OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
HISTORICAL AND LITERARY ORIGINS OF MOTHER GOOSE
GENDER, RACE, AND PEDAGOGY IN MOTHER GOOSE
CONTEMPORARY EDITIONS OF MOTHER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES
The collective name for a series of nursery stories and rhymes—many with fifteenth-century origins or earlier—that are commonly grouped around an archetypal rural woman or an anthropomorphized goose character.
The term "Mother Goose" is a broad categorization of nursery stories and rhymes, usually intended for toddlers or the youngest of readers. At face value, the rhymes seemingly share a commonality of form, purpose, and characteristic sound, but in reality, beyond these basic attributes, they actually represent a disparate group of lyrical stories with little in common. Varying dramatically in origins, age, and content, the stories we regard as the canonical Mother Goose rhymes are actually an amalgam of contrary folk tales, poems, and literary exercises that share a prototypical sound and length. Often introduced to small children as their first exposure to literature, the rhymes are thought to help children learn to verbalize their thoughts into cohesive language. Traditionally, most nursery rhymes are seemingly nonsensical, though many are born from a variety of thematic sources, including political intrigue, centuries-old gossip, folk language, and religious allegories. And surprisingly, given their presumed audience, many feature disturbingly violent images, such as those found in "Humpty Dumpty," "Little Dicky Dilver," and "Rock-a-Bye Baby," the last of which depicts a baby ostensibly falling from a tree. Betty Carter has noted that "Mother Goose rhymes began life as aural mnemonics chronicling the incidents and interactions of an adult population. They carry, as a narrative byproduct, a social history of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries."
Typically, nursery rhymes share some characteristics even within their diversity of content and form. As a rule, nursery rhymes tend to be written as poetry, with redundant phrases and imagery. Further, their length rarely consists of more than a few dozen lines. Their nature predisposes them to working well as both verse and song, and as such, many have been set to music, creating some of the more recognizable childhood lullabies. The vast majority owe their origins to Europe—with several of the most recognizable having been born in England—though some can trace their roots to American writers. One example of such a rhyme, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," was written by the American author Sarah Hale, and the tale derives from a real incident involving a classmate of Sarah's attempting to bring a live lamb to school with her. Hale published the poem in 1830, and the verse quickly joined the pantheon of Mother Goose rhymes.
The symbolic Mother Goose is herself a European creation, though her association with the traditionally famous sonnets and poems is today primarily the sole province of American imaginations. The first documented usage of the term "Mother Goose" in English was the 1729 translation of Charles Perrault's collection of fairy tales called Contes de Ma Mère l'Oye or Mother Goose Tales (originally printed in French in 1695). Around 1780, famed children's author John Newbery released his own collection of nursery rhymes titled Mother Goose's Melody: Or, Sonnets for the Cradle. As to the term "Mother Goose" itself, no definitive origin has been determined, though several speculative possibilities exist. Two of the most strongly advocated theories center on a pair of French queens named Bertha. The first theory alleges that the name was derived from the eighth-century Queen Bertha of Pepin who was the mother of Charlemagne and who may have had the nickname "Queen Goosefoot," possibly due to a birth defect that left her with a deformed foot. The second theory revolves around the eleventh-century Queen Bertha, wife of Robert II, who was rumored to have given birth to "a goose-headed child," possibly due to inbreeding within the royal family. Both women are said to have been generous with children, thus possibly cementing their legacies with that of stories told to children. Other popular theories involve Queen Sheba and a colonial-era woman in Boston named Elizabeth Goose (or, variably "Vergoose" or "Vertigoose"), a grandmotherly woman who told stories from her own youth to a series of local children. Indeed, visitors to Boston are often taken to the presumed grave at the Granary Burying Ground of this American "Mother Goose," although given the time frame in which she lived, she could not have been the originator of the term "Mother Goose."
While the exact derivation of the term is unknown, Perrault's contributions to the nursery rhyme and fairy tale genre were groundbreaking. Largely considered the father of the fairy tale, his Histoires, ou Contes du temps passé, avec des moralitez (1697) was a compilation of adaptations of classic myth and folklore written in the courtesan style in vogue during this era. The book was composed of eight fairy tales, several of which are still among the most well-known fairy tales to this day: "La Belle au bois dormant (The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood)," "Le Petit Chaperon rouge (Little Red Riding Hood)," "Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard)," "Le Chat botté (The Master Cat; or, Puss in Boots)," "Les Fées (The Fairies)," "Cendrillon (Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper)," "Riquet à la houppe (Ricky of the Tuft)," and "Le Petit Poucet (Little Thumb or Tom Thumb)." While most of Perrault's stories from this volume and Contes de Ma Mère l'Oye continue to find their way into Mother Goose collections, generally they are ascribed more as fairy tales rather than true nursery rhymes. It was Newbery's Mother Goose's Melody that shifted the focus of Mother Goose away from fairy tales to the short poems and rhymes that readers are more familiar with today.
The disparate backgrounds of the Mother Goose rhymes themselves stretch over a variety of time periods and creative intents. A surprising number of the rhymes owe their creation to political and social issues. In fact, several of the more prominent Mother Goose rhymes are taunting political slogans, mocking such figures as Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, and Queen Elizabeth I. For instance, "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" and "Little Miss Muf-fet" are thought to be directly commenting on the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, whereas "Hey Diddle Diddle" likely refers to a sexual scandal that occurred in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and "Little Boy Blue" concerns Henry VIII confidante Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Perhaps one of the more detailed of these suggestive political metaphors is "Sing a Song of Sixpence" which is thought to refer to Henry VIII himself. Sister Mary Joan Patricia has suggested in her examination of the rhyme that the story underlying the lyrical rhyme is concerned with Henry's "confiscation of rich abbey lands, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his infatuation with Anne Boleyn, her short reign, and swift execution." She portrays the poem as a metaphor for Henry's poor Kingship wherein verse like "Sing a song of sixpence / A pocket full of rye" refers to Henry's overt theft of money and lands from his people, while "The Queen was in the pantry / Eating bread and honey / The maid was in the garden" are subtle criticisms of Queen Catharine of Aragon's belief she was secure in her position as Queen of England with the figure of the maid standing as an overt insinuation of the King's paramour, Anne Boleyn, as a third party in their marriage. However, the difficulty in confirming the true intents of the rhymes' anonymous and forgotten authors has made identifying the hidden meaning behind such story poems largely guesswork, with wildly divergent theories offered for several of the rhymes. Indeed, even determining the basic timeframe for their origins can be tricky as many are adaptations of earlier works or oft-repeated folk stories. For example, in the case of "Mother Hubbard," the poem is generally credited with having originated in its current form from Sarah Catherine Martin's The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog (1805), although its ancestry has been traced as far back as a 1590 satire by Edmund Spencer called "Mother Hubbard's Tale."
Literally thousands of editions of nursery rhymes exist, with hundreds more having been lost to time—an unfortunate list whose numbers include all original printings of Newbery's Mother Goose's Melody. The Victorian Age, with its gauzy sentimentalism attached to all things childlike, reaped a bonanza of nursery rhyme materials which often incorporated lavishly illustrated color editions by such noted artists as Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott. Other collections sought to establish a comprehensive documentation of these rhymes before they were lost forever, such as James Orchard Halliwell's 1842 The Nursery Rhymes of England, Collected Principally from Oral Tradition. In the last century, this desire to account for the disparate membership of Mother Goose's canon has taken more of a scholastic bent. Two collections with comprehensive and extensively researched approaches to the task of establishing a canonical record of all Mother Goose nursery rhymes have been particularly applauded for their detailed inclusion criteria: Iona and Peter Opie's The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951) and The Annotated Mother Goose, Nursery Rhymes Old and New (1962) by William S. and Ceil Baring-Gould. Despite their half-century-old publishing dates, they remain two of the most authoritative encyclopedic references for nursery rhymes today. Dozens more Mother Goose collections are issued annually, often taking different approaches to the classical material. Among the most innovative of these contemporary editions is Eve Merriam's The Inner City Mother Goose (1969), which contemporizes several of the well-known rhymes with a more urbane point-of-view. More recent Mother Goose offerings have taken Merriam's lead and created "twisted nursery rhymes" that attempt to subvert the traditional rhymes with satirical and sarcastic re-imaginings.
Despite the common perception of Mother Goose rhymes as innocently benign works of children's literature, the rhymes have seen some opposition to their presence in the nursery. One of the primary critical arguments made against Mother Goose is the predisposition toward violence and suffering in the various poems and rhymes. In 1952 Geoffrey Handley Taylor argued that the tales contained dark aspects that deflated their value for children, including death, immorality, and dark forces. Others have asserted that their nonsensical lyrics lack inherent value, and that children—even small children—should be presented with material more suitable toward their educational and moral advancement. Even Hale, the creator of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," expressed her dubious belief in the value of nursery rhymes: "I know little children love to read rhymes and sing little verse, and such manner of spending their time is not good." Of such difficulties with Mother Goose, Perry Nodelman has noted that, "Given their history, of course, these verses may once have made sense. Before the vagaries of memory distorted them, they may have been associated with events that explored them, or had further verses that eventually offered rational explanations some of the bizarre behavior they describe. But once these verses have been divorced from those contexts, there is no question about it: they are unquestionably loony. That lunacy interests, and bothers, a lot of adults." Still, Mother Goose has endured past many of her literary peers, surviving well into the twenty-first century as the preeminent literature for the youngest readers. With her magical flights into imagination, promising silliness and comfort, her stories offer a window into realms of creativity and literary cognizance for beginning readers. Famed children's author Maurice Sendak has commented, "Only Mother Goose, that doughty old wonder bird, could have survived the assiduous attention of generations of champions and detractors, illustrators and anthologists. More than merely survive, she has positively flourished—younger, fresher, and more superbly beautiful than ever: witness the publication of Mother Goose books of every shape and size that has continued for generations, including the dozens now on the market in America."
Marguerite de Angeli
Book of Nursery and Mother Goose Rhymes (nursery rhymes) 1954
William S. and Ceil Baring-Gould, editors
The Annotated Mother Goose, Nursery Rhymes Old and New [illustrations by Walter Crane and others] (nursery rhymes) 1962
Book of Nursery Rhymes (nursery rhymes) 1975
Mother Goose Treasury (nursery rhymes) 1966
Sing a Song for Sixpence (picture book) 1880
Hey Diddle Diddle, and Baby Bunting (picture book) 1882; also published as Hey Diddle Diddle and Other Funny Poems
The Fox Jumps over the Parson's Gate (picture book) 1883
The Baby's Opera, A Book of Old Rhymes with New Dresses (picture book) 1877
The Baby's Bouquet, A Fresh Bunch of Old Rhymes and Tunes [illustrator; compiled by Lucy Crane] (picture book) 1878
The Neighborhood Mother Goose (nursery rhymes) 2004
Marjorie Ainsborough Decker
The Christian Mother Goose Book of Nursery Rhymes [illustrations by Sarah Gibb] (nursery rhymes) 2001
Pamela Duncan Edwards
The Neat Line: Scribbling through Mother Goose [illustrations by Diana Cain Blumenthal] (picture book) 2005
G. H. Gent
Histories of Past Times, Told by Mother Goose with Morals 'Englished' by G. H. Gent (nursery rhymes) 1802
The Top Secret Files of Mother Goose [illustrations by Tim Banks] (picture book) 2003
Mother Goose; or, The Old Nursery Rhymes [illustrator] (picture book) 1881
James Orchard Halliwell, editor
The Nursery Rhymes of England, Collected Principally from Oral Tradition (nursery rhymes) 1842
Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales: A Sequel to the Nursery Rhymes of England (nursery rhymes) 1849
Virginia L. Kroll
Jaha and Jamil Went Down the Hill: An African Mother Goose [illustrations by Katherine Roundtree] (picture book) 1995
Diana Loomans, Karen Kolberg, and Julia Loomans
Positively Mother Goose [illustrations by Ronda E. Henrichsen] (nursery rhymes) 1991
Mother Goose Riddle Rhymes (nursery rhymes) 1953
The Inner City Mother Goose [illustrations by Lawrence Ratzkin] (nursery rhymes) 1969; revised edition with an introduction by Nikki Giovanni, illustrations by David Diaz, 1996
Mother Goose (nursery rhymes) 2003
Edmund Munroe and David Francis
Mother Goose's Quarto, or Melodies Complete (nursery rhymes) c. 1825
Mother Goose's Melody: Or, Sonnets for the Cradle (nursery rhymes) c. 1780
Iona Opie, editor
My Very First Mother Goose [illustrations by Rosemary Wells] (nursery rhymes) 1996
Iona and Peter Opie, editors
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (nursery rhymes) 1951, revised edition, 1997
The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book [illustrations by Joan Hassall] (nursery rhymes) 1955
Contes de Ma Mère l'Oye [Mother Goose Tales] (nursery rhymes) 1695; published in the United Kingdom, 1729
Histoires, ou Contes du temps passé, avec des moralitez (fairy tales and nursery rhymes) 1697
Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose: The Dedication Manuscript of 1695 Reproduced in Collotype Facsimile. 2 vols. [edited by Jacques Barchilon] (nursery rhymes) 1956
Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes (nursery rhymes) 1963
Blessed Mother Goose: Nursery Rhymes for Today's Children [illustrations by Keye Luke] (nursery rhymes) 1951
Jessie Willcox Smith
The Little Mother Goose (nursery rhymes) 1918
Katherine Elwes Thomas
The Real Personages of Mother Goose (history) 1930
Granfa' Grigg Had a Pig and Other Rhymes without Reason from Mother Goose (nursery rhymes) 1976
Brian Wildsmith's Mother Goose (nursery rhymes) 1964
Blanche Fisher Wright
The Real Mother Goose (nursery rhymes) 1916
Mother Goose (nursery rhymes) 2003
Maurice Sendak (essay date 31 October 1965)
SOURCE: Sendak, Maurice. "Mother Goose's Garnishings." In Children and Literature: News and Reviews, edited by Virginia Haviland, pp. 188-95. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973.
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Gillian Avery (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Avery, Gillian. "Mother Goose: Her Defenders and Detractors." In Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books, 1621–1922, pp. 68-72. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Avery outlines several critical arguments that have accompanied the publication of Mother Goose fairy tales and nursery rhymes since the nineteenth century.]
Fairy-tales did not flourish in the Edgeworth-dominated years. It was becoming old-fashioned to object to them on the score of their untruthfulness, though the anonymous author of False Stories Corrected, published by Samuel Wood of New York in 1814, was moved by this fact. He set out to persuade children of the folly of believing in such things as ghosts, together with other mythical creatures less likely to trouble them—phoenixes, centaurs, harpies, griffons and the like. 'Many false stories … are told merely for sport or pastime. This also is wicked; it is lying, and of course reprehensible.' He was particularly fierce against those who believe in
old Santa-claw, of whom so often little children hear such foolish stories; and once in the year are encouraged to hang their stockings in the chimney at night, and when they arise in the morning, they find in them cakes, nuts, money, and placed there by some of the family, which they are told old Santa claw has come down chimney in the night and put in.
In a companion volume published the same year, True Stories Related, the author asks in Edgeworth fashion what advantage can be derived from stories of 'Hobgoblins, Enchanted Castles, Fairies, Sylphs, Magical Wands, Wishing Caps, & c., & c.', and asserts:
It is certainly paying a very poor compliment to the understanding and taste of children, to suppose they are not capable of being pleased with anything but Fiction and Romance, and that therefore their little volumes must be filled with such stuff as the battle of Tom Thumb with the Bumble-Bee, the exploits of Gulliver among the Lilliputians, the Descent of Sinbad into the Valley of Diamonds & c.
Samuel Goodrich, as has already been related, was outraged at an early age by the violence and terror in fairy-tales. He condemned them as 'monstrous, false and pestilential' and pronounced that just as no one would feed children with blood and poison, so no one should administer 'cruelty and violence, terror and impurity'.1 Others raised different objections: fairy-tales were not useful, they stood in the way of progress, and they were ungenteel. All these arguments are advanced in The Fairy Tale, a little tract published in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1831.2
'I wonder what makes Pa dislike Fairy Tales so much, mother; I am sure they can do us no harm, while we know they are all false.'
'Is there no harm in wasting your time in the perusal of nonsensical, and often wicked stories, Julia?'
'Yes, Julia, often wicked, though you are not old enough to understand their coarse allusion to sacred things; besides, my child, time is too precious to waste it on that which will neither make us wiser or better. Remember, that life is but a span—a moment—a flash—and I am sure you will think with regret of your wasted hours.'
Julia's mother does not object to outdoor play since this is exercise necessary to health, but in a purposeful life fairy-tales can have no part. They are sweetmeats (as Richard Edgeworth saw them), possibly poisonous ones (as was Goodrich's view). But she added an objection of her own: they were not genteel. Julia's mother, though uncertain of her grammar, is very conscious of the low standing of such tales, which no doubt she associated with the crudely printed little versions of such stories as Sinbad, Blue Beard and Cinderella sold by pedlars to people who knew no better: '"Few people of talents, at the present day, write fairy tales; and such nonsense as you was reading, Julia, is never read by well-educated people."' And to show her daughter what fiction should be like she reads her an allegory about Intemperance and Luxury and Licentiousness, where Holiness and Prayer triumph, and Industry and Invention make 'a black powder which blows rock away very easy', this powder representing 'the force of industry accomplishing any desirable object'.
The Fairy-Book of 1836, is a pioneer work that includes, as well as eight tales from Perrault's Histories, stories by Mme d'Aulnoy, Mme Leprince de Beaumont and other French writers. Its editor, Verplanck, who unlike Goodrich had been reared in a tradition of fairy-tales, saw them as stimulating courage and daring in boys, gentleness and compassion in girls. Washington, he averred, must have been formed by them: 'At any rate, I feel quite positive that he would not have been the first and greatest President of the United States, had he never read "Whittington and his Cat."' And, he pointed out with great truth, the stories of Miss Edgeworth 'are but the histories of Giles Gingerbread and Goody Two-Shoes grown up and living among the people of our own days'.
