I never cease to be amused at the strange origins of nursery rhymes and children’s songs. As a child, poems like Ring Around the Rosy were simply about flowers, falling and laughing. I hope I’m not ruining it for you when I tell you that it’s actually a poem about the bubonic plague. “Ring around the rosy” refers to symptomatic marks that would appear on the bodies of people suffering from the plague, “pocketful of posies” refers to the sweet-smelling herbs that were thought to ward off the disease. When these fail to ward off the disease with sweet-smelling posies, death is inevitable. “Ashes, ashes” refer to cremation ashes – and, well, “we all fall down”? This falling down is not the type followed by amused laughter.
Nonsense can serve as a hidden vehicle for a message reflecting hidden values and political dissonance of the time, they can reveal rebellious thoughts and provoke social change. They tend to reflect the voice of the people in times when “the people” cannot otherwise safely speak their mind. You can read more about Nursery Rhyme origins here: http://www.rhymes.org.uk/index.htm. Not all nursery rhymes, however, have morbid origins; for instance, Hey Diddle Diddle – http://www.rhymes.org.uk/hey_diddle_diddle.htm. Hey Diddle Diddle is meant to be an amusing poem to make children smile. Nursery Rhymes have power because they rhyme and are silly – children quickly learn and repeat them and add them to clapping, jumping, and spinning games. Even beneath the nonsense, the words hold a unique power to capture the sentiment of the times and spread it invasively from place to place.
- What is the origin of your favorite nursery rhyme?
- What might be a modern use of nonsense as a vehicle of the voice of the people?
- What are some issues that might be addressed in a modern nursery rhyme?
- Do nursery rhymes serve to indoctrinate children? Are they an attempt to make horrors more palatable? Why use silly words to discuss serious matters?
Because I ruined lovely childhood memories: