meantime, we all know that we all can affect our fates by how we choose to make ourselves happen as we go.

1. He loves me.
2. He don’t!
3. He’ll have me.
4. He won’t!
5. He would if he could.
6. But he can’t.
7. So he don’t.

The numbers here count petals being plucked from a flower. The issue is decided when the last petal is reached. This simple procedure of keying answers to a finite number of questions is a crude device meant as an aid to reviewing indeterminate issues. The point is not to settle the issue but to bring possible solutions to the forefront of attention. The benefit flows from playing with the engagement itself in a lighthearted manner as if it could be settled once and for all. Turning life decisions into simple routines is a means of dealing with underlying uncertainties.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

This rhyme is a reminder that some engagements come to a bad end. No matter what resources you bring into play, things will never work out. Keeping in mind an image of Humpty as an egg drives home the message: some things are best scrambled.

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean;
And so betwixt them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.

The message here is that complementary engagements promote harmony amid diversity. It’s OK for people to be of different persuasions if they all fit into the big picture.

If you wish to live and thrive,
Let the spider walk alive.


This rhyme embraces the engagement between people and those of the arachnid persuasion, assuming the prescriptive weight of a proverb or aphorism. Committed to memory, it reminds us at sight of a spider that it takes many creatures to build a world, including weavers of intricate webs who happen to eat insects.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Sets all heaven in a rage.

Again, the voice of conventional wisdom aimed at little ears for rote memorization as a guide to subsequent restraint.

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
That was the end
Of Solomon Grundy.

This rhyme reinforces recitation of the days of the week in proper sequence by linking it to the natural order of life events. This is the old mnemonist’s trick of pegging a random list of things to an order internalized through repeated experience such as a stroll along a familiar street or the arrangement of familiar body parts. The drama and fun here come from the compression of major life events into the span of a single week, making the sequence of days all the more memorable. It helps to have all the lines end with the same sound and share the same rhythm. Ever after this rhyme is learned, engagements will seem naturally to accord with the days of the week.

Mary had a little lamb,
It’s fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.


It followed her to school one day,
That was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play,
To see a lamb in school.


And so the teacher turned it out,
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.


Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry;
Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,
The teacher did reply.

Engagements have rules, it turns out. Lambs are OK at home, but not at school. The tale is more about the lamb than Mary, but it is Mary’s attachment for the lamb that gives the story punch. The narrative unfolds from a brief description of the lamb to telling what it did one day, what happened next, and ends with an insight as to why things went as they did, brought home by a simple question. This rhyme is a paradigm for building a story that has characters, action, consequences, and a message. Rhyme and meter help make it memorable for use in future engagements or writing assignments.

Six little mice sat down to spin;
Pussy passed by and she peeped in.
What are you doing, my little men?
Weaving coats for gentlemen.
Shall I come in and cut off your threads?
No, no, Mistress Pussy, you’d bite off our heads.
Oh, no, I’ll not; I’ll help you to spin.
That may be so, but you can’t come in.

Another narrative based on the age-old rivalry between mice and cats. This time, the mice aren’t fooled by Pussy’s soft words, providing an example meant for children to take to heart in conducting their own engagements. How others choose to engage with you may well differ from how you would choose to deal with them, providing a model for future reference when needed. Many nursery rhymes and other early readings depict situations in which children should learn to be on their guard without someone being around to warn, “Now be careful.”

Who are you? A dirty old man
I’ve always been since the day I began,
Mother and Father were dirty before me,
Hot or cold water has never come o’er me.

This unexpected answer to an ordinary question achieves a humorous effect, but it rouses consciousness from its customary slumber, priming awareness to perk up at the thought of dirty old men (or, indeed, women). I can hear kids mouthing this rhyme as they head for a bath, reveling in the virtue of cleanliness as the rhyme advises by default.

I do not like you, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

This rhyme makes no forward motion at all, despite a modest show of trying. It would be humorous if it did not reveal so set a mind. The humor here is like laughing at someone stuck in the mud. It illustrates a disdain for ridicule or non-engagement. Something about you, Doctor Fell, turns me off; I can’t get started with you. There’s no telling what the problem is, or how it began. My advice to those whose engagement is blocked in this way is to look into themselves to see if they can’t identify the problem. It’s there waiting to be discovered.

I’ll end this brief review of nursery-rhyme engagements with the challenge Doctor Fell poses for us all. To engage or not engage, that is the question. Whatever the cause, a good part of it lies with each one of us. If we are to get beyond the childish level of engagement we picked up in our earliest days, we must do our share of the heavy lifting required.

I will leave it at that, As ever, y’r friend, –Steve

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