In his mock-serious championship of the traditional tales Verplanck speaks passionately of their antiquity, their influence on Shakespeare and the poets, and rejects 'the sage opinion that they are not true, and that children ought not to be allowed to read anything but the truth'. They have, he insists, an essential moral truth; indeed, history itself 'as commonly taught to the young in dry chronological tables and meager catalogues of musty names [does not] contain one quarter so much of living reality'.
There was another prevalent objection: 'Many worthy people think that this kind of literature is suited only to the old countries, and of course that our American children have nothing to do with such knowledge.' William Cardell, who in The Story of Jack Halyard3 set out to write a story with 'doctrines and sentiments intended to be American', said as much about nursery rhymes: '[Mother Goose's Melody] was a parcel of silly rhymes, made by some ignorant people in England about a hundred years ago. The book was written in bad English, and full of plumping long stories from beginning to end.' His hero feels the same: "'It is strange,'" says Jack, who has just read 'Hey Diddle Diddle' with much contempt, "'that a child of common sense can take delight in reading such falsehoods, and believe that dishes can hop, and dogs laugh, and cows jump higher than eagles can fly.'"
Samuel Goodrich, who, as we have seen, felt that children should be presented with rational ideas rather than nonsensical verse, spoke with grief about English efforts to revive the rhymes: 'A quaint, quiet, scholarly gentleman, called Mr Felix Summerly4—a dear lover of children—was invented to preside over the enterprise, to rap the knuckles of Peter Parley, and woo back the erring generation of children to the good old orthodox rhymes and jingles of England.'5 He was thankful to add that the enterprise went bankrupt (this was wishful thinking), though regrettably it did not stop James Orchard Halliwell, the English antiquarian, from devoting the weight of his scholarship to these same foolish rhymes.6 Goodrich's sorrow at this insensate folly was expressed in his magazine Merry's Museum in August 1846, in a dialogue between a boy and his mother, who realizes too late that 'these foolish rhymes stick like burrs … and the coarsest and vilest seem to be best remembered'. She recommends her son to learn 'good, sensible things' instead. But these turn out to be Watts' hymns—"'I hate 'em,'" says Timothy tersely, and goes on shouting the jingle he has composed:
Higglety, pigglety, pop!
The dog has eat the mop;
The pig's in a hurry,
The cat's in a flurry—
'And, because in spite of everything, he was a bit of a genius, Goodrich had unwittingly added to the store of nursery rhyme literature,' the Opies comment, triumphantly including the verse in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. (And should anyone think that composing nonsensical jingles is easy, they have only to consider the many people who have tried and failed. The New Englander Eliza Follen compiled Little Songs for Little Boys and Girls in 1833, hoping to 'catch that good-humored pleasantry, that musical nonsense which makes Mother Goose so attractive to children', while excluding its 'vulgarisms and other defects'. But the result was banal.)
Sara Josepha Hale (1788–1879) was another American who unwittingly contributed to the Mother Goose corpus. She had included 'Mary had a little lamb'7 in Poems for Children in 1830. The preface to this expressed her disapproval of the traditional rhymes: 'I know little children love to read rhymes and sing little verses, and such manner of spending their time is not good.' She wanted to teach her readers, instead, to love truth and goodness. She was an earnest lady whose verses in The Wise Boys (1860) told of oppressively sensible children such as Fred, who always thinks before he acts and reasons 'there's caution needed here'—with the result that he meets with great success in trade and 'grows richer every year':
At length he built a country-house,
And kept his coach, and grew Wiser and richer, for he still
Kept forethought in his view.
Despite Peter Parleyism, Mother Goose rhymes seemed to settle easily in America. Other publishers took over Mother Goose's Melody from Isaiah Thomas. In an abridged chapbook version, printed in Windsor, Vermont, in 1814, a verse of 'Yankee Doodle' has been added—a rare topical touch:
Father and I went down to Camp8
Along with Captain Goodwin,
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
With fire ribbons in their hats,
They look'd so taring fine O,
I wish I had just such a one
To give to my Jemimo.
Then, about 1825 Edmund Munroe and David Francis, Boston booksellers and publishers, put out Mother Goose's Quarto, or Melodies Complete, and though it was only a small book (about 128 pages) it was the largest collection of rhymes that had yet appeared. It contained most of the Mother Goose's Melody rhymes that Isaiah Thomas had reprinted from Newbery, but added others, some from the English Songs for the Nursery (Benjamin Tabart, 1805). It included a pedlar's song which gives a glimpse of children's toys of the time—'babies', pipes, 'trunks to fill with weekly pence', plumed horses, windmills, toy soldiers, guns and horses.
The Quarto was not an influential book in itself, but its successor was. Munroe and Francis published Mother Goose's Melodies in 1833, basing it largely on the Quarto, which it condensed into ninety-six pages. It was highly popular and there were many subsequent editions. The cover engraving shows a goose dressed like a nurse, with attentive goslings all around her, and the preamble, 'Hear what Ma'am Goose says', tells readers to pay no heed to the old women who say that 'my enchanting, quieting, soothing volume' ought to be laid aside for more learned books. The adult flavour so evident in Mary Cooper's Tommy Thumb's Song Book of some ninety years before has disappeared; some of the rhymes have been unobtrusively reworded and others omitted. The attractive wood engravings (some of them in the first edition by Dr Alexander Anderson9) have also done much to make the rhymes childlike.
We also find an example of the arbitrary way in which over the centuries verses have been wrenched out of context and declared to be 'nursery rhymes'. On page 71 there are three, of which one begins:
Pibroch of Donnel Dhu,
Pibroch of Donnel,
Wake thy voice anew,
Come away, come away,
Hark to the summons,
Come in your war array,
Gentles and commons!
This is in fact taken from a ballad by Sir Walter Scott, though presented in isolation like this it is mysterious, not least because of the Scots names. It was a curious inclusion, and one that did not survive. The Melodies bear all the marks of their English origins. 'See saw, sacradown' still asks the way to Boston town, as Isaiah Thomas had printed it, but otherwise the rhymes celebrate such places as Charing Cross and Banbury Cross, St Ives, and the bells of London churches. There are robins and cuckoos, and kings and queens. But in Chimes, Rhymes, and Jingles, the third of the Munroe and Francis Mother Goose collections, published about 1845, there is a Santa Claus rhyme:
Tite, tite prickly pears
Jolly Santa Claus, what are your wares?
'A silver cup for Johnny Bowlyn—
His name engraved around the rim.
A doll for Annie, a drum for you—
I have something for every shoe.'
This must surely have American origins. Santa Claus was known in New York in the early years of the nineteenth century, since children in 1814 were being warned of the foolishness of belief in 'old Santa-claw'. Dutch settlers had brought the gift-giving St Nicholas with them, but in 1814 there was obvious doubt about how his name was spelt. Other variants were Sinterklaas, San Claas, Sancte Claus. The author of A New Year's Present10 calls him 'Old Santeclaus'. This little eight-page book published in New York in 1821 is the first known American Christmas book. Issued anonymously, it was in fact written and illustrated by Arthur J. Stansbury, a former Presbyterian minister. The little illustrations, clearly the work of an amateur hand, include one of a sleigh drawn by a single reindeer, with a tall chimney stack in the background, accompanied by the rhyme
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O'er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
It is likely that Clement Moore, who was a friend of the publisher William Gilley, had this in mind when he wrote 'A Visit from St Nicholas' a year later as a gift for his own family. This poem, the first American children's classic, was to set the scene for Christmas Eve in perpetuity.11
1. Samuel Goodrich: Recollections of a Lifetime (New York, 1856), 172.
2. The Fairy Tale. By the author of 'The Sand-fords, or Home Scenes,' 'Sarah and Her Cousins', & c. (Providence, RI, 1831).
3. William S. Cardell: The Story of Jack Halyard, the Sailor Boy, or the Virtuous Family. Designed for American Children in Families and Schools (New York, 1825).
4. Sir Henry Cole (1808–82) edited the Home Treasury series, begun in 1843, whose purpose was 'to cultivate the Affections, Fancy, Imagination, and Taste of Children'. The character of the series, said the prospectus, 'may be briefly described as anti-Peter Parleyism'.
5. Goodrich, op. cit., 312.
6. Halliwell's collection The Book of Nursery Rhymes Complete was in fact published in Philadelphia in 1846.
7. It first appeared above Mrs Hale's initials in the magazine Juvenile Miscellany in September 1830.
8. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1980) attributes the song to Edward Bangs (fl. 1775), the Oxford Companion to American Literature to a Dr Shuckburgh, a British army surgeon in the Revolutionary War. The earliest known printing is in a Scottish collection of verse of c. 1778.
9. Alexander Anderson (1775–1870) has been called 'the father of wood-engraving in the United States'. A great admirer of Bewick, he used the same white-line technique to produce sophisticated engravings.
10. Children's Friend, Number III. A New Year's Present for the Little Ones from Five to Twelve (New York, 1821).
11. Betsy Beinecke Shirley has summarized the development of the Santa Claus legend in 'Visions of Santa Claus', American Book Collector, 9 December 1986.
Alice Benthall Saltzman (essay date April 2002)
SOURCE: Saltzman, Alice Benthall. "A Mother Goose Genealogy." Bookbird 40, no. 2 (April 2002): 42-6.
[In the following essay, Benthall offers a critical examination of the "Mother Goose" character, arguing that the origins of the fictional nursery rhyme matron are found in "history, literature, art, folklore, mythology, and etymology."]
Mother Goose is known worldwide in virtually every household in which English is spoken. Children everywhere rollick with joy and laughter at her rhymes. They sit entranced by her tales. She is quoted by heart. She is a familiar and beloved part of the family. Her titles outsell all others with the exception of the Bible. She is manifested in the Great Mother figures of world myth. But who was she? Where did she come from? She is old. But how old?
Attempting to trace Mother Goose's roots is not unlike trying to untangle the web of Miss Muffet's spider. They are embedded in many lands and in ages long past. They are found in history, literature, art, folklore, mythology, and etymology. Many and varied are those who would lay claim to Mother Goose! Most of this wizened old friend's ancestry does her proud, but—as in all family histories—there are a few who could best be forgotten.
It is claimed that Mother Goose is buried in Boston. Tourists have made the pilgrimage there to find the Old Granary Burial Ground and to pay their respects. Unfortunately, the tomb is that of Mary Balston Goose (d.1690), the first wife of Isaac Goose.1 "Mother" Goose was Elizabeth Foster Goose (1665–1757), whom Isaac married after the death of Mary. Although Elizabeth probably is buried in the Old Granary Burial Ground, she lies in an unmarked grave.2
Elizabeth was a very noble old soul, mother of six and stepmother of ten, who loved whiling away her days by entertaining her grandchildren with song and story. Her son-in-law, Thomas Fleet by name and an eighteenth-century publisher by trade, saw the commercial value in his in-law's stories, songs, and ditties. He is said to have collected and published them. However, no copy of any such volume is extant.3
What did survive was the 1824 collection of nursery rhymes published by Monroe & Francis that was signed by a Jemima Goose. This was followed in 1833 by the C. S. Francis collection, which bore the statement, "the whole compared, revised and sanctioned by one of the annotators of the Goose family."4 In spite of the use of the Goose name, neither have any bearing on a search for Mother Goose. Both were probably well-meaning but misguided efforts of early Boston publishers to cement Mother Goose to that area.
These publishers were not the only ones hoping to swell their coffers by offering editions of Mother Goose. Sometime in the 1760s—the exact year is unknown—London bookstalls were flooded with John Newbery's Mother Goose's Melodies. This was a collection of well-known rhymes for children that is believed to have been edited by no less than the renowned Oliver Goldsmith,5 who is known to have authored some of Newbery's chapbooks and the nursery classic Goody-two-shoes. Authorities see his indelible imprint on the work and suspect that he may even have composed some of the verses.6 This Newbery/Goldsmith volume was responsible for establishing the long line of Mother Goose books that were quick to follow.7
John Newbery got the idea for his book from his neighbor, the Frenchman, Charles Perrault. In 1697, Perrault published a book of eight prose tales entitled Histoires ou contes du temps passé avec des moralités (Histories or tales of past times, with morals) and subtitled Contes de ma Mère L'Oye (Tales of Mother Goose). The eight tales in this volume included the still-familiar "Little Red Riding Hood," "Sleeping Beauty," "Bluebeard," "Puss in Boots," "Cinderella," and "Tom Thumb," but no rhymes.8 It was the London Newbery-Goldsmith volume that succeeded in separating for all time the tales Mother Goose had told from the rhymes for which she is now famous.
Perrault's work cannot, however, be dispensed with quite yet, as his subtitle is of import. Oye is Old French for "goose." Contes de ma Mère l'Oye has been translated simply as Tales (or Stories) of Mother Goose. However, this French phrase was also a well-known figure of speech of that time9 being roughly equivalent to "old wives' tales," "tall tales," or "tales of make believe. Therefore, instead of being a simple statement of authorship, it may also be viewed as descriptive of the tales told. The eminent folklorist Andrew Lang discovered this term used in a work dating back to 1650: Jean Loret's La muse historique (Historic muse). One line reads "Comme un come de la Mère Oye" or "Like a Mother Goose story." The next line reads "Se trouvant fabuleux et faux"10 or "Finding itself fabulous and false." Thus, Mother Goose, teller of fanciful tales, was well known at least 350 years ago—and probably even earlier.
This leads back to the time of the goose girl—a familiar figure in medieval English communities who may have contributed to Mother Goose lore. It was the sole responsibility of the goose girl to see that nothing happened to the town's geese—an important source of protein, which was absent in the daily diet of most citizens of that time. This was a lonely task, and to combat this loneliness, goose girls attracted attention by becoming adept at storytelling and spreading news. The tales and rhymes told by one would be passed on to others, eventually making the goose girl part storyteller. Scholars have noted that some of these stories found their way into early collections of folktales, further contributing to the teller's being associated with the goose.11 In fact, an ancient French fabliau (fable) depicts a goose telling stories to her goslings.12
History adds two Berthas to Mother Goose's family tree, and both were queens. One was the wife of Robert II of France (c. 970–1031), also known as Robert the Pious. However pious, he was excommunicated by the Church since there was a close blood relationship between him and the wife he chose. Rumor was that an offspring had a head resembling that of a goose. The other Bertha was also French, a patroness of children, and the wife of Pepin (c. 714–68). Her association with the goose was much happier; she simply had webbed toes. She was also more fortunate in her offspring. Her son was none other than Charlemagne, future ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. This Bertha has come down through the ages known as la Reine Pédauque (Queen Goosefoot) or Berthe au grand pied (Goose-footed Bertha).13 Depictions show her spinning while children listen to her tales. Images of a Bertha with her goose-foot can be seen in various old churches in France, but it is unclear which Bertha is represented.14
Because of their common name, these two historical Berthas have become inextricably entwined with the mythological earth-mother Bertha (or Berchta)—a spinner from Germany, who, like the mother of Charlemagne, was goosefooted. This German Bertha was borrowed by the French,15 who then depicted her as spinning her yarn and her stories with an audience of attentive children clustered around.16
Northern Germany also had Holde, whose similarity to Bertha (Berchta) did not stop with her goose-foot. Both ruled in limbo, where the souls of unbaptised children have been reputed tor go. Both watched over the very young, oversaw spinning, and were patrons of the hearth. It should be noted that the hearth is symbolized by the goose, for the goose is associated with nurturing, and she mates for life. The goose is a common motif popular even today, especially in kitchens.
Spinning, or being a spinner, is mentioned in connection with several branches of Mother Goose's tree. Exactly what does spinning signify? Of course, the obvious is spinning yarns and tales—especially fairy tales—for the amusement of others. It is interesting to note that fairy originally meant fate. Spinning was also symbolic of fertility, death, and the underworld (limbo). Geese were believed to hold the souls of the unbaptized. Therefore, a goose spinning conjured up the fate of unbaptized souls. German mythology also gives us Fru Gode or Fru Gosen—gos was Old English for "goose." Fru Gosen was the leader of these lost souls.17
St. Clotilde (475–545), wife of Clovis, King of France, often is mentioned as Mother Goose. However, except for her goose-foot18 and the fact that she, too, was a patroness of children, nothing more is found in support of her claim.
There is one other person to be added to our record of Mother Goose. Strangely enough, she is not motherly, grandmotherly, or even a teller of tales. However, she was intelligent and wise enough to match wits with King Solomon: the Queen of Sheba.19 Her claim? Did she not visit Solomon to test his wisdom with her riddles? And she may even have been goose-footed! Her left foot is described in Western European lore as being webbed, and she has thus been depicted in Western art and literature. However, early Jewish and Muslim lore have her as ass-footed, her legs being extremely hairy. An explanation for this discrepancy may lie in an early scribe having written pes anserinus (Latin for "goose-footed") instead of pes asininus (Latin for "ass-footed").20
What is the special significance of the goosefoot? This is explained in the lore of numbers. The number five is associated with the holy cross. It has four outer points with the fifth being the inner point where connecting lines from the four outer points converge. The bird, as well as the goose's webbed foot, has three toes pointing forward and one backward. Therefore, a bird's footprint has the same five points as the cross.21
Thus Mother Goose has manifested herself throughout the ages. However, her family chart does not go from one generation to the next. Is it, therefore, safe to conclude that she is like the Scandinavian goddess Freia? Freia was originally a swan,22 but the nature myth was humanized with only a foot retaining the swan form. This later degenerated into a goose-foot. Freia is the goddess of love and housewifely accom-plishments, especially spinning. She also has the ability to divide herself into parts with each part having its own life and personality. Thus, Mother Goose could have actually been each of those we have traced back through the ages and still be herself.23
What did she look like? Her portraits are as varied as her family tree. The old woman as narrator is traditional in ancient lore, and Mother Goose is no exception. She is always, and always has been, shown as being old. After all, being old is symbolic of being wise. Long ago, she was almost witchlike with her dark flowing cloak, pointed hat and chin, and long nose. Occasionally, she even had a wart. Even so, there was a kindness about her that distinguished her from her witch counterpart even as she rode a broom. Her nose was beaklike and, with her narrow face, she actually resembled the goose with which she was often pictured. Sometimes she carried a wand or even an egg, the symbol of fertility. At other times, she was empty-handed. Her spinning wheel may or may not have been in evidence. Gradually, her witchlike mien became more grandmotherly. Glasses were added; features were softened. Always she is at the center of adoring children—unless the artist depicts her soaring through the heavens on the back of a very large goose. Sometimes she is the goose itself, dressed in human clothes and wearing a bonnet. But no matter what the depiction, there remains no doubt in the viewer's mind concerning who is represented. She always inspires a warm glow in the heart. The need of the divine feminine is fulfilled in her archetypical character.
