Saturday, October 29, 2016

Doctor Foster’s Disastrous Trip to Gloucester: Antipathy to Urban Life in Nursery Rhymes

by Liam Heneghan
[Dedicated to Oisín on his 21st birthday--a man with a grudging regard for a good rhyme]

Undoubtedly, the reading of nursery rhymes, some silly, some quite profound, and all generally teetering on the brink of insanity, shapes, in their early years, the environmental sensibilities of many children. Considering the supposed importance of these rhymes what should we make of the vast silence of nursery rhymes on important questions concerning urbanization and metropolitan planning?

Nursery rhymes are regularly preoccupied, in an often healthily irreverent way, with nature. Of the one hundred and seventeen rhymes collected and illustrated by Eric Kincaid in Nursery Rhymes (1990) all but twenty-three are set out-of-doors. Fully forty-three percent concern animals: dogs, cats, pigs and hens are especially prevalent. There is one rhyme in which a ship with a well-laden hull is captained by a duck: when the ship moved, this duck, predictably enough, said “Quack, quack.” (I Saw a Ship a-sailing). Many report on very strange human-animal encounters: Little Miss Muffet and her spider, for example, or the girl in Once I say a Little Bird whose ambivalence about the bird hopping on her sill resulted in it flying away. Other rhymes, ten or so, address encounters with inanimate objects, the weather and so forth. One Misty, Moisty, Morning remarks on the weather and, by-the-by, on an old man who is clad all in leather; Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and I see the Moon concern matters supra-mundane. At least one addresses, if you squint at it, the laudable virtue of family planning: There Was An Old Woman Who Lived in Shoe, who in the opinion of the rhymester at least had too many children: apparently, she didn’t know what to do.

Vegetation, in contrast to animals and inanimate nature, gets short shrift in the ditty canon. By my count in Kincaid’s volume there are only three rhymes specifically devoted to plants (or their fruit): I Had a Little Nut Tree, Oranges and Lemons, and The Hart he loves the High Wood. However, Kincaid’s illustrations more than compensate for the absence of greenery in the text of his collection of rhymes. Just more than half (60 in total) of the rhymes are illustrated with vegetation. Perhaps this just reflects Kincaid’s inclination towards green things. Just how much does Kincaid like his plants? On four occasions he adds a floral motif to wallpaper or on the curtains—Kincaid’s work is gratuitously botanical! It may be fair to say, though, that greenery is just a given in the universe of rhymes even if plants themselves do not consume the attention of the rhyme-crafters nor the children who listen to them. There is an interesting parallel here with the under-representation of vegetation in Paleolithic art—so total is the primeval mind’s preoccupation with animals there’s no plants there either.

As with plants, the number of explicit references to urban locations is very low. Nine rhymes out of Kincaid’s one hundred and seventeen either refer to specific towns, or more generically, to urban locales, or reference some aspect of urban life. These are As I was going to St Ives, Doctor Foster went to Gloucester, How Many Miles to Babylon, London Bridge, Oh, the Brave Old Duke of York, There was a Girl in our Town, This Little Pig Went to Market, Yankee Doodle Came to Town, and To Market, To Market. By my count there are an additional nine rhymes that are clearly set in towns of some size. Examples of such rhymes include Wee Willie Winkie, a rhyme that is, if one lingers on it, the very stuff of nightmares: the eponymous character runs about town in his night-gown yelling at children through their locked doors. Seemingly, they should be in bed.

Perhaps we should shrug off the paucity of references to metropolitan life in nursery rhymes as not necessarily a slight to urban living. But unlike what we saw to be the case for plants, this time Kincaid does not supplement what is missing from the doggerel with illustrations. Very few pieces are set in the wilderness, A Man in the Wilderness, being one, most of them are set in rural locations: in the countryside or in hamlets or small towns. Nursery rhymes record the madcap trials and tribulations of rustic life. Views of big city living just don’t make the cut.
In trying to come to terms with the absence of urban rhymes two questions come to mind. Why is this so and what are the implications? The first is quite easy to answer; the second is a matter for cerebration.

Many nursery rhymes are quite old, indeed most circulated in oral culture long before being written down. According to The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955) by Iona Archibald Opie and Peter Opie over thirty per cent of nursery rhymes predate 1600. Only 2.3 were composed after 1825. The poverty of urban reference to city life should be now be unsurprising since the proportion of the population living in cities and large towns compared to rural locations was a fraction of what it is today. That several refer to larger towns and cities might, from this perspective, actually impress us.

Over the course of time working on this short essay I’ve asked several of my students to name a favorite rhyme. None could do so without some prompting. Humpty Dumpty, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Twinkle, Twinkle and Mary had a Little Lamb all elicited some response. None could recall more than two or three, and strangely, none recalled where they heard the rhymes. “Perhaps in
band?” one speculated. If rhymes are not sung in the nursery anymore, perhaps it’s just as well: the world of the nursery rhyme is a surreal, and occasionally violent one. Oranges and Lemons, otherwise an innocuous one about church bells, ends with these lines: “Here comes a candle to light your to bed,/Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” Besides, such rhymes in describing agrarian life are inscrutable to most children.

No comments:

Post a Comment