Another interesting article….
Rhymes for the times
Many nursery rhymes are believed to reflect actual events in history.
By Little Red Writing Wood
Jack and Jill went up the hill…what happens next? If you know, congratulations; you have poetry in your life. If you don’t, well, I’ll give you one possible answer at the end of this article.
Nursery rhymes have been around for hundreds of years, although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact date when the first rhyme came into being. We do know that they were passed down orally from one generation to the next before they were first published in book form in the mid 1700s, thus spreading their fame to English speakers everywhere.
Rhymes were a popular means of storytelling simply because they were so accessible. A rhyme is short, easy to remember and uses words with similar sounds in a short verse. Since many people of yore were illiterate, a rhyme was the perfect way to entertain and comment on current events, especially in a time where one could lose one’s head simply by criticising the status quo outright.
Luckily for us, these rhymes have endured to this day through sheer word of mouth. Although retelling has resulted in changes being made to the words over the years, most rhymes still retain their original meaning so that more than 300 years later, we know that Mary, Mary Quite Contrary quite likely refers to Mary Tudor, King Henry VIII’s staunchly Catholic daughter who had no qualms guillotining Protestants, thus growing her “garden” with tombstones.
The good people who have dedicated their lives to the analysis of nursery rhymes have come up with four categories for them. The first category comprises lullabies such as Rock-a-bye Baby or Bye, Baby Bunting, which are meant to soothe testy infants. The second category of rhymes is meant for child amusement and education, and include counting and alphabet rhymes such as One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Once I Caught a Fish Alive and finger games such as Pat-a-Cake.
Rhymes in the third category include riddles like As I Was Going to St Ives while the last category – and the one we’re most interested in for the purposes of this article – comprises rhymes that purportedly deal with actual historical events, culture and subversive messages of the day.
An account of history
In this last category are several innocuous nursery rhymes that seem to allude to actual people and events of note. For instance, Little Boy Blue is thought to have been a critique of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a rich and powerful man of the cloth who was called the “Boy Bachelor” after graduating from Oxford when he was just 15 years old. He was also known to be extremely arrogant, possibly prompting the phrase “blowing one’s horn”. Wolsey’s wealth was enhanced by wool trade and export taxes but his assets were eventually seized after years of coffer-lining at the expense of the Crown – “Where is the boy who looks after the sheep? He’s under the haystack fast asleep.”
Another English royal who has been made fun of through rhyme is Richard, the Duke of York and claimant to the English throne, who was defeated in the 1455 War of the Roses. The Grand Old Duke of York refers to the Battle of Wakefield. On December 30, 1460, Richard’s army marched to Sandal Castle, built 10 metres above ground level – “he marched them up to the top of the hill” – to defend it against the Lancastrians. Halfway through, “he marched them down again” to directly attack the Lancastrians. The strategy didn’t work. Richard was killed and his army defeated.
Several nursery rhymes have more than one interpretation. Jack Sprat is thought to allude to King Charles I, who found himself short of money (“could eat no fat”) after parliament refused to finance his war on Spain. In a fit of rage, Charles dissolves parliament. His queen Henrietta Maria then takes matters into her own hands, imposing a war tax because she “could eat no lean”. Charles’s run-ins with his parliament eventually trigger the English Civil War and his eventual execution.
Others believe that Jack Sprat is related to Richard the Lionheart and his brother King John. John (Jack Sprat) was married to Joan, the ambitious heiress of the Earl of Gloucester. John was no less scheming. While King Richard was away on crusades, John attempted to usurp the throne. Richard was then taken hostage by Duke Leopold upon his return, with the ransom set at 150,000 marks. John had to cough up the money, which “picked the platter clean” and left the kingdom’s coffers empty.
If rhymes in the olden days were used as political commentary, they are now imbued with contemporary humour and social observations. There was a Little Girl, for instance, has been given a makeover. Before she resorts to downright nasty behaviour to get what she wants, the girl with a curl gets placated with a fur coat, jewels, a waterfront condo, and a sports car – an allusion to spoiled little rich girls like Paris Hilton.
It’s Raining, It’s Pouring used to be a simple song that children sang when they couldn’t go out to play due to the weather. Environmentalists, these days, however, prefer to sing, “It’s raining, it’s pouring, oh s*it, it’s global warming!”
In the traditional version of Jack and Jill, the pair go up the hill for a pail of water. Somehow, Jack falls down and breaks his crown and Jill comes tumbling after. Modern versions involve Jill forgetting her pill and getting pregnant, Jack and Jill overindulging in snacks and winding up with heart problems and diabetes, and Jill socking Jack one for molesting her.
But perhaps the most relevant nursery rhyme today is the one written by a blogger called Macro Man. Based on The House that Jack Built, it is a commentary on the current financial situation. We excerpt it here:
This is the house that Jack built
This is the loan that funded the house that Jack built
This is the bank that made the loan That funded the house that Jack built
This is the CDO Created by the bank that made the loan That funded the house that Jack built
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