Why did she choose the goose? Why did she not take some other form? J. B. MacDougall in The Real Mother Goose: The Reality behind the Rhyme24 may give us the answer, and it bears quoting:
Among primitive Eastern Peoples the goose figured largely in their story of creation. The symbol is a common one … to signify creative force or spirit. The carriage and gait of the goose were the symbol of majesty; the eye, of wisdom and omniscience; the hiss, of vengeance and destructive force; the egg, of creative power. The goose was said to have laid the golden egg, that is the sun, giver of all light and life … The goose is the surest-winged and most unwearying bird in flight, soaring to the very peak of heaven and to the remotest regions with ease and certainty. Its winging power was symbolic of the flight of thought and imagination. Is it not unreasonable to think that the fertile mind of Perrault would seize upon this symbol to represent the vague authorship of a body of imaginative literature that has never been excelled, and whose roots struck deep down into the soil of antiquity? Moreover, the words "goose" and "ghost," that is "spirit," are said to have a common root. Thus Mother Goose becomes the great Mother Spirit whose domain is the boundless kingdom of childhood, and who is pictured in her own lore as mounting the wings of the wind to carry her to every part of the world … She is the timeless one. She belongs to no age, clime, or people. But she lived then, she lives now, she ever will live …
Yes, Mother Goose is alive. She is with us still. She is a part of the world's collective unconscious. As such, she is truly a common relative of all humanity. Western culture is alive with her imprint, and her influence continues to spread. The folklore, lullabies, and ballads that gave rise to her rhymes have parallels the world over. After all, children are children everywhere. They are all comforted by, amused by, and laugh at many of the same things. Outside the West, more attention is being given to the collection of folktales and lore that have been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation just as Mother Goose's were. Their publication helps fill the gap for children in those countries with limited indigenous literature. Their translation and dissemination make this literature available to all. The traditions and culture revealed cannot but help illustrate the oneness of humanity and enrich us all.
1. E. Boyd Smith, in the forward to The Boyd Smith Mother Goose (New York: Putnams, 1919), p. v, states that Isaac Goose's family name was originally Vergoose or Vertigoose, the former stemming from Anglo-Saxon and the latter from Norman French. Both refer to a goose under the age of four months—thus a "green" goose, or a gosling.
2. Elizabeth Pullar, "The Polemic Mother Goose," Spinning Wheel 34, no. 8 (Oct. 1978): 17.
3. William S. Walsh, Heroes and Heroines of Fiction (Detroit: Gale Research, 1966), 126.
4. H. Merian Allen, "The Genesis of Some Nursery Lore," Sewanee Review 25 (1917): 365-66.
5. W. T. Field, "Evolution of Mother Goose," Dial 39 (1905): 367.
6. Vincent Starrett, Bookman's Holiday (New York: Random House, 1942), 162-63.
7. J. B. MacDougall, "The Real Mother Goose: The Reality behind the Rhyme," Pt. II, Canadian Bookman 21 (Oct. 1939): 23.
8. Starrett, Bookman's Holiday, 156-57.
9. Allen, "Genesis," 365.
10. Field, "Evolution," 367.
11. Mason Purnell Johnson, History and Gossip in Mother Goose Rhymes (Detroit: Harlo, 1981), 14.
12. Starrett, Bookman's Holiday, 157.
13. William S. Gould and Ceil Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose (New York: Potter, 1962), 16-17.
14. Walsh, Heroes and Heroines, 128.
15. Walsh, Heroes and Heroines, 127.
16. Matt Kane, Heavens Unearthed in Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales (Altoona, PA: Golden Egg Books, 1999), 117.
17. Kane, Heavens, 118.
18. Starrett, Bookman's Holiday, 158.
19. It is interesting to note that Menelik, the son of Solomon and Sheba, established the Ethiopian dynasty of which Haile Selassie was a direct descendent. See 〈website.lineone.net/∼susandurber/Sheba.html and 〈www.ethiopiancrown.org/emperors.htm.
20. Kane, Heavens, 250-52.
21. Kane, Heavens, 257.
22. In connection with the swan, it is interesting to note that the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française (Dictionary of the French Academy) 6. ed. (Brussels: Wahlen, 1838) lists "contes de la cigogne" or "contes à la cigogne" (swan's stories) as meaning "contes ridicules et dépourvus de toute vraisemblance" (ridiculous stories devoid of all truthfulness). This term is thus equivalent to "tall tales" or "tales of make believe" as mentioned in the definition of Perrault's Contes de ma Mère l'Oye (Tales of Mother Goose).
23. Walsh, Heroes and Heroines, 127.
24. MacDougall, "Real," 23-24.
Sister Mary Joan Patricia, S.S.J. (essay date December 1951)
SOURCE: Patricia, S.S.J., Sister Mary Joan. "Mother Goose to Homer." In Readings about Children's Literature, edited by Evelyn Rose Robinson, pp. 239-48. New York, N.Y.: David McKay Company, Inc., 1966.
[In the following essay, originally printed in the December 1951 issue of Catholic Weekly, Sister Patricia explores the English political origins of several well-known Mother Goose nursery rhymes, including "Sing a Song of Sixpence" and "Hey Diddle Diddle."]
Mother Goose to Homer! How far apart they seem! Yet someone has truly said, "If you want your child to love Homer, give him Mother Goose."
This flawless literature delights the child, awakens in him a responsiveness to rhyme and rhythm, develops his sense of humor through the nonsense surprise jingles, pleases his dramatic sense with verses about Miss Muffet and Little Boy Blue, and gives him a feeling of relationship with these old-fashioned children.
At his mother's knee, he is simply charmed with the irresistible appeal of this age-old, worldwide literature which cultivates ear and taste with rhythmic measure, beautiful sound, and quaint imagery. This pleasure has its roots in some power so deep and fundamental that it defies explanation or imitation.
The child doesn't know or care that many Mother Goose rhymes originated as political lampoons and popular satires about Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth. But when the drama of English history brings these famous personages to the stage, and the college student comes to take a lively interest in the human side of the English monarchs and their courts, he is intrigued to see the annals of their times reveal with caustic wit the comedies, tragedies, and romances of high and low. For the working people, too, used these rhymes as the only means of voicing their complaints, e.g.:
Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full;
One for my master, one for my dame,
And one for the little boy that cried in the lane
This recounts the spirit of discontent and revolt in the reign of Edward VI, when the king and wealthy nobles demanded so much wool that vast tracts of arable land were turned into sheep folds, resulting in an economic crisis, lack of foodstuffs, and field labor, low wages, and high costs. "The master and the dame" are the king and the rich courtiers. "The little boy that cried in the lane" represents the poor people who were often hanged for crying out against abuse.
Katherine Elwes Thomas, after much scholarly research, also offers, in The Real Personages in Mother Goose, interpretations of many other nursery rhymes, some of them attributed to Shakespeare and other literary wits, some even to Queen Elizabeth.
"Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" and "Little Miss Muf-fet" refer to Mary, Queen of Scots. "Little Boy Blue" is a jibe at Cardinal Wolsey who had received the degree of Batcheleur of Arts at 15 and was often called "the Boy Bachelor."
You may recall some of your childhood favorites that have come down to us in variant forms.
"Sing a song of sixpence" alludes to Henry VIII's confiscation of rich abbey lands, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his infatuation with Anne Boleyn, her short reign and swift execution:
Sing a song of sixpence,
(Henry's jubilant humming over his stolen riches)
A pocket full of rye,
(rich grain fields Henry had confiscated)
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie;
("blackbirds" refers to friars and monks; "pye" meant a monk's cowl and hence the monk himself. As in the case of "Little Jack Horner," the monks, to satisfy the avaricious Henry, sent him twenty-four title deeds to monastic property. According to the prevailing custom, these were arranged in the form of a pie.)
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before a king?
("dainty dish" because Henry selected choice portions, such as Newstead Abbey, to give to favored friends)
The king was in the counting-house
Counting out his money.
(the holdings he had stolen)
The queen was in the pantry,
Eating bread and honey;
(Catherine of Aragon eating English bread with Spanish assurance that the divorce from Henry could not take place)
The maid was in the garden
(twenty-year-old Anne Boleyn in the garden of Whitehall Palace where Henry first saw her)
Hanging out the clothes,
(beautiful frocks which Anne brought from France to enhance her charms)
When down flew a blackbird
(a cleric, in this case Wolsey, "the royal headsman")
And snipped off her nose.
Another special favorite of childhood is "Hey, diddle, diddle":
Hey, diddle, diddle
(the name of an old dance, which suggests Elizabeth's love of dancing, music, and jollity)
The cat and the fiddle
(Elizabeth was often dubbed "the Cat." She played with her cabinet as if they were mice and outwitted the statesmen of Europe.)
The cow jumped over the moon;
("The Cow" was another nickname for Elizabeth. Her father had been called "the Dunne Cowe" because of heraldic bearings. "The moon" refers to Walsingham. Elizabeth, herself, playfully spoke of the staid Walsingham as "the moon" when she sent him on a trip to the imprisoned Mary of Scotland, apparently to investigate an alleged plot of Mary against Elizabeth.)
The little dog laughed
(When Elizabeth tired of her sometime favorite, the Earl of Leicester, she playfully jeered at him by calling him her "lap dog." Once, when he was out of favor with the Queen, he asked to be sent to France on a diplomatic mission. She refused on the ground that when people saw him they would know she was near, and vice versa. "He is like my lap dog," she said.)
To see such sport
(political sport and tilt yard tournaments with grotesque antics)
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
(The "dish" was the formal title of the courtier who brought the royal dishes to the queen's dining room. The "spoon" was a beautiful lady-in-waiting who tasted the royal meals as a precaution against poisoning Elizabeth. The "dish" in this case was Edward of Hertford who secretly married the "spoon," Lady Katherine Grey. When the vain and jealous Elizabeth heard of this, she threw them both into prison for the remaining seven years of their life. They had two children in prison.)
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Since none of all this underlying meaning has come to the child, he simply revels in the happy, jingling rhymes that add sunshine to his joyous hours.
It is only a step from Mother Goose to simple poetry. By careful guidance, the child can be led to love the best. He already responds to rhyme and rhythm, alliteration and imagery, and through poems about things that fall within his observation, or that appeal to his inherent ideals, mother, teacher, or librarian may lay the foundation of literary appreciation that will normally develop through his school and college years. He may even, in these early years, be introduced to poets who will be his lifelong companions, whom he will not only meet in his college course but cherish long years after.
Stevenson was endeared to the child's heart because he saw through the child's mind and with photographic precision presented what he saw. The very qualities of sincerity, simplicity, understanding, clearness, strength, and musical cadence which occurred in his children's poetry will recur in the books assigned for college reading. Because he early came in contact with poems by a host of authors, including Riley, A. A. Milne, the Brownings, Christina Rossetti, Blake, Lear, Tennyson, Bryant, De La Mare, Teasdale, Meynell, Noyes, Kilmer, and Fyleman, the student will greet these poets as friends in college.
If Wordsworth and Bryant drew him to the woods and fields and made him love nature and nature's God, he may find rare enjoyment in the mature essays of Burroughs or Dallas Lore Sharp. Possibly, he may follow the trail to nature fiction or travel and in worthwhile literature relish a wholesome fare which will make less worthy books pallid and tasteless.
Lessons of courage, heroism, unselfishness, truth, faith, love, and sacrifice abound in beautiful poetry quite within the range of eight to eighty. Some current poems by a little-known author appealed to my class this year. These lines were written by Byron Herbert Reece, a Methodist poet from Georgia. The following is an excerpt:
If I but had a little coat,
A coat to fit a no-year old,
I'd button it close about His throat
To cover Him from the cold,
To cover Him from the cold.
If my heart were a house also,
A house also with room to spare
I never would suffer my Lord to go
Homeless, but house Him there,
Homeless, but house Him there!
And in a poem to Our Lady he writes:
In Nazareth dwelt Mary Mild,
She carded and she spun;
On Christmas Day she bore the child
Of God, His only Son.
No doubt, the imagination cultivated in poetry is further exercised through beautiful folk or fairy tales, beautifully told. Not all folk tales are suitable for children. In fact, we know that folk tales were not originally written for children but were told by simple people around the evening fire to wile away the long hours. Some tales are gory, cruel, immoral, and unfit. But there is such a wealth of lovely lore from which to draw that no child's store should be impoverished. Andersen, Hawthorne, and Padraic Colum with individual and inimitable style have presented a host of deathless favorites to people the child's world. Who better than Colum can throw open the gates of Troy and over land and sea follow Odysseus, making the Greek hero come alive for the boy or girl breathlessly traveling in his wake?
The folk tale does far more than develop the imagination or furnish a means of escape from the commonplace into the magical. In their inherent desire for wish fulfillment, the boy or girl read themselves into the story. With the right book, they broaden and deepen, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Seeing virtue rewarded and vice punished with poetic justice, they learn valuable lessons of virtue and courtesy. Isn't one secret of the tremendous success of Walt Disney's Snow White the artist's remarkable understanding and portrayal of human nature? Isn't this quality of the very essence of the folk or fairy tales? Isn't the sense of humor a delicious quality common to the primitive droll or noodle tale, to Uncle Remus, Alice in Wonderland, Kipling's Just So Stories and Stockton's charmingly absurd fiction? What a delight for the college student who renews acquaintance with Stockton when he picks up a copy of The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine! What more effective counter-irritant to modern sophistication, what better introduction to poetry or mythology or romance?
Because, as a child, he loved the stories of Grimm, the college student with scientific archeological bent may care to delve into the past as did those scholarly brothers Grimm, who recorded by folk tale the religious and social ideals of primitive peoples.
Simultaneously or successively, the child may call for fairy tale or myth, for they have elements in common. Without a knowledge of myths, the student is handicapped in college when he meets mythological allusions in Greek or Latin, in classical poetry or other literature, and sometimes in other fields, science, for example. One of the newest elements discovered has been called Promethium, an energy produce liberated during current work on the atomic bomb. To a chemistry student who knows the story of Prometheus Unbound the suitability of the name is evident.
Historically, myths have an antiquarian value, for we are interested in the religious beliefs and the tales by which primitive man explained what was beyond his ken, for example, day and night, as told in the story of Phoebus, and the change of seasons as in the stories of Ceres and Proserpine and of Balder and Hoder. Exercising great discretion in the choice of myths, the storyteller no doubt presented to the lad's youthful mind those stories suitable for children and probably favored the Norse myths, because they stressed the spiritual ideals rather than the physical, emphasized wisdom rather than craft, and cherished respect for women, family, and home, especially dear to man in a land where cold and hardship taxed moral and physical strength and challenged courage and patient endurance.
Again and again, in college reading of Lagerlöf, Undset, Rölvaag, Gulbranssen, and other Scandinavian writers the student senses the racial characteristics evidenced in the Norse myths.
To know his Aesop, La Fontaine, Lessing, Gay, and Cowper, the college student finds his early acquaintance with myths an asset. In Horace, Chaucer, and Hawthorne he will read literary versions of some old favorites.
When Peter Rabbit hopped into the little boy's friendship, he started him on the alluring trail of nature literature, which included Thornton Burgess and Uncle Remus, and, perchance, branched off to Thoreau, Burroughs, and Sharp, or, perhaps, to nature romance or fiction, animal or sea story, which through adolescence and adult life wile away many an hour and tempt the reader further afield into travel or science.
Speakers, writers, artists, and conversationalists make such ready use of the fable that really a college student loses half the meaning of a reference if unacquainted with the fable. "Wolf! Wolf!," "It's a case of sour grapes," or "Who will bell the cat?" occur so often in everyday conversation that one cannot afford to be ignorant of their connotation. Many a time Abraham Lincoln made use of the fable to prove a point or convey an idea.
From the prudential fable the child, no doubt, advanced to another type of symbolic story—the parable—used so frequently and exquisitely by Our Lord, the most perfect of all storytellers. As he grew older, no doubt, the boy came to an awareness of the beauty of the parable and a realization that the Prodigal Son was the best short story ever told. If, in aroused interest, he searched further and came upon Father Meschler's Life of Our Lord, he learned that:
to speak in parables is a peculiarity of all Oriental wisdom and that if Our Lord wished to be considered a great Master, He must give evidence of proficiency in this mode of instruction … [which] offered advantages for the speaker as well as the hearers … learned and unlearned alike. Further … the method had this advantage … that [Our Lord's] glorious intellect could reveal itself in all its depths, clearness, delicacy and grace, together with its power of reaching the minds of the people … Thus He advanced in the esteem and favor not only of the people but also of the teachers of the law …
Further study of the Bible or of the life of Our Lord would be a natural consequent. Our college students have been charmed and deeply affected by Archbishop Goodier's Public Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ and claim that the graphic details of God's biographer have made Christ live for them.
Among the many lives of Christ, Fulton Oursler's The Greatest Story Ever Told has made a strong appeal. J. L. Ross, in the Library Journal, says it is "vivid" and "retains intense interest" and that "these scripts" make the story "feel as real and contemporary as a newspaper report." And N. K. Burget of The New York Times comments:
"The stories are simply written and can be read as entertainment, as introduction to the Gospel story or as commentary. The important thing is that they present in modern form an account of those dramatic, long past,… events that have … changed the world." Monsignor Sheen commended the author "very highly for this contribution to religious literature."
This year, Oursler has published a Child's Life of Jesus. Virginia Kirkus calls it "one of the best books of this type we have seen."
During the hero worship stage, the boy's fancy was fired with tales of chivalry, of knightly ideals, and fine, noble living. In romance cycle and legend immortalizing the heroic exploits of Beowulf, Robin Hood, Don Quixote, King Arthur, Roland, the boy laid a foundation for the best in literature and approached the threshold to biography.
With all the concreteness of the new biography which presents real people wrestling with and overcoming real difficulties, the boy meets and loves flesh-and-blood saints like Damien the leper and Don Bosco. He is stimulated by the real experiences of men and women who overcame personal or physical handicap, broke their way through virgin forest, mastered science, discovered new lands, or rose to eminence in statesmanship or profession, army or navy.
Since the best books for the child must hold the interest of the adult, these may well form a part of his permanent private collection.
Though conscientious book selectors sound a warning note to the buyer of science books for children, there are in the recommended lists many charming editions in good format and a variety of subjects in useful and applied arts. For example, the "how-to-do" and "how-to-make" books encourage initiative in the "hand-minded" child and, while serving to lessen the discipline problem, offer illuminating evidence of the child's aptitude.
If the girl and boy get good fiction graded for their years, it is not difficult for the college librarian or teacher to develop a love of good literature with a discriminating reading habit.
Through all the years from childhood to manhood and womanhood, "the gift of reading" brings treasured friends into lives made better and happier and richer by contact with good and great and lofty minds.
(Paper read at the joint meeting of the New England Unit and the Metropolitan Catholic College Librarians, Providence, Rhode Island, May 19, 1951.)
Curry, Charles M., and Clippinger, Erle Elsworth. Children's Literature. Rand McNally, 1921.
Meschler, Maurice J. Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God. Herder, 1913.
Reece, Byron Herbert. Bow Down in Jericho. Dutton, 1950.
Thomas, Katherine Elwes. The Real Personages of Mother Goose. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1930.
Clifton Fadiman (essay date 1955)
SOURCE: Fadiman, Clifton. "Mother Goose." In Party of One: The Selected Writings of Clifton Fadiman, pp. 396-403. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1955.
[In the following essay, Fadiman compliments the enduring qualities of Mother Goose nursery rhymes and asserts that the rhymes will be remembered long after other more literary works are forgotten.]
The question before the House, Gentlemen, is: What fictional characters so far conceived by the English-speaking peoples are most likely to be alive and kicking in the human imagination in the year 2455?
Hamlet? Huck Finn? Robinson Crusoe? Silver, whether Long John or Hi-yo? I choose a different set entirely. For their ability to survive the next half millennium I place my bets on such personages as the well-known cynophile, Mrs. Hubbard; the ingenious Jack, domestic architect; the lunatic and saltatory cow and her companions, the cat, the fiddle and the amusable dog; Gotham's trio of sapient mariners; the neurotic Porgie; the frangible Dumpty; the well-adjusted Sprats; those opposed ethical philosophers, Doctor Green and Professor Stout; the variously unfortunate Misses Muffet, Etticoat, and Peep; Banbury Cross's digitally symphonic equestrienne; and the Dee's antisocial but sanguine miller.
As by 2455 I expect to be in poor shape to make a door-to-door collection of bets, I propose to defend my thesis here and now.
Let us begin by noting that, in general, verse lasts longer than prose. Rhyme, and especially rhythm, form the benzoate of soda of letters. This in itself might mean little. It means more when you add, as you must, that these rhymes of the nursery comprise the best-known, the best-loved, and the most rapidly diffusing body of verse in the entire world.
In Hindustan at this moment small Hindus are chanting Humti Dumti char gia jhat, and confiding to each other the story of Mafti Mai's grisly encounter with the spider.
During the Napoleonic wars the British briefly occupied the Danish island of Anholt. Of that occupation no trace remains today, save one: diminutive, non-melancholy Danes sing what is to them a nonsense rhyme—
Jeck og Jill
Vent op de hill
Og Jell kom tombling efter.
In fact I think I may boldly aver that, as against one inhabitant of this planet who knows how King Lear lost his kingdom, there are ten thousand who know how three kittens lost their mittens. If you seek a basic, a universal literature, incline your ear to the runes, the rhythms, the riddles of childhood.
Furthermore, may we not from the very antiquity of the rhymes argue their futurity? Even if, as the Opies point out in the magnificent annotated and illustrated collection1 from which these facts are pilfered, nursery rhymes are less old than enthusiasts once thought them, still they are venerable enough. Of the 550 pieces in their Dictionary, at least one quarter and probably over one half are more than two hundred years old. About one in four, it is startling to realize, was known in the days when young Will Shakespeare walked the lanes of Stratford. Rove back to Imperial Rome: in Persius, in Horace are lullabies and doggerel that, across the chasm of two thousand years, call to us in the faint but true voice of Mother Goose—or shall we say Anser Matrona? For four centuries the frog has been setting off with his opera hat to go a-wooing. The game of London Bridge, with its odd, plangent, heart-constricting tune, is linked to ghastly stories of infant sacrifice that find their dark source in the deep Middle Ages, or beyond them. And there are students of linguistics who believe the life of Humpty Dumpty to be measured in "thousands of years." Is the human race apt lightly to relinquish what it has so long treasured?
Again, consider who has preserved these rhymes for us—the arch-conservatives of the race, those savagely ritualistic creatures who listen with glittering eyes, ready to spring at your throat should you dare to change a syllable of the familiar bedtime story. Children, confident that they themselves are the only really up-to-date creatures, care not a whit for novelty or fashion; if they do, beware, for they are monsters and will turn into literary critics. Not only are their own memories inflexible as steel, but they seem to have inherited the memories of all the children who preceded them. What today's nursery loves today, tomorrow's nursery will love tomorrow. Through the procession of the generations these strange beings bind themselves together with an unbreakable chain of oral communication—the shrill immemorial chant of the street game at dusk, the fiercely put riddle at the chimney corner, the doggerel mumbled at the cribside. Yes, even though, as the Opies point out, the rhymes were not originally written for them, Mother Goose is safe enough in their clutching hands. If you wish to live forever, write perfectly for men—but see to it that the children of men love what you write. They are your life rafts. They are the eternal monasteries in which is preserved, through many a Dark Age, a vast part of what is most common in the culture of mankind.
But I will go further. In 2455 I think nursery verse will still be green and branchy because much of it, judged by high standards, is remarkable writing, proper to be read or recited for its own intrinsic interest, its oddness, its grimness, its humor, its satiric force, its narrative power, and its magic.
Consider its variety. Consider, if you will, the variety of the amatory and erotic verse alone. Here is an American version of an old favorite which, for sly truth to nature, conveyed with the utmost technical dexterity, is matchless:
Whistle, daughter, whistle,
And I'll give you a sheep.
—Mother, I'm asleep.
Whistle, daughter, whistle,
And I'll give you a cow.
—Mother, I don't know how.
Whistle, daughter, whistle,
And I'll give you a man
—Mother, now I can!
The Opies quote a Scottish version of
When shall we be married,
Billy, my pretty lad?
which is as gaily and naughtily erotic as anything by the Cavalier poets. And there are other amorous nursery rhymes—lyrical, sentimental, impertinent, absurd, even obscene.
The tenderer lullabies are familiar enough—but for knifelike pathos, how about these six lines?
Bye, O my baby,
When I was a lady,
O then my baby didn't cry;
But my baby is weeping
For want of good keeping,
O I fear my poor baby will die.
Indeed there are many lullabies that seem to be soothing but which, like the best-known of all (Hush-a-bye, baby, on the tree top), are, when you ponder the words, fearsome enough.
The gamut of humor is no less wide, from almost pure nonsense to the drollery of
Two little dogs
Sat by the fire Over a fender of coal-dust;
Said one little dog
To the other little dog,
If you don't talk, why, I must!
Nursery humor can be realistic to the point of the scabrous. Take the scandalous account of Elsie Marley who grew so fine that she wouldn't get up to feed the swine. Elsie was, it would appear, a real personage, and I may as well tell you, my little dears, that she was no better than she should be, if that.
(Elsie did actually exist, and a few other nursery characters can be keyed to actual events. The Opies, however, gently but firmly dispose of the fond notion that most of the rhymes are covert political satire or deal with historical personages. You will find this theory developed with a kind of genial, stubborn eccentricity in a monument of awry scholarship2 I have encountered, lately reprinted twenty-one years after its first publication. From the history-ridden Mrs. Thomas one learns that Bo-peep was Mary, Queen of Scots; Simple Simon was James I; and that the cat who frightened the little mouse, the cat who was involved with the fiddle, and the cat whose coat was so warm were all Queen Elizabeth, or Good Queen Puss.)
To come back to the real Mother Goose: at times her realism is grim to the point of the shuddery. One ballad beginning There was a lady all skin and bone is so macabre that the poet Southey, hearing it as a child, would break into tears and beg his family to stop. No, there is not the slightest doubt, as many earnest souls have pointed out, that nursery verse is amoral, at times even immoral. (Which is precisely what the child's world is, of course.) Nursery rhymes deal boldly with everything, except the whimsical-supernatural that, it is mistakenly thought, children favor. There are few elves or fairies in Mother Goose.
Indeed, she can be heartless, violent, bloody, mocking, and impious. It is the recognition of this fact that has led the versatile Frank Scully to rewrite Mother Goose so as to "deemphasize fear, terror and punishment and emphasize faith, hope and charity instead." In Mr. Scully's version3 the piper's son is sent to Boys Town for moral regeneration, Mary's little follower has become the Gentle Lamb of God, and the old woman who lived in a shoe "had many children because she wanted to." (And bad cess to ye, Peg Sanger!) One hopes this sanitated version will have a gentling effect on the moppets, but I have my doubts. I have seen too many of the black-hearted brats identifying themselves enthusiastically with the farmer's wife who performed that caudal amputation on the three blind mice.
However, it is unfair to stress only the more naturalistic aspects of Mother Goose. What children also feel, without quite knowing what it is they feel, is the brief but absolute magic of many of the poems. Robert Graves has well and truly said, "The best of the older ones are nearer to poetry than the greater part of The Oxford Book of English Verse." G. K. Chesterton thought Over the hills and far away one of the most beautiful lines in all English poetry. He must have been right for, as the scholarly Opies remind us, it has been used by Gay, Swift, Burns, Ten-nyson, Stevenson, and Henley. Many have felt the wild romantic feeling, the true Coleridgean thrill, in
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
or in the mysterious
Gray goose and gander,
Waft your wings together,
And carry the good king's daughter
Over the one-strand river.
William Blake might have written
Little boy, little boy, where wast thou born?
Far away in Lancashire under a thorn,
Where they sup sour milk in a ram's horn.
And, as others have pointed out, one of Shakespeare's clowns might well have sung
When I was a little boy
I had but little wit;
'Tis a long time ago,
And I have no more yet;
Nor ever, ever shall
Until that I die,
For the longer I live
The more fool am I.
In an Elizabethan play by William Wager (c. 1559) one of the characters sings a snatch of an old nursery song. When reprimanded for mouthing such doggerel, he replies, "My Mother, as I war wont in her lappe to sit she taught me these."
She taught us these. And what she taught is deathless.
1. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited, with an introduction, by Iona and Peter Opie.
2. The Real Personages of Mother Goose, by Katherine Elwes Thomas.
3. Blessed Mother Goose: Nursery Rhymes for Today's Children, by Frank Scully.
Perry Nodelman (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Nodelman, Perry. "The Nursery Rhymes of Mother Goose: A World without Glasses." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume Two: Fairy Tales, Fables, Myths, Legends, and Poetry, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 183-201. West Lafayette, Ind.: ChLA Publishers, 1987.
[In the following essay, Nodelman discusses the underlying context and historical origins of Mother Goose nursery rhymes, arguing that, "there is not now and there never was a Mother Goose."]
Of all the great works of children's literature, the oddest is the body of poetry surrounding the name of Mother Goose. It is amorphous. It is various. Above all, it is absurd.
The canon of Mother Goose is so amorphous that trying to pin it down might be something like doing a bibliography of the complete works of Anonymous. In Iona and Peter Opie's Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, there are 550 different rhymes (not including variants); in William and Ceil Baring-Gould's The Annotated Mother Goose there are 884. The reason for this uncertainty about how much Mother Goose wrote is obvious—there is not now and there never was a Mother Goose, at least not one who wrote poetry.
That has not prevented scholars from trying to invent one. Their candidates have ranged from Charlemagne's Mother Bertha (who went by the nickname "La Reine Pedauque," or Queen Goosefoot, and who has become confused with another Queen Bertha, blood relative and wife of Robert II of France, who is said to have given birth to a goose-headed child) to one Elizabeth Foster Goose (or maybe Vergoose or Vertigoose) of Boston, Massachusetts, who may or may not have recited rhymes to her grandchildren in a manner that suggested the cackling of geese. Somehow, somewhere in history, the idea of literature for the young became connected with the name Goose; it seems to have already been an old idea when Per-rault subtitled his collection of fairy tales "CONTES DE MA MERE LOYE"—stories of Mother Goose—in 1697. But where or how the connection was first made nobody knows.
What we do know is what goes under the name of Mother Goose—a body of verse that has become separated from its original contexts, and therefore, its original authors. In some instances, we either know or can guess some of those authors: we know that "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" first appeared in Jane and Ann Taylor's Rhymes for the Nursery in 1806, and that Sarah Catharine Martin had something to do with The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog published in 1805; if she didn't make it up, at least her version of it was what first made it popular. And we know that no less a literary figure than the great Samuel Johnson was responsible, not just for compiling the dictionary and providing James Boswell with an object of worship, but for
If a man who turnips cries,
Cries not when his father dies,
It is proof that he would rather
Have a turnip than his father.
That the sententious Dr. Johnson improvised this as an example of bad writing may say less about the quality of the verse ascribed to Mother Goose than it does about Johnson's taste; a similar lack of appreciation backfired on Samuel Griswold Goodrich, better known as "Peter Parley," when the rhyme he made up in the eighteen-forties as a parody of the irrationality of Mother Goose rhymes also entered the canon:
Higglety, pigglety, pop!
The dog has eaten the mop;
The pig's in a hurry,
The cat's in a flurry,
Higglety, pigglety, pop!
The Opies suggest that many of the rhymes ascribed to Mother Goose may have been written by professionals: "we believe that if all the authors were known, many more of these 'unconsiderd trifles' would be found to be of distinguished birth, a birth commensurate with their long and influential lives" (3).
But scholars have not often been able to identify authors, for a simple but important reason. Whoever wrote these verses in the first place, and whatever the occasions of their having been written, they are the kinds of words that get stuck in human minds, so that people can pull them out on those occasions when they need to say or sing something that sounds pleasant or just plain interesting. Whatever their sources, then, people who found these verses easy to remember remembered them, and passed them on to others by word of mouth; and so, the poems became part of an oral tradition that cares much less for authorship than it does for memorability.
As a result, we can't figure out exactly what Mother Goose wrote; and because memory tends to be eclectic in its tastes, we can't any more easily determine the characteristics of her work. This body of verse includes everything from gentle prayers like "Now I lay me down to sleep" to counting out rhymes like "Eena meena mina mo," from parts of old ballads like "Lavender's blue, diddle diddle" to tongue twisters like "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. "Obviously, this variety of rhymes had a variety of difference sources, mostly in forms of jollity of the sort that people used to enjoy in their free time, in the days before soap operas and singles bars. Some rhymes were intended as riddles or jokes, some were parts of mummer's plays, some were drinking songs or just pleasant songs to sing at parties; and some were words that allowed reluctant performers to get out of singing at parties:
There was an old crow
Sat upon a clod;
That's the end of my song.
"Oh where oh where has my little dog gone?" was originally a comic ballad, "Der Deitcher's Dog," published by Septimus Winner in 1864; luckily, its transition to the oral transition divested it of its tasteless mock-German accent and its cheap jokes about "very goot beer" and sausage made "mit dog" and "mit horse."
Some of the rhymes had less playful origins. Some, like "Hot cross buns" and
Young lambs to sell! Young lambs to sell!
I never would cry young lambs to sell
If I'd as much money as I could tell,
I never would cry young lambs to sell
were once street cries; and the stern advice to
Come when you're called,
Do as you're bid,
Shut the door after you,
Never be chid
seems to have been directed at servants before it was inherited by children.
Not surprisingly, this grab-bag of various types of verse ranges widely in tone and effect. There is somewhat imbecilic absurdity of
Goosey, goosey gander
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber.
But there is also the mysterious beauty of
Gray goose and gander,
Waft your wings together,
And carry the good king's daughter
Over the one-strand river.
There is the smarmily gentle
I love little pussy,
Her coat is warm,
and if I don't hurt her
She'll do me no harm.
But there is also the bloodyminded nastiness of the boy who drowns another pussy in a well, the farmer's wife who amputates the tails of defenseless handicapped mice, and numerous other tales of sometimes breathtakingly brutal violence:
When I went up sandy-hill,
I met a sandy-boy;
I cut his throat, I sucked his blood,
And left his skin a-hanging-o.
(Somehow, it doesn't help to know that this is a riddle, and that the sandy-boy is merely an orange.) There is the wistful sadness of
The north wind doth blow
And we shall have snow
And what will poor robin do then?
But then there is the raucous vulgarity of another verse about a robin, as it appeared in the first known collection of nursery rhymes, Tom Thumb's Pretty Song Book, in 1744:
Little Robin Redbreast
Sat upon a rail
Niddle noddle went his head
and Poop went his hole.
In modern versions designed more for the adult sense of decorum than the juvenile sense of humor, the last line is "Wiggle waggle went his tail." But even when the vulgar bits have been expurgated, a free spirited breeziness survives everywhere in Mother Goose, in references to "dirty sluts" (297) and "Greedy-guts" (390) and to a disrespectfully described "gaping wide-mouthed waddling frog" (181).
But more often than not, the most widely known verses of Mother Goose are merely absurd—absolutely and unreservedly absurd. What are we to make of poems that express no surprise or alarm about weird events like cows that jump over the moon or people that jump over candles, or weird characters like groups of tradesmen who climb into small containers intended for bathing and husbands who incarcerate their wives in large vegetables? What are we to make of a logic which assumes that a refusal to submit oneself to the divine will is grounds for having one's lower extremities grabbed by a large domesticated fowl and being tossed down the stairs, or that the thought of having one's cradle blown out of a tree by the wind should comfort an infant and assist somnolence? (Nor does "Rockabye Baby" express an attitude unusual in Mother Goose; there is also
Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing, I say.
Peace this moment, peace, or maybe
Bonaparte will pass this way
And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And he'll beat you all to pap,
and he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Every morsel, snap, snap, snap.
Furthermore, what are we to make of poems that do the opposite, and instead of taking oddities for granted, imply that there is great significance in quite obviously insignificant events, such as a child falling asleep half-shod, or another child pulling a plum out of a plum pie, or a couple who
walked on their feet
And 'twas thought what they eat
Helped, with drinking, to keep them alive!
Given their history, of course, these verses may once have made sense. Before the vagaries of memory distorted them, they may have been associated with events that explained them, or had further verses that eventually offered rational explanations for some of the bizarre behavior they describe. But once these verses have been divorced from those contexts, there is no question about it: they are unquestionably loony.
That lunacy interests, and bothers, a lot of adults. Here are words that we have in our heads, words as familiar to us as our own names and telephone numbers, words we seem to have always known, for we probably can't remember when we first heard them; but if we stop to think about it, these ever-so-familiar words make no sense at all. A lamb going to school? A garden with pretty maids growing in it? A blackbird that bites off noses? How could something so familiar—something we all know and take for granted—be so strange? So irrational? So just plain loony?
That strangeness bothers some people so much that they invent all sorts of theoretically rational explanations for it—ways of accounting for the lunacy by denying it. Sure, they say, Mother Goose rhymes sound strange—but they actually have hidden meanings, and once you know what those meanings are, then they aren't strange at all anymore. About once a year or so, I get a phone call, usually late in the evening, from someone who asks, in a slightly slurred voice over a background of tinkling glasses and loud music, for the guy who knows all about children's literature. When I admit to being that guy, the slurred voice says, "You don't know who I am, but we're having an argument here and somebody said you could settle it. Isn't that there rhyme 'Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie' all about one of them kings of England back in the olden days, and, like, he had all these mistresses and he killed them all, like Henry the Eighth?" When I say that, no, it isn't, that in fact old versions don't even have the name George in them (the Opies report that the first printed version, in Halliwell's The Nursery Rhymes of England of 1844, is about "Rowley Powley") and that in any case these rhymes rarely have that kind of secret allegorical meaning, the slurred voice gets a little angry, and says, "But I heard it from a guy who says he read it in a magazine somewhere—so it must be true. I thought you professors were supposed to know everything."
In asking about the hidden meaning of nursery rhymes, my callers are partaking in another significant aspect of oral culture, the transmission of pseudo-scholarship by rumor and word of mouth. Some of the demystifying explanations of nursery rhymes they ask me about have a long history of their own, going back at least as far as 1708, when William King included speculations about who the original King Cole might have been in his Useful Transactions in Philosophy (Opie 134). In 1834, John Bellenden Ker published An Essay on the Archeology of Popular English Phrases and Nursery Rhymes; almost a hundred years later in 1930, Katherine Elwes Thomas' published The Real Personages of Mother Goose, which, the Opies say, expressed "a cheerful determination to prove that the nursery characters were real persons regardless of what the sources quoted say" (29). This book formed the basis of an MGM documentary which probably put these silly theories into popular circulation, where, as my phone calls reveal, they still survive.
One of the main delights of the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes is the Opies' levelheaded discussions of these theories, which are often more absurd than the rhymes themselves—and just as entertaining. The Opies say, "Much ingenuity has been exercised to show that certain nursery rhymes have had greater significance than is now apparent…. It should be said straightway that the bulk of these speculations are worthless" (27). Thus, Ker himself invented the early form of Dutch which he claimed that the rhymes were actually Anglicized versions of, so that "Ding Dong Bell" was originally
Die kaetst in de weld
Hwa put heer in?
Lyt'el Je haen, Je Grjn
which supposedly meant, "It is the honey-bearing image that brings this revenue, it is this that affords all this wealth. Who is it takes it out? That curse to us all, the sneering bully (the monk)"—an attack on the Catholic Church by early Dutch Protestants, it seems. In 1866, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould proposed that Jack and Jill were originally Hjuki and Bil of the Norse Edda; he could only explain how Bil became Jill by suggesting that one of the children ought to have a female name, and he conveniently forgot the much simpler explanation that Jack and Jill have often been used as generic names for boys and girls, as in Shakespeare's "Jack shall have Jill; nought shall go ill" (Midsummer Night's Dream 3.2.461-2). A particularly rich example of the wild extremes to which pseudo-explanation has gone is the Opies' list of sources proposed for "Hey diddle diddle," which begin with James Halliwell taking seriously the practical joke of someone who presented him with a parallel to the verse in supposedly ancient Greek:
some other of the 'origin' theories that may safely be discounted are (i) that it is connected with Hathor worship [whatever that is]); (ii) that it refers to various constellations (Taurus, Canis Minor, & c.); (iii) that it describes the flight from the rising of the waters in Egypt (little dog, the Dog Star, or 'Sohet'; fiddler, beetle, hence scarab; cow jumping over moon, symbol of sky, & c.); (iv) that it portrays Elizabeth, Lady Katherine Grey, and the Earls of Hertford and Liecester; (v) that it tells of Papist priests urging the laboring class to work harder; (vi) that the expression 'Cat and the fiddle' comes (a) from Katherine of Aragon (Katherine la fidele), (b), from Catherine, wife of Peter the Great, and (c) from Caton, a supposed governor of Calais (Caton le fidele).
Alternately, the Opies suggest that "The sanest observation on this rhyme seems to have been made by Sir Henry Reed, 'I prefer to think,' he says, 'that it commemorates the athletic lunacy to which the strange conspiracy of the cat and the fiddle incited the cow.'"
This perfectly logical explanation for one particular rhyme points to an important generalization about all the works of Mother Goose. Since most of us remember these rhymes without knowing or caring about their original reasons for existence, any satisfactory explanation of their significance will not depend on their origins. Because we know them and treasure them in apparently meaningless forms, we must account for their lack of meaning instead of attempting to find meaning in them.
A good way of doing so may be found in the circumstances in which they have been remembered. The British call these verses nursery rhymes because they have a history of having been often said or sung to young children by people with no books handy. Somewhere in the history of each of the rhymes of Mother Goose there is probably a nanny or a mother trying to calm down a child, and plucking some words out of her brain in order to do so. In these circumstances, the original purpose of the words is quite beside the point; as the Opies say, "the mother or nurse does not employ a jingle because it is a nursery rhyme per se, but because in the pleasantness (or desperation) of the moment it is the first thing which comes to her mind" (6). I can recall my own mother singing to my younger brother about how he'd wonder where the yellow went when he brushed his teeth with Pepsodent; if other mothers also sang it, and if their children remember it and later pass it on to their children, then someday that verse may turn out to be a nursery rhyme, for people who haven't the vaguest idea about who or what Pepsodent might once have been.
In fact, the real explanation for the often absurd nature of nursery rhymes is less often a forgotten historical significance than it is merely the vagueness of memory. Again and again, the Opies report that familiar rhymes are actually parts of simpler versions of older songs—most often their openings or their choruses; and the rest of the song often grounds the apparent nonsense in quite logical circumstances. For instance, Mother Goose tells us merely that
Elsie Marley is grown so fine,
She won't get up to feed the swine,
But lies in bed till eight or nine
Lazy Elsie Marley.
But a later verse of the original verse of the original song Mother Goose borrowed these lines from provides the reason for this indolence: Elsie can afford to be so lazy because she's become rich on the proceeds of booze, and maybe even prostitution:
Elsie keeps wine, gin and ale,
In her house below the dale,
Where every tradesman up and down,
Does call to spend his half-a-crown.
The memories of those who brought rhymes to the nursery were not just selective; they were often inaccurate. "Goosey Goosey Gander" is as illogical as it is because the last four lines about throwing an old man down the stairs actually have a separate source:
They are much the same as the lines which school-children address to the cranefly ("Daddy-long-legs"), sometimes pulling off its legs as they repeat,Old father Long-Legs
Can't say his prayers;
Take him by the left leg,
And throw him downstairs.
An even vaguer memory than the one that joined these two separate bits of memorable verse into one strange poem is the one responsible for "Rub a dub dub" as we now know it. This story of three men in a tub is based on
Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker
And all of them gone to the fair.
Replacing "were there" with "they were" makes for a whole different story: the sordid and less memorable truth behind the memorable nonsense is that the three tradesmen weren't taking the bath themselves; it was their minds that were dirty, for they were just spectators of the tub scene, apparently at a side-show involving three, count 'em, three beautiful wenches.
The fact that easy (if sometimes confused) memorability is what made a rhyme part of the nursery canon is an important clue to the significance of Mother Goose rhymes as touchstones for children's literature—especially children's poetry. These rhymes have that insidious insistence that writers of popular songs aspire to—we find them running through our thoughts even when we'd rather forget them altogether. The important question is, why are they so insistent? What makes them so memorable? Knowing that should tell us much about how poetry in general affects and delights us.
The first thing to be said is that the memorability of these rhymes has little or nothing to do with their content; the mere fact that so many of them make so little sense should tell us that. In some cases, in fact, the content is quite literally something we would otherwise find hard to remember, so that the rhymes have the express purpose of assisting memory, of helping us to recall the days of the month in "Thirty days hath September" or the letters of the alphabet in
A was an archer, who shot at a frog,
B was a butcher, and had a great dog.
Rhymes like these allow us to remember otherwise unmemorable information because they use patterns of language, rhymes and rhythms, that place the useful information into predictable slots; all we have to do is remember the frog in the first line, and we're well on the way to remembering the rhyming "dog" in line two, and thus, the butcher who owned him and the letter B that begins the word "butcher." The information survives because it is carried within an easily recognizable and highly repetitive structure. It is accompanied by a great deal of what theorists of information call "redundancy": that part of our communications with each other that we already know, for paradoxically, we cannot communicate anything new without reminding ourselves of a great deal that we know already:
A written message is never completely unpredictable. If it were it would be nonsense. Indeed, it would be noise. To be understandable, to convey meaning, it must conform to rules of spelling, structure and sense, and these rules, known in advance as information shared between the writer and the reader, reduce uncertainty. They make the message partly predictable, compelling it to carry extra luggage in the form of superfluous symbols. Rules are a form of redundancy….
Because nursery rhymes often don't conform to rules of sense, they might seem to lack this sort of redundancy; but in fact, their obvious patterns of rhyme and rhythm and repetition quickly become redundant, and thus, help us to remember the nonsense they contain. According to Jeremy Campbell, psychologists have discovered that people "are poor at remembering sequences which contain little or no redundancy … most people can sense a distinct change that occurs when unorganized strings of words acquire structure. Some sort of barrier is crossed, with powerful effects on the effectiveness of memory" (218).
Nursery rhymes often have very short lines, so that the rhymes comes frequently and thus, are hard not to notice:
Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over
They also tend to have strong, assertive rhythms, as in
American jump, American jump,
and strongly repetitive patterns of language, so that nouns and verbs appear at the same place in series of lines:
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, What a good boy am I!
Here the second word in each line is a verb, "put in" is balanced by "pulled out," and "out a" is echoed by "what a." Sometimes, the patterns are all reversals:
As I went over the water,
The water went over me.
There are also often repeated words or phrases, repeated refrains or choruses as in "There was a man lived in the moon, lived in the moon, lived in the moon" (52) or "Curly locks, curly locks" (140) or "Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?" (357) When all of these rhymes and patterns and reversals and repetitions combine in one short verse, the result is hard to forget:
Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock.
But redundancy makes, not just for memorability, but also, and more significantly, for enjoyment: as their long history of service in the nursery shows, we recall these rhymes in circumstances in which we wish to give pleasure, to both ourselves and to children. They are a pleasure to hear, and they are a pleasure to say.
That they are a pleasure to hear accounts for the rhymes that the Opies call "infant amusements": words meant to accompany games that adults play with babies, such as "This little piggie went to market," designed as an accompaniment to tickling, or this rhyme meant to be said while hiding an object in one of two closed fists:
Handy dandy, riddledy ro,
Which hand will you have, high or low?
The pleasure is not just the physical activity, but the silly sounds that go with it: the mere fact that the words make no sense focuses attention on their patterns, and it is these satisfying structured patterns that gives listeners pleasure. When my own children were younger, they were particularly fond of our own variation of one such game:
This is the way the lady rides—
And this is the way the gentleman rides—
A gallop a trot, a gallop a trot;
And this is the way the farmer rides—
Hobbledy hoy, hobbledy hoy;
And this is the way the maniac rides—
The traditional game consists of holding the child's hands and of jumping it up and down ever more quickly on one's knees; at the end of the last verse, which I made up myself, I'd toss the child up into the air—and that toss, accompanied by a high pitched scream, always got more laughs than a toss without a scream, and without a redundant pattern of every quickening nonsense syllables preceding it.
That the rhymes are a pleasure to say is also apparent in games like these; "A gallop a trot" is a wonderful workout for the tongue, and it's hard not to want to say it, and then say it again. And it's easy to understand why children like to choose sides with counting out rhymes that are as much fun and as challenging to say as
Inter, mitzy, titzy, tool,
Ira, dira, dominu,
Oker, poker, dominoker,
Out goes you.
Some of the rhymes are even more obviously intended to be fun to say—among them tongue twisters like "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" or
I need not your needles, they're needless to me,
For kneading of needles is needless, you see.
But did my neat trousers but need to be kneed, I then should
have need of your needles indeed.
In all these rhymes, basic characteristics of language—for instance, the fact that words or sounds that are similar to each other create rhythmic patterns—have been exaggerated, so that they become much more obvious than they usually are in speech or in written prose. Having been exaggerated, they become the center of attention: these tongue twisters are less about their apparent subjects than about the pleasure of the patterns formed by the words used to describe those subjects. And to some extent, that is true of just about every rhyme in the Mother Goose canon.
But the qualities of words in themselves can be fore-grounded in this way exactly because the meanings of the words in these rhymes is so relatively unimportant. Like conversations in languages we don't understand, we can hear the music better when we aren't conscious of the significance of the words. Not knowing Italian, I used to think that Puccini's aria "Mi chiamano Mimi" sounded extravagantly ro-mantic—until I read a translation of the libretto for La Boheme, and discovered that all it meant was, "People call me Mimi, and I live by myself in a chilly room making artificial flowers."
That part of the effect of Mother Goose rhymes depends on their lack of meaning becomes particularly obvious when we consider the works of poets who try to imitate Mother Goose, like the Canadian poet Dennis Lee. When he writes absurd nonsense, the rhymes and patterns become as significant as they are in the originals, and Lee creates some magnificently persuasive rhymes:
Eat brown bread.
Fall down dead.
If you catch a caterpillar
Feed him apple juice;
But if you catch a rattlesnake
Turn him loose!
But when he uses almost the same rhythms for poems that try to convey realistic emotions, they only seem shoddily sentimental, more Eugene Field than Mother Goose:
I've got a Special Person
At my day-care, where I'm in.
Her name is Mrs. Something
But we mostly call her Lynn.
Cause Lynn's the one that shows you
How to Squish a paper cup.
And Lynn's the one that smells good
When you make her pick you up
She smells good when she picks you up.
What is interesting however, is not just that the nonsense of the first example allows sound patterns to become apparent—it is that it is, unlike the second example, satisfyingly mysterious—a strange set of events delightful both because they are strange and because the patterns of their saying make them seem so inevitable, so to be taken for granted.
The same is true of all the important works of Mother Goose. They are memorable not just because they are highly patterned, but also because they are so successfully strange. Their main strangeness is that they use quite sensible language in the service of quite nonsensical situations, as in the story of a man who lived in the moon.
And his hat was made of good cream cheese, good cream
cheese, good cream cheese,
And his hat was made of good cream cheese,
And his name was Aiken Drum.
His breeches were made of haggis bags, haggis bags, haggis bags,
His breeches were made of haggis bags,
And his name was Aiken Drum.
This is redundancy without any comprehensible information to convey—the use of the very means which make communication possible to communicate nothing sensible. It becomes interesting and pleasurable exactly because the meaning it conveys is so unrecognizable. Short-sighted people will understand when I say that the work of Mother Goose is something like taking your glasses off and enjoying what you see, or rather, don't see—wrongheadedly using your eyes, your tools of vision, to see unclearly, and enjoying the mysterious and meaningless world you see.
There is, of course, some pleasure in putting your glasses back on again, and realizing that that wonderful reddish cloud with green and yellow bits was just an ordinary phone booth after all. It's something like solving a riddle: that which seemed so peculiar, so absurd, so entirely inexplicable, had a quite commonplace explanation after all. That may explain why so many people try so hard to find explanations for these rhymes: they are so strange that we assume they must be riddles—that they must have quite rational explanations after all, if only we could apply our ingenuity and figure out what they are.
And of course, many of the rhymes are actually riddles—very weird descriptions with very ordinary explanations:
Four stiff standers
Two lookers, two cookers,
And a wig-wag.
To a nasty mind like mine that sounds exceeding sexual; but in fact it's just a cow. Or how about
Little Nancy Etticoat
With a white petticoat,
And a red nose;
She has no feet or hands,
The longer she stands
The shorter she grows.
This apparently deformed Elephant Girl is actually just a candle.
But so what? What is most revealing about the riddles of Mother Goose is that their answers are not very memorable. It's the riddling descriptions themselves that capture our attention, so much so that in a few cases we have even forgotten that the verses we take such pleasure in reciting started life as riddles. One example is
Little Dicky Dilver
Had a wife of silver; He took a stick and broke her back
And sold her to the miller;
The miller wouldn't have her
So he threw her in the river.
This apparently gruesome tale of horror is part of a longer ballad which makes it clear that Little Dicky Dilver's wife is actually a grain of wheat, whose travels after the miller breaks her back are chronicled in a series of verses. An even more telling example of a riddle now divorced from its answer is one of the most famous of the rhymes: few people who recite the story of "Humpty Dumpty" realize they are giving a riddling description of an egg.
Like most of Mother Goose's riddles, "Humpty Dumpty" really needs no answer. It's the peculiar description, the strange world evoked by language used in an unusual way, that gives it its power. When we do find out the answer of a Mother Goose riddle we've not heard before, we tend to immediately go back and consider the riddle again, and only partially to see how the answer explains what seemed so weird; the other reason we return is to enjoy the pleasure or familiar things turned so strange, so magi-cal—the world of the commonplace made wonderful by magic. Knowing that it's a phone booth, we take our glasses off again to enjoy how it becomes a strange red cloud. Knowing that it is a description of an egg only heightens the mysterious intensity of this extravagantly beautiful description:
In marble halls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal-clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.
And the fact that it represents something so mundane as teeth and gums does nothing to dispel the magically mysterious behavior of
Thirty white horses
Upon a red hill,
Now they tramp,
Now they champ,
Now they stand still.
The irony in the history of attempts to explain away, conventionalize, normalize nursery rhymes is that the absurdity that so disturbs a certain kind of adult mind may be exactly what most delights those children and adults who most enjoy these rhymes. It is an anarchic absurdity, a defiance of convention and normalcy; it's no accident that Mother Goose's version of the old proverb
A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds
should continue with a series of absurd statements that send up the seriousness of the proverb:
When the weeds begin to grow,
It's like a garden full of snow;
when the snow begins to melt,
It's like a ship without a belt;
When the ship begins to sail,
It's like a bird without a tail.
(I've changed the tense here to fit the first verse, which, not surprisingly, has been discarded in many modern versions.) To explain away this sort of deliberate absurdity is merely to restore the pomposity of the proverb, merely to replace the wonderful image of stamping horses with a picture that could delight only a dental hygienist.
Like the story about the garden or the riddle about the horses, Mother Goose's best work contains nothing much that we aren't familiar with—although its daily acquaintance with cows and candles makes it even more magically foreign for us than it once was for our ancestors. But it combines common words for common objects in such a way that they become strange; due to accidents of history, furthermore, or sometimes due only to our lack of knowledge about their origins, even those rhymes that once did make sense have come to be mysterious. Making the ordinary seem weird is a way of shooting holes in our usual vision of the world—focusing our attention on things we are otherwise so familiar with that we no longer even notice them. Above all, in making the ordinary noticeable and strange, the language of Mother Goose draws attention to its own power, its own mystery. In these ways, in revealing the power of language to make the ordinary wonderful and to be wonderful in and for itself, the rhymes of Mother Goose offer their young hearers an introduction to the main pleasure of poetry—indeed, of all literature.
The rhymes of Mother Goose have given rise to a vast body of pictures, including many by great children's illustrators from Caldecott and Greenaway and Crane in the last century to Maurice Sendak and Nicola Bayley in more recent years. While many of these illustrators have produced fine books based on Mother Goose, new creations that result from combinations of these old words with new pictures, their work never adequately represents the rhymes themselves. This is not just a question of our being better able to imagine our own pictures without the interference of Caldecott or Sendak; the fact is that any specific picture at all, even one we invent for ourselves, is bound to destroy some of the special impossibility, perhaps even unimaginability, of the images evoked by the rhymes themselves.
Consider the thirty white horses: while a picture of a set of dentures would obviously deflate the grand mystery of the image, a picture of thirty horses doesn't serve much better, for looking at a bunch of horses is not the same as having words evoke them for us; and in any case, the illustrator would have to resort to a hill covered with red posies or something equally literalizing. The fact is, the best picture is an impossible one that could be both teeth and horses at the same time—and not as silly as that sounds, but grandly strange. The pictures evoked by most Mother Goose rhymes are equally impossible. Breeches made of haggis bags? Somebody sitting on a tuffet (especially when there is no such word or thing as a "tuffet")? Boys made of frogs and snails and puppy-dog's tails? All are equally unimaginable to the eye but easily understandable to the mind.
But most illustrations for nursery rhymes are anything but impossible; illustrators tend to explain the rhymes away in the same doggedly singleminded way that scholars have tried to allegorize them. Sometimes this makes for good jokes, as when Randolph Caldecott or Maurice Sendak turn simple rhymes like "This is the house that Jack built" or "Hector Protector" into long, complicated narratives in an extended sequence of pictures; the effect of these is something like the relationship between complex riddles and their commonplace answers, except in reverse: the riddling words are relatively simple, the pictures that provide the answers complex. But more often than not, literalizing illustrations merely make the rhymes seem pointlessly commonplace rather than magically absurd. The actual silver bells growing on the plants in both Blanche Fisher Wright's and Nicola Bayley's gardens look manufactured, like chintzy Christmas ornaments; and the athletic lunacy of the cow in "Hey diddle diddle" seems hardly even worth noting when illustrators again and again depict it as an optical il-lusion—a matter of a cow in the foreground seeming to jump over a moon low in the sky in the background. Either taking these rhymes literally or attempting to literalize them, as Wallace Tripp does when he makes the fox who "gives warning / It's a cold frosty morning" into a TV weatherman, results in a flattening of their mystery.
Consequently, while children should certainly have access to the many ingeniously humorous stories that good illustrators have made out of Mother Goose, we shouldn't allow the existence of those stories to deprive children of the quite different pleasure of the rhymes on their own—the pleasure of hearing or of saying these enjoyable and evocative words without the interference of accompanying illustrations. For this purpose, any large collection of the rhymes will do; but since the main audience for Mother Goose is likely to be those too young to be able to read the rhymes for themselves, the best collection will be one that offers the most to the adult readers who will actually speak the rhymes.
Like many other editions, the Opies' Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes gives adults access to a lot of fine rhymes to read aloud to their children; unlike most other editions, it has the added virtue of explaining the rhymes in a sensible and useful way—offering answers to the riddles, and easily followed directions for the infant amusements. As an added bonus, the Dictionary offers careful scholarship that doggedly traces rhymes back to often fascinating origins, happily debunks silly ideas—and meanwhile, offers a rich ragbag of delightfully useless information about subjects as diverse as American slang and Old Norse deities. Reading the Dictionary is like exploring the attic of an old house—there is lots of stuff to rummage through, and most of it is just useless and dusty, and some of it is useless and fascinating, and some of it is not just fascinating but useful indeed. The Dictionary is much like the rhymes it contains—it has a lot to offer because it's more than a little crazy.
Baring-Gould, William S. and Ceil. New York: Bramhall House, 1962.
Bayley, Nicola. Book of Nursery Rhymes. Harmond-sworth, Middlesex: Penguin Puffin, 1981.
Caldecott, Randolph. The Randolph Caldecott Picture Book. London and New York: Frederick Warne, 1976.
Campbell, Jeremy. Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
Lee, Dennis. Alligator Pie. Toronto: Macmillan, 1974.
Opie, Iona and Peter. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 1951; rpr. 1984.
Sendak, Maurice. Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
Tripp, Wallace. Granfa' Grigg Had a Pig and Other Rhymes without Reason from Mother Goose. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.
Wright, Blanche Fisher. The Real Mother Goose. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1916; rpr. 1974.
Marina Warner (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Warner, Marina. "Speaking with Double Tongue: Mother Goose and the Old Wives' Tale." In Myths of the English, edited by Roy Porter, pp. 33-67. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Warner examines how the physical characteristics of Mother Goose are portrayed in art and theater, particularly with regards to her femininity. Warner states, "[f]or a female writer, Mother Goose's presence is a comfort and a source of unease at one and the same time, holding up before us a long history of enchantment on the one hand, of ridicule on the other."]
Mother Goose is a drag role; like Widow Twankey or the Wicked Stepmother, she was played by a pantomime dame in the first dramas to pluck her from the pages of children's collections of tales or rhymes and put her on stage.1Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg opened at Drury Lane just after Christmas in 1806. The panto was written by Thomas Dibdin, who had conflated various familiar fairytale motifs to produce a story about a certain young and venturesome Jack. With the help of a goose that lays golden eggs, Jack succeeds in winning the hand of the ogreish squire's lovely daughter. Mother Goose is Jack's fairy godmother, and she provides him with the marvellous bird; she appears astride a gander and may have even flown down on to the stage in a goose-shaped machina; she performs further wonders, whistling up a wind and raising the dead. In the impresario Joseph Grimaldi's production that year, Samuel Simmons played her as an ancient hag;2 in 1902, nearly a hundred years later, at the same theatre, the much-loved music-hall performer Dan Leno wore periwig, jewels, ostrich feathers, frills and furbelows in a less gothic interpretation of the traditional figure of Mother Goose.
The transvestism of the pantomime part sharpens the comedy: Mother Goose becomes a figure of fun, like others among the nursery population who had appeared between the covers of anthologies that actually bore her name.3 Mother Hubbard, Old Dame Trot, Dame Wiggins of Lee and other characters of eighteenth-century ditties and verses share Mother Goose's crone features—her chapfallen jaw, the toothless bight of chin and nose in profile, the Punch-like proboscis, the stick, the conical hat, and the apron and petticoats. Most of these nursery characters also have a special relation with animals: bears, dogs, cats, storks, monkeys and mice play their part as familiars to the old beldames of nursery lore in their cottages and kitchens, and the illustrations that accompanied the printed rhymes frequently inspired the artists to delightful mischief: the Dalziel Bros in particular drew a richly waggish series of dogs capering and clowning for 'Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog' in the bumper compendium of 1892, Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales.
Mother Hubbard was a contemporary of the pantomime Mother Goose, for her high-spirited antics were first committed to paper in the now familiar verse form by Sarah Martin in 1805.4 The same decade saw the appearance of many titles attributed to Mother Goose and her consequent establishment in Britain as the figure of female wisdom, the repository and mouthpiece of traditional lore and children's entertainment. Her works can be sifted into two loose and separate piles: nonsense rhymes on the one hand, begun around twenty years earlier by the London printer John Newbery's enterprising but not widely disseminated anthology, Mother Goose's Melody; and on the other, books inspired by Charles Perrault's famous collection of fairytales, containing the familiar and much loved stories of 'Cinderella', 'Puss in Boots', 'Bluebeard', 'The Sleeping Beauty' and so forth. The earliest English translation had been published in 1729, but different versions began to appear regularly after the turn of the eighteenth century and were widely distributed by the mid-nineteenth century in a variety of editions, American and English.5 Though different in content, the two kinds of works laid in Mother Goose's lap shared a common spirit, at once tongue-in-cheek and didactic, as if the absolute simplicity of the tale-teller's downhome wisdom could not be presented straight without embarrassment. Newbery's edition of c. 1765 forestalls levity of response, poising the mock-serious tone quite neatly in the foreword: 'Let none therefore speak irreverently of this ancient maternity [of the rhymes] as they may be considered as the great grandmothers of science and knowledge …'6 It asks the reader to be respectful while making it clear that everyone really knows at heart that the contents are stuff and nonsense.
Mother Goose had been only one of several contenders in the British nursery until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy's tales, for instance, were published under the name of 'Mother Bunch' in 1790, and 'Nurse Lovechild' and 'Gammer Gurton', as well as Tom Thumb, were ascribed children's stories and verses. But by the time the pantomime opened in London, Mother Goose was gaining over her competitors as the most dependable hearthside source:
I think I have now amused you with some very entertaining Tales, which shew you what has been done in Past Times. You know the Fairy days are now over and … it is your duty, in whatever station you are placed, to labour honestly and diligently for your support in life. No gifts are now bestowed upon us but what come from a Superior Cause. Consequently you cannot expect to grow good, rich, or opulent, without a proper use of those means which are most bountifully given to all mankind. Study, therefore, to be useful, avoid censure and evil-speaking. Do good to all, and you may be assured that the best of gifts will fall to your share, namely, present as well as future happiness.7
Mother Goose the wonderful and benign crone had become a pedagogue; she was to preside over the educationalist task of sweetening lessons in life by high jinks and hopeful romances; her double nature, her masquerade were built into her role as a children's entertainer who is at heart bent on moral instruction. In this the British incarnation of Mother Goose continued her predecessor's role in France, 'la mère l'oye', for there too, the fairytale writers insisted on their edifying intentions.
The phrase Contes de ma mère l'oye or 'Mother Goose Tales' first appeared in print in 1697 as a title on the frontispiece of Charles Perrault's collection Contes du temps passé;8 not on the title-page, but in a panel hanging on the wall behind the engraved image of a crone telling stories to three children. Contes de ma mère l'oye were referred to before this date, but in passing in earlier literature, as in Loret's La Muse historique of 1650. The term was often coupled with the phrase contes de peau-d'äne, or 'Donkeyskin tales', after the heroine of another traditional story Perrault chose to retell. Cyrano de Bergerac, for instance, called the works of his fellow poet Scarron 'a pot pourri of Donkeyskins and Mother Goose tales'; Scarron himself imagined the young Astyanax in Troy being entertained by his grandmother Hecuba's tales, among which he also included 'Donkeyskin'.9
The Dictionnaire of the Académie in 1694 drew up a scornful litany in its definition of the word 'conte': 'Le vulgaire appelle conte au vieux loup, conte de vieille, conte de ma mère l'Oye, conte de la cigogne, conte de peau d'asne, conte à dormir debout, conte jaune, bleu, violet, conte borgne, des fables ridicules telles que celles dont les vieilles gens entretiennent et amusent les enfants.'10 In this learned piece of lexicography, the vituperative labels collapse the distinction between the tellers and their tales: old and young meet on the territory of folly.
The images of both the goose and the donkey convey a certain flavour, subsequently sustained with remarkable consistency in the proliferating material associated with Mother Goose in France and across the Channel: they are proverbially foolish animals. Mme de Sévigné, writing to the King's sister in 1656, told her the story of 'la cane de Montfort', an ancestor of Jemima Puddleduck, a ninny who forgot to go to church on Sunday, and was ever afterwards obliged on the feast of St Nicholas to leave her pond with her ducklings and offer them all up in expiation at the altar. Mme de Sévigné adds that this wasn't a Tale of Mother Goose, 'Mais de la cane de Montfort / Qui, ma foi, lui ressemble fort.' 'But of the duck of Montfort who, upon my soul, indeed resembles her.'11 She thus transposed, quite unconsciously, the character of the teller to the subject of the tale.
The folly of such creatures is allied to simplicity, and simplicity can also be understood as wisdom. It is the plight of the ass to bray, the fate of the goose to cackle, but the geese saved the Capitol from the Gauls in 390 BC, according to one of the best known legends about the bird, and a golden goose was carried there in procession to celebrate Rome's delivery every year afterwards until the custom fell away. Like various other birds (especially hens), geese appear in folklore about the dangers of women's noise. La Fontaine, a contemporary of Perrault, tells in one of his Fables, 'Les Femmes et le Secret', how a husband, as a test of his wife's discretion, cries out in the night that he's laid an egg; she immediately rushes to her neighbour and the egg grows four times the size, the neighbour runs on, and the eggs increase to three in number, and so forth, until the whole town knows that he's laid more than a hundred.12 The metaphor of laying a giant egg, used here for telling a whopper, animates the image of the storytelling goose who believes the tall tales she passes on.13
Both animals are proverbially comic, too; the ass is stubborn, the goose giddy. In both French and English, the expressions 'silly goose' and 'silly ass' exist. The goose is low, associated with low functions: in French, the verb cacarder is used for the noise made by a goose, the result caquet or cackle. Not as onomatopaeic as the English 'honk', cacarder does catch the coprological side of infantile existence more than 'cackle'. 'To goose' also implies bottoms, as if geese were emblematic of the nursery stage, Freud's anal-retentive phase. However, the associations of geese do not end in the cradle, and like asses, they strike salacious resonances as well: the donkey, the mount of the satyr Silenus, was famed for his priapism; the goose was sacred to Isis and to Aphrodite, who rides most gracefully sidesaddle on one in a particularly beautiful kylix in the British Museum.14 The 'goose-month' was a term used for a woman's lying-in before the birth of a child, while 'goose' was also a term for venereal disease in England in the seventeenth century. In France la petite oie, 'little goose' was used of favours begged and received be-between lovers.15 Goose-feather beds are synonymous with luxury, while oies blanches is still used in France for 'convent girls', ripe for picking. It may be that buried deep inside comfy Mother Goose is the ancient goddess Porne, one of Aphrodite's aspects.
The off-colour tone conveyed by invoking Mother Goose's name places the seventeenth-century fairytale in direct line of descent from the fabulae, or fables, the late classical genre of comic folklore in which the classical unities are broken and humour, tragedy, the real and the marvellous spiritedly combined in defiance of classical proprieties. The presence of beasts in this literature—especially of lowly creatures, like asses or geese—seeks to establish a popular milieu for the written stories' origins as well as their reception. The animals communicate a claim that the tales' inspiration is untutored, unsophisticated, however consummately skilled their invention and execution, and the creatures' participation in the plot necessarily breaches the bounds of realism, to take the stories into the territory of the marvellous, where beasts can talk and change their shape. The animal in the story indicates the presence of magic and absurdity, leading to shivers, thrills and laughter, all vital effects in the fairytale too. By a kind of metonymy, the kind of character who appears in the tales is attributed their authorship—as with the pantomime Mother Goose, who is both a character in the story and the mind from which it springs. Mother Goose tales are presented as recorded experience, learned at first hand by the comical, enchanted tellers and their forebears. A certain symmetry is implied between the low humour of the animal, the lowness of the genre, and the lowness of the presumed audience: for children, as well as animals, are perceived as lesser creatures—like women, especially old women, of the lower class. The very use of the title 'Mother' when applied to an old woman strongly implies a member of an inferior social class; in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries both Mother and Mère were used to address midwives, bawds and other slightly dubious and unattached characters, like la mère maque-relle (the Madam of a brothel), as well as the famed prophetess Mother Shipton and the witch Mother Red Cap. From goose to Mother Goose is thus a short step; even in classical Latin the word for old woman, anus, had a certain tone, veering from the awed to the contemptuous.
Charles Perrault was working consciously in the tradition of the fable in the last decade of the seventeenth century; before publishing the fairytales in 1697, he had written gallant allegorical exegeses of the animal fountains in the Labyrinthe at Versailles,16 and in 1699 he translated Gabriel Faerno's animal fables from Italian into French.17 In the preface to his Contes de fées,18 he makes reference to Milesian tales, a late Latin branch of risqué literature mostly lost to us now, the most celebrated survivor being Apuleius's The Golden Ass, which begins, 'in this Milesian tale I shall string together divers stories [varias fabulas]'.19
One of these, the most famous precursor of the modern fairytale, is the story of 'Cupid and Psyche', which an old woman with hoary head tells to a distraught bride, Charite, who has been captured by pirates on the eve of her wedding. In her preamble the little old lady—anicula—promises Charite to 'put away all thy sorrow and to revive thy spirits with anilibusque fabulis—old wives' tales. She begins, with a very early first instance of the formula, 'Erant in quadam civitate rex et regina'—[Once upon a time] in a certain city there was a king and queen …' But Perrault rather more disingenuously then disavows his affinity with the bawdy and gruesome and often outlandish levity of writers like Apuleius, saying that he could not divine the moral purpose of such a tale as Cupid and Psyche, whereas in the Contes he was publishing, the message was plain. He then explicitly drew a distinction between the native tradition of story on which he drew, and the romances and fables of the ancients: 'They were made to please without a thought for good behaviour,' he wrote. 'This is not the case with the tales that our ancestors invented for their children. They did not tell them with the elegance and the ornament with which the Greeks and Romans adorned their fables, but they always took the greatest care that their tales contained a praiseworthy and instructive moral.' Perrault thus produced references to Mother Goose's pedagogic probity, presented himself as a mere conduit of past wisdom, and vowed: 'I have imposed upon myself to write nothing which might wound either modesty or seemliness.' He appended, to corroborate his enterprise, a madrigal by a young relative, Mlle Lheritier de Villandon, herself a poet as well as a collector and writer of tales, who returned to the theme that such stories carried the seal of tradition, and that she had enjoyed this one as much as when her nanny had recounted it by the fireside when she was small.20
The Victorian progeny of Perrault's Mother Goose in Britain are far too numerous to list.21 Throughout the century, and intensively in its last two decades, Mother Goose compendia were published, illustrated by the leading children's artists, including Kate Greenaway. She was sometimes called 'Goody Goose' from the term 'goodwife', used for an old woman, and she was identified with nurses and aunts or other dependent members of a household, old retainers and relatives, not with its controllers, the housewife herself, or her mother, for instance. The frontispieces of collections adapted the illustration in Perrault's original edition of 1697; the old woman continued to spin, wearing the clothes of a servant, while the various children around her wore the lace caps and collars of the family.
Mother Goose's gooseyness was generally of the farmyard variety: domestic, and comical. She was sometimes even shown as a goose herself, in poke bonnet and spectacles and shawl, with a webbed hand lying in her lap, an eager tongue showing in her open beak and a twinkle in her eye. But there was a conflict between her cosiness (the pedagogic project) on the one hand and her magic (the entertainment) on the other. At times, the plump old storyteller seemed more of a wild goose, unruly and wilful and independent. Andrew Lang, for instance, the great folklorist and collector of tales, extended the metaphor of the bird to describe Perrault himself aloft on inspiration, flying 'for ever "vivu per ora virum" borne on the wings of the fabulous Goose, notre Mère l'oye'.22
The pantomime contained both aspects of Mother Goose, and one of its most interesting derivatives was the popular story, 'Mother Goose and her Son Jack', which appeared in various forms throughout the century.23 The printer J. E. Evans around 1820 issued the verse tale of Jack and his goose (an early example of 'novelization') in which the splendid lines appeared:
Old Mother Goose24
When she wanted to wander
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.
Insecure social status, physiognomy, old age, magical powers, and not least, the ability to fly: it can come as a shock to pass beyond the panto jollity and the sermons of the edifying storytellers to recognize that Mother Goose indeed shares rather a lot in common with a witch, or at least with perceptions of witches in the demonology of the seventeenth century.
When Samuel Simmons or Dan Leno in drag in the pantomime gave a comic turn to these supernatural powers of an ugly old woman, were they drawing the teeth of an ancient fear? Were they reassuring the audience by their slapstick that they had nothing to fear from old women like Mother Goose even if they could take off into the air and conjure up ghosts? The impersonating male would certainly have sent the spectators a long way down the road to laughter, the great undoer of belief, the shield against terror. How could they take Mother Goose seriously when she spoke and strode and acted like a man? (It is intrinsic to pantomime drag, as opposed to the cabaret variety, that the actor tips you the wink all the time that he's a man in petticoats.)
This mockery of possible beliefs in dangerous witchcraft and pooh-poohing of fears about horrible old women cannot, however, be ascribed to a new robust scepticism, or to the prevailing rationalism of the times when the Mother Goose panto first appears, or to the distance between the Georgian and Jacobean ages. Much earlier, the arts of the crone-like witch 'Mother Bunch' had also been treated with levity: she was credited with the authorship of several 'jest-books'.25 But no amount of 'jesting' camouflages the fact that these booklets appealed to existing beliefs in wisewoman magic, in the potential of the love philtres, cures and other craft that 'Mother Bunch' recommends; nor that they were published during the period of intensive witch-hunting in England, Scotland and France. A comic touch does not automatically signify disbelief.
Guying the crone might reflect some deeper relation between the old woman with imagined powers and the people she threatens (or helps); it might fulfil another function besides simply making fun of past foolishness and superstition. It is possible that the pantomime dame's clowning disguises continuing belief and maintains it all the more persistently by appearing to make light of magic. Like court jesters, who could dare to say aloud what no-one else could, on the pretext that they were fools who spoke only nonsense, the old mothers of nursery rhyme can get away with more when they are presented as ridiculous. They can use their powers, their magic, if they seem to be foolish. In a vivid anonymous Dutch painting of around 1500, for instance, the Fool peeps through his fingers as he laughs: he sees what is forbidden, and humour defends him against its power, and also protects him from the transgression he commits by seeing it. It is pertinent that fools in iconography sometimes wear spectacles (sometimes, even, blazoned on their bottom), to stress their farsightedness; Mother Goose frequently appears bespectacled too. Such clowning covers up her power. The nonsense rhymes she tells about other beldames of folklore, like Mother Bunch and Mother Hubbard, also draw the sting of the magic they perform. Another hag, for instance, who makes an appearance in Mother Goose's Melody, shares something of her witch-like character:
There was an old lady toss'd in a blanket,26
Seventeen times as high as the moon;
But where she was going no mortal could tell,
For under her arm she carried a broom.
Old woman, old woman, old woman, said I?
Whither, ah whither, ah whither so high?
To sweep the cobwebs out of the sky,
And I'll be with you by and by.
By telling tales against herself, Mother Goose cuts the ground from under her and circumvents suppression.
For joking, like cursing, can be used as a means of self-defence: the procuress, like the clown a stock character from antique comedy, uses a bawdy tongue like a weapon. Cathérine Clément, in her influential manifesto of the late 1970s, 'La Jeune née', invokes Baubô, also known as Iambe, the old bawd whom the grieving Demeter meets in her search for her abducted daughter Persephone. Nothing can alleviate the mother's misery—except the old creature, who clowns for her, telling her dirty jokes and even 'mooning' (exposing her bottom). 'All laughter is allied with the monstrous,' writes Clément. 'Laughter breaks up, breaks out, splashes over … it is the moment at which the woman crosses a dangerous line, the cultural demarcation beyond which she will find herself excluded.'27 The obscene jest, made in a spirit of good humour, staves off hostility in a way that the obscene curse cannot; the vituperative hag risks her life, but the ribald old woman, the pantomime dame, saves her skin, and her speech—her wisdom—is not silenced.
In the pantomime, however comic and exaggerated the antics of her interpreter, Mother Goose's claims to supernatural power cannot be wholly invalidated; after all, the plot depends on her effectiveness: it is she who manages the union of Jack and his beloved, as well as providing the all-important golden egg in the first place. The plot directs the audience to trust in her, even as the performance directs them to laugh at her. She is a kind of fate, an all-seeing all-powerful crone who must not be crossed, and she answers to the wish fulfilment that drives most fairytales, reflecting the fatalism of the genre, its romantic message that something will come out of the blue to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked. This is of course a superstitious position, upheld, reinforced and rendered thoroughly appealing, by the pantomime itself or by the fairy story in the telling.
The drag that the dame wears may therefore not be ludicrous at all deep down, it may rather correspond to the raiment of officiating priests, the cross-dressing of the Hopi or Hindu shaman. If panto can be seen as a Christmas rite, the dame's drag may symbolize the central celebrant's necessary robes as he makes a bid to assimilate the powers with which Mother Goose is invested, on behalf not only of the other characters with him on stage, but on behalf of the audience too. Their pleasure, their sense of satisfaction at the end of the play will rise from the consummation of good fortune, the love and money Jack wins through Mother Goose's mediation.28 We must not underestimate how deeply fairytale and popular stories appeal to audiences because of the fatalistic beliefs enshrined in them, that absolve individuals from responsibility and self-government and place happiness in the hands of all-powerful and capricious fairies.
Just as the male sexuality of priests must be effaced in their lives and appearance, so the female sexuality of the old witch figure becomes disturbingly elusive. The ambidextrousness of the sacred also informs the iconography of Folly, as for instance in Quentin Massys's portrait of a jester, in which the old fool could well be a crone, Mère Folle of the Feast of Fools.29 Age abolishes the distinctions between male and female, and age and wisdom are conventionally related. When the pantomime dame is playing an older woman, Widow Twankey or Mother Goose, the role does not take on the codes of femininity as insistently as other roles in the drag artist's repertoire (the Ugly Sisters for instance). Just as the joke is on prettiness in Cinderella pantos, when the Ugly Sisters prink and mince and squeal, but then it turns out that it is the pretty girl's wishes that come true, so the joke in the Mother Goose impersonation is on old hags, but in the end, it is still the old hag who has her way.
The tradition of male impersonation in the history of Mother Goose's development as the traditional eponym for a storyteller interestingly reproduces exactly the literary circumstances. 'Mother Goose' in print is a costume worn by male authors; she is a form of ventriloquist's dummy, or a kind of oracular mask through whom various fairytale writers since the seventeenth century have spoken. She must of necessity speak with double tongue since her tales are always mediated through another. By positing this aboriginal figure of wisdom, the pedagogues managed to put forward their own views.
The search for an original behind the primordial figure of Mother Goose, the desire to hear her speak her own lines, led historians to America. A certain Mrs Goose (or Vergoose) of Boston in the mid-seventeenth century was believed to be the authentic source of an American collection of Mother Goose rhymes. The rumour was she had driven her family and neighbours mad with her incessant singing and reciting to her grandson until her son-in-law, a printer, collected her ditties and published them in order to quieten her. Unfortunately, no evidence of this early Mother Goose collection, which would certainly predate Newbery's and even Perrault's, has ever come to light. Later, another Mrs Goose, who died in 1690 and was buried in the graveyard on Boston Common, was also put forward.30 But she was an even less convincing candidate.
The pressing need people feel to find a real-life original author presents a noteworthy aspect of this historical search. Discussing the symbolic sides of Mother Goose, I have run into sceptics who still assume it is a proper name that once belonged to an individual storyteller and therefore dismiss my explorations of its possible further significance. Their position illuminates the passage from myth to memory that this volume explores: a symbol in popular lore sheds her mythical dimension—and all that entails in terms of shared prejudices and desires—in order to figure as a simple person in history, incompletely recorded, but otherwise remembered in the books and other works that bear her name. Thus false acts of memory are used to calm the turmoil of magic and myth; fantasies are turned into actualities in a piece of stagecraft that leaches them of meaning, and itself represents a thaumaturgic act of exorcism.
Fantasies of Mother Goose draw on experience, though hard evidence for the history of real-life Mother Geese, of female storytellers, is difficult to unearth. Nevertheless, examples recur of 'old wives' spinning tales, of balladeers and singers as well as storytellers like Marie de France; numerous writers have described women's circles, as in Boccaccio's Decameron, and Straparola's Le Piacevoli Notti. Since the nineteenth century authors have recalled their nurses', mothers' and grandmothers' stories—including Virginia Woolf, whose mother Julia Stephen wrote fairytales.31 In George Eliot's Felix Holt, Mrs Transome says of her son, Harold, 'He will not even listen to me any more than if I were an old ballad-singer.'32 Though ballads are not identical with stories, the remark testifies to the existence of old women who sang stories for their living. In Scotland and Brittany, where veillées or fireside sessions were customary, storytellers and balladeers were both men and women. In Holland, old women passed on oral traditions about historical events as well as tales and songs.33 Oscar Wilde's father, in Merrion Square, Dublin, asked for tales in lieu of fees from his poorer patients, many of them women, which Speranza Wilde then collected in book form. The literary efforts of women in children's literature throughout the nineteenth century have not been fully documented and analysed, but Andrew Lang, in his copious collecting for the Blue, Green, Red (etc.) Fairy Books, was assisted by a team of editors and transcribers, led by his wife, Leonora Alleyne. Nurses, governesses and old women were engaged in educating children, as ample testimony shows, from medieval and Renaissance images of 'The Education of the Virgin', showing St Anne teaching Mary to read, to anecdotes like Gulliver learning languages from his giant nurse and his servant the sorrel nag, as Swift himself had been taught his letters by his nurse after his mother sent him to England for three years. Mother Goose was a recognizable type of figure to the children to whom her collections of tales were addressed.
Much more work needs to be done on the historical aspects of female storytelling, but when the pursuit of Mother Goose's individual identity and historical status is abandoned, she can still be historically analysed as a fascinating compound of many fantasies, about children, and women, and national identity; as a projection of a deep desire to discover origins and tap roots at source. Mother Goose as a cultural image reveals the tremendous power of atavism in the moral ambitions of children's educators.
In Perrault's book, the tablet Contes de ma mère l'oye on the wall behind the storyteller faces the named author on the title-page, Perrault's son Pierre Darmancour. It not only duplicates the collection's name, but also offers another origin of the stories: behind Pierre Darmancour, Mother Goose is speaking: behind the child, the crone. In the preface Perrault confirmed this message, and renounced creating the stories in favour of a pristine source, in the nursery, among the servants, the nursemaids, the women and children. By making this claim, Perrault, a member of the Académie, was defending native literature against his fellow académiciens, who proclaimed the complete superiority of Greek and Latin over all things French. Confrères in the Académie, like Boileau, repeatedly savaged Perrault and the women writers of the time, such as Mlle de Scudéry and her fellow précieuses. The defence of fairytale in the 1690s takes place within this bitter Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns; to the Moderns, like Perrault, the fairytale was a living shoot of national, vernacular, modern culture; to the Ancients, the genre was a bastard child of the vulgar crowd.34
The femaleness of the genre became crucial in the argument for the tales' aboriginal status. Nothing can be more home-grown than mother's milk; and milk here can be taken to mean language.35 The feminine origin ascribed to the tales offered a warranty of their truthfulness as testimony from outside literary high culture; the claim is then recapitulated, again and again, by individual women who take up writing fairy stories: in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century France, they were hardly peasants, but they saw themselves in contact with the people through their childhood memories. Women raconteuses outnumber men in Le Cabinet des fées, dominating this compendium of over forty volumes published when the fad had passed its climacteric in France, at the end of the eighteenth century.36 For different women fairytale writers in the circle in which Perrault moved, Mother Goose symbolized women's language, lore and speech, and these were in turn aligned, by force of social circumstance, with the people's wisdom. She came to personify an imagined, primordial body of home-grown knowledge which abolished the distinction between fact and fiction and returned readers and listeners to their childhood and, through childhood, to their roots.
Marie-Jeanne Lheritier de Villandon, Perrault's young cousin, developed an argument for the origins of fairytales far more fully than Perrault, and as she wrote her contes before him, possibly as early as 1692, it is likely that they exchanged ideas on the subject, and that the figure of Perrault's Mother Goose conceals not only his handiwork and thinking, but also hers.37 Constantly referring to her own gouvernante's stories, she has inspired one folklorist at least to identify Mother Goose with the Lheritier family nurse, who may have come from Normandy. This commentator waxed lyrical at the thought: she 'had gathered honey from the lips of nurses and mothers, [she] had drunk from the source in the hollow of her hand'.38
For Marie-Jeanne Lheritier proves as anxious as Perrault to renounce authorship in favour of an anonymous tradition: two of her fairy stories, 'Ricdin-Ricdon', an early version of 'Rumpelstiltskin' and 'La Robe de Sincérité', a predecessor of 'The Emperor's New Clothes', are embedded in her novel La Tour ténébreuse (the dark tower), where they are told by no less a hero than Richard the Lion Heart in order to while away his captivity.39 His audience consists of the troubadour Blondel: he has smuggled himself in in disguise, and he then commits the stories to memory to recount them later. This frame carefully sets up Mlle Lheritier's theory of the national, Gallic matrix of the fairytale, in the middle ages, among the troubadours and storytellers of Provence. She propounded it fully in the preface to her most famous fairytale, 'L'Adroite princesse, ou les aventures de Finette' (known in English as 'The Discreet Princess'), which is often attributed to Perrault.40 She declares that, like the bourgeois gentilhomme, she wants neither prose nor verse, but instead 'a tale told any how, and as one speaks'.41 'I'm not looking for anything except some moral of a sort …' she continues. 'You will see how our Forebears knew how to insinuate that one can fall into a thousand horrors.'42 However, Mlle de Lheritier's style does not come out any old how, the way one speaks, but is the flowery and learned prose of a précieuse from the aristocratic salons of the Sun King's Paris, directed at the entertainment of her coevals, the group of friends who gathered together to dress up as characters in fairy stories while they improvised variations on the spot and awarded one another garlands for their efforts.43 Mlle Lheritier admits that she has somewhat elaborated on the story, and excuses herself by saying that when she was a child, the telling of it by her gouvernante lasted 'une bonne heure', a good hour.44
The genealogy Mlle Lheritier puts forward differs from Perrault's; like him, she is concerned with improving morals and bienséance ('seemliness'), but for her, this entails disclaiming kinship with animal fables in favour of homespun proverbs, and putting a clear distance between all classical sources and the tales. She then begs her friend the Comtesse de Murat to follow her example:
L'antique Gaule vous en presse:45
Daignez-vous mettre dans leurs jours
Les contes ingénus, quoique remplis d'adresse
Qu'ont inventé les Troubadours.
The troubadours, epitomized by the romantic figures of Blondel and Richard the Lion Heart in the tower, are connected to Mlle Lheritier's gouvernante, and to Perrault's nourrice, the nurse and old woman, and to Mother Goose, through two aspects of the same essential element in the fairytale's self-image: oral transmission and its counterpart, native language. Mother Goose could be called Mother Tongue.46
At some point, which Mlle Lheritier is naturally unable to specify, the transmission of the stories passed underground, out of the hands of court poets, and their memory was then kept by children who heard them from the old; though she herself, their champion, was in her thirties in the 1690s, nobody in the romance she is composing about native fairytale literature and its diffusion is middle-aged. The simplicity of Mother Goose, the peasant raconteuse, matches that of a child in the aristocratic or bourgeois nursery; age and youth come full circle, the illiterate meets the preliterate. Beneath this image of the ancient old woman lies a preconception that simple folk are like children, and their stories, wisdom and morals suitable child's fare. History happens to prominent and active individuals in their prime; it bypasses the young and the old and the insignificant, who become the incorrupt repositories of tradition, outside time and circumstance. Just as natural mothers are conspicuously absent from the plots of many favourite fairytales, so mothers do not figure in the propaganda that sustained the first publication of Mother Goose tales. The stories' antiquity was somehow matched and verified by the teller's age, and their removal from the scene of activity, into the timeless zone where dotage meets infancy.
Mlle Lheritier drew certain distinctions: she put some distance between herself and the comic and possibly bawdy character of animal tales, and explained that the language in which these ancient stories were communicated had to be altered, had to be cleansed. For whereas, in the picture she paints of the genre's early days, the storytellers travelled from castle to castle 'chez les personnes de qualityé' until no royal entertainment was complete without a troubadour, the transmission had sunk down the social scale, and bad characters and improper happenings and other unseemliness had befouled the tradition:
These stories became filled with impurities as they passed through the mouth of the common people; in the same way as pure water always becomes defiled with rubbish as it passes through a dirty culvert. If the people are simple, they are also coarse: they do not know what propriety is. Pass lightly over a licentious and scandalous event, and the tale they tell after will be filled with all the details. One tells these criminal deeds to a good purpose, to show that they always go punished, but the people, from whom we received them, report them with no veil to cover them, and indeed have tied them to the subject thus unveiled so tightly that it's a hard task to tell the same adventures and keep them concealed.47
The voice of experience sounds through this rather plaintive text, in which poor Mlle Lheritier, committed to believing in the virtuous simplicity and good faith and perfect manners of a pure French tradition, finds herself continually face to face with its vital and rude adulteration, and struggles to legitimize it again as courtly literature. Behind the mask of the nurse, the minstresly of a gracious and noble past still can be heard, she pleads. Her quandary as she both denies and confronts the character of the gouvernante or Mother Goose takes us to a deeper ambivalence in the fairytales that she and Perrault wrote, about magic and the people, about the grotesque and low life, about women's lore and men's, women's speech and men's.
Another tale Mlle Lheritier recounted she also attributed to tradition, transmitted in this case by a 'Lady very knowledgeable about Greek and Roman antiquities, but even more learned about Gallic antiquities, [who] told me this tale when I was a child'.48 Thus Mlle Lheritier cannot quite bring herself to set aside classical learning altogether, in case she—and her source—might seem ignorant. Again, the fairytale is autochthonous, and thoroughbred: it is 'one of those Gallic fables which come in direct line from the Storytellers or Troubadours of Provence'.49
The pattern reappears: the near source is female, not aristocratic, but the origin is noble, French and male. Whether her contact with the past store of tales be a servant or an educated woman, they originate in what Mlle Lheritier calls romans—novels—or even, citing the Spanish term, 'Romances'. Their authenticity is confirmed by direct contact with a speaking woman to whom they are second nature; their nobility on the other hand is guaranteed by their birth. Like a fairytale heroine herself, the story on the lips of Mother Goose is somehow in disguise, and is, under the simple or even uncouth exterior, a radiant and well-born princess, like Cinderella, like Donkeyskin. Mother Goose is not only being played by a man, but conceals many ancestors beneath her skirts: troubadours, poets, national heroes of tradition. It is not surprising to find that counterfeit and masquerade lie at the core of many of Mlle Lheritier's tales. 'Marmoisan, ou l'innocente tromperie' ('Marmoisan or the innocent trick') is dedicated to Mlle Perrault, Perrault's daughter, by Mlle Lheritier, with a preface asking her to see that it is included in the family's collection of tales.50 In the story, which Perrault did not take up for his book, after all, the heroine goes to war in the place of her twin brother after he has been accidentally killed in a shameful erotic adventure—he falls off a ladder trying to enter a girl's bedroom without permission, and is run through by her father. In her brother's shape, Marmoisan distinguishes herself and heaps honour on her household; she struggles not to be revealed, though many traps are set for her by jealous courtiers who suspect her of being a girl, and by the prince who has fallen in love with her and longs for her to turn out not to be a boy. She maintains feminine decorum throughout, too, refusing to join in the rough ribaldry of the court, at women's expense. In the end, she is wounded in the lists at a tourney, and her travesty uncovered—to rejoicing all round. The story of the amazon princess was adapted from a slightly older writer, the Comte de Prechac, whose book, L'Héroine mousquetaire, related the true exploits of Christine de Meirak, who fought disguised in the French army in 1675–6.51
In 'Finette, or the Discreet Princess', the heroine tricks the false suitor who has married both her sisters, and then evades death by placing a dummy in bed in her stead. Mlle Lheritier does not spare the details of its manufacture from straw, a stuffed bladder, sheep's blood, the lights of the animals they'd eaten at dinner, all dressed up in a nightcap and nightgown.52
The recurrence of imposture in Mlle Lheritier's stories might arise simply from the device's splendid narrative possibilities—but there could be more to it: as a woman writer, she identified with the travestied Marmoisan, she wanted to prove through her heroine that she could be a valiant knight and at the same time a completely feminine woman, who inspires love. Likewise, she could play a man's part in the world of letters and win approval and renown. Her fairytales tend to validate the inferior category against the superior, vernacular folk literature against the classics, oral tradition against book learning, the female against the male, by skilfully imitating the style of the dominant category, its learning and its refinement, in a successful masquerade.
Perrault is less defensive about adopting le merveilleux national, about calling in Mother Goose as it were as witness; as a man, as an establishment figure, Colbert's assistant in the Superintendency of the royal buildings for twenty years, a famous courtier in favour with the King, Perrault did not need to feel quite so uneasy as his friend, colleague and relative Mlle Lheritier. As Virginia Woolf pointed out, it's all very well to spurn Greek when you've been given the chance to study it, to reject tradition when you have been raised in it. But the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns affected men and women writers differently. Mlle Lheritier could not have composed a sonorous Latin ode or a canny epigram in Greek for the King's birthday even if she had wanted to. She had to be a Modern, on the side of the mother tongue willy-nilly; when Perrault began writing fairytales too—the first man in France to do so, and certainly the first académicien—he was making common cause with women as well as showing Gallic pride.53
Mother Goose, whatever her immediate guise, made the likes of Mlle Lheritier anxious; her haggard witchiness and her low social status did not make her an entirely comfortable alter ego. As a marginal type, and a speaking woman, such a figure would be an object of widespread suspicion and disapproval, and Mlle Lheritier longed, as her tales show, and as we all do perhaps, for recognition and praise. It is possible that one of the buried reasons for the vanishing mothers of fairytale is that perfection in a woman entails exemplary silence and self-effacement—to the point of actually disappearing out of the text. The strictures against women's speech have been fierce in our Judaeo-Christian culture, and the enemies of the Moderns in France in the 1680s and 1690s were also committed misogynists. Perrault republished his poem 'L'Apologie des femmes', a rather touching hymn of praise to conjugal love, with a new preface, as a réplique to Boileau's satire against women.54 Boileau had been refused permission to publish this masterpiece of abuse when he first wrote it, because it attacked Mlle de Scudéry so plainly; but it contents were circulated. Molière, in two of his most brilliant comedies of the 1670s, Les Femmes savantes and Les Précieuses ridicules, had also made merciless fun of the salons where Mlle de Scudéry and her friends presided, and where conversation was the main pastime and the principal art. These were the circles in which Mlle Lheritier moved. Mlle Lheritier indeed wrote a eulogy of Mlle de Scudéry after her death in 1701, and penned a triumph for another bluestocking friend, Mme Des Houlières, describing her apotheosis on Parnassus and the punishment of her detractors: Boileau is condemned to be bitten by Cerberus as many times as he has insulted women, while Mme Des Houlières is counted among the Muses as the tenth.55 In Le Misanthrope, though sympathies are more ambiguously distributed than in Molière's other plays, Alceste is driven to flight and despair by Célimène's verbal brilliance and volubility. But when Perrault, the champion of women, defender of old wives' wisdom, came to paint his paragon of a wife, he still extolled her bouche enfantine, her childlike mouth, her soft-spokenness, her forbearance.
In the seventeenth century, the tongues of women were chiefly associated with curses, with nagging and gossip; there even exist, from the same century that saw the development of Mother Goose Tales, branks or scold's bridles—contraptions like dog muzzles designed to gag women who had been charged and found guilty for something they had said.56 In England in 1624, a law against cursing was passed, and its targets were not only men who swore, but women who could conjure.57 Victims identified as witches in league with the devil by inquisitors and prickers were often poor old folk, who might use curses to retaliate against maltreatment or neglect in default of other means of defence, as the research of Christina Larner and Alan Macfarlane has shown.58
Gossip was a predominant target in perceptions of women's folly, and the changes in meaning of the word 'gossip' illuminate the participation of women in storytelling; originally a word for a baptismal sponsor, a godmother, it referred almost exclusively to women by the mid-fourteenth century, and by the period 1590–1670 had come to designate in particular women friends invited to be present at the birth of a child. Only after this did a gossip come to mean 'a person, mostly a woman, especially one who delights in idle talk'. A 'gossipping' is an old word for a christening feast.
There are several strands in this web of associations around women as gossips which, pulled together, enhance the portrait of Mother Goose, or the tale-teller. Women dominated the domestic networks of information and power; the neighbourhood, the village and the street, not only the household, were their arena of influence.59 The gatherings of women together were the focus of much male anxiety about women's tongues: typical women's meeting places, especially the spinning room, were feared to give rise to slander and intrigue and secret liaisons.60 An early seventeenth-century English broadsheet 'Tittle-Tattle; or the several branches of Gossipping' depicts the places where women are alone: and able to communicate without supervision. The first place is 'At Childbed', appropriately; then come the market, the bakehouse, the alehouse, the baths, church, and the river for the washing of clothes. The preacher concludes:
Then Gossips all a Warning take,61
Pray cease your Tongue to rattle;
Go knit, and Sew, and Brew, and Bake,
And leave off TITTLE-TATTLE.
In France, the same theme was interpreted in a print called Le Caquet des femmes, in which the women are seen in the midst of savage brawls as a consequence of their chatter. The linguistic link between godmothers and gossips is crucial in the world of fairytale; the fairy godmother or magic old woman and the crone storyteller are often made to look alike by illustrators, the doubled subject of the story or rhyme.62 The gnarled and toothless storyteller (Dame Fidget) who appears on the frontispiece of a chapbook of 1808,63 Cruikshank's hunched crone on the frontispiece of his Fairy Library,64 and various other Mother Geese are the lookalikes of Cinderella's fairy godmother, both in Cruikshank's own Cinderella and in Arthur Rackham's later images.65 To know fairytales well enough to tell them is to be in some degree fey yourself.
Mother Goose often doubles the part of the fairy in the tale that she tells: it is she who knows Cinderella's true worth, for instance, and imparts it to her listeners, it is the story she tells that reveals the heroine's identity and resolves her triumph in the same way as the fairy godmother. The overlap of the crone and the witch, of the fairy and the storyteller has been pointed out many times: the word fata, from which the French fée derives, shares the same root as Fate, itself from the Latin past participle of the verb fari, to speak. The Parcae of the Greeks and the Norns of the Norse pantheon tell the story of the lives of mortals and determine their adventures and their ends; they also tell, in the sense of count, the number of their days.
Thomas Didbin caught this exactly in his pantomime, when he made Mother Goose the engine of the pantomime's happy ending and when he gave her the role of the fairy godmother. The omniscience and parti pris of the narrator are replicated by the wisdom and loyalty of the fairy. When moralities are appended in the mock pedantic manner of Perrault, it is sometimes difficult to know whether Mother Goose is speaking in her own voice or quoting the knowing message of the wise old fairy in the tale.
In the light of this identification of the narrator with the magical figure in the story itself, who sees into the future and can affect it, possessing both the gift of instruction and occult knowledge, it is interesting to look at two seventeenth-century fairytales which feature old beldames or grannies: Perrault's 'Red Riding Hood', and Mlle Lheritier's version of 'Diamonds and Toads'.66 For fantasy can work to heal as well as to harm, and the fairytale, mediated through the courtly writings of the French writers of contes, helped to revise the estimation of women's talk, of old wives' tales; and Mother Goose, a benevolent witch, a kindly female tale-spinner and gossip, participated in this benign process of civilization.
Perrault as usual adapted a traditional story, in which a little girl takes food and drink to her grandmother and meets a wolf.67 But he chose to leave out several aspects which must have struck him as crude: the wolf tricking the granddaughter into eating a piece of her granny's flesh and drinking some of her blood. He also changed the ending: in a unique intervention in the usually comic, happy world of the fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf and that's that. In the traditional version, the little girl manages to get away by refusing to get into bed because she has to go to the lavatory. The wolf urges her to do it in the bed, but she won't, and so she slips outside.68
From the point of view of Mother Goose's symbolic identity and its connection to women's talk, Perrault's re-telling continues an important aspect: the possibility of confusion between the wolf and the grandmother. They both dwell in the woods, and they both need food urgently, one because she is sick, the other because he hasn't eaten for three days, and as everyone knows, Little Red Riding Hood cannot quite tell them apart. The wolf is kin to the forest-dwelling witch, or crone; he's a male counterpart, a werewolf who swallows up grandmother and then granddaughter. (In the witch-hunting fantasies of early modern Europe they are the kind of beings associated with marginal knowledge, who possess pagan secrets and are in turn possessed by them.) The climactic image of Red Riding Hood, the wolf's mouth, has led many commentators to note the emphasis on orality. This orality has been interpreted, by the Freudian Geza Roheim, as an allegory of a child's aggressive feelings towards the mother's breast.69 But the orality has not been interpreted as encoding another form of maternal nurturance: language, or oral knowledge. The story is indeed a conte au vieux loup as well as a Mother Goose take.
Perrault's tragic change to the original folk tale's dénouement becomes very interesting indeed in this light, for his little girl is swallowed up into the body of the wolf along with her granny, and does not emerge again. One possible reading—among many possible readings—of this ending yields another thought: like the children who grow up in traditional lore and language, Little Red Riding Hood is incorporated, the lineal and female descendant of her grandmother who has herself been ingested by the wolf beforehand, and he does not release either of them. The wolf to whom they are thus assimilated could represent the indigenous inhabitants of the countryside, hairy, wild, unkempt, untrammelled by imported acculturation, eating raw foods and meat, a native beast in the native landscape, where a specific age-old corpus of home-grown literature flourishes and is passed on. Such a counterpoint between the woods and the home Red Riding Hood leaves with her basket of prepared food—butter and cake—is suggested in the Perrault, and the theme was made explicit later in the interpretive literature. Certain German patriots, for instance, commenting on the tale in the 1920s, allegorized the grandmother as ancient Aryan mother-right who must be regenerated by the granddaughter.70 On the other hand, to accept gladly Red Riding Hood's death inside the animal as an allegory of national tradition clearly entails reading against the cautionary message of the story and against the morality Perrault appended to the tale, in which he warns little girls against wolves. However, in these final verses, Perrault alters the identity of the wolf, and comments:
Now, there are real wolves, with hairy pelts and enormous teeth; but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet-natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions.
Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous beasts of all.71
It is this well-spoken seducer, urbane, not rustic, who turns out to be Perrault's wolf, who eats up little girls and grandmothers, and he makes possible yet another twist in the significance of the story. For he overwhelms and absorbs them in the same way, one could say, as classical learning, metropolitan manners and other customs, alien rather than authochtonous, swallow up the home-bred nursery culture of old women and their protégées, of Mother Goose and her young listeners. It is not unusual in Perrault to find his moralities introducing an irony: here the wolf stands no longer for the savage wilderness, but for the deceptions of the city and the men who wield authority in it. He openly turns the usual identity of the wolf on its head and locates him near at hand, rather than far away and Other. It is almost as if Perrault did not want to follow the ending in which the Granny is dead and Little Red Riding Hood escapes, because he wanted them to remain united, in the wolf's belly; nor, apparently, did he want to introduce a huntsman, the figure of masculine civilization who restores them to life, as in the Grimm version. But yet he could not stop at their ultimate and unregenerate incorporation into the wolf either, as he knew, deep down, that this resolution did not represent the true facts of the matter. Tradition cannot be kept sealed off and apart; so at the last minute, in the moral, he switched the emphasis and turned the wolf from a forest creature into a polished and sweet-talking man, and by the way produced an allegory about the impossibility of separate female lore and language.
Perrault was also in two minds about the pristine, aboriginal source that Mlle Lheritier proclaimed, for his jaunty tone consistently belies the earnestness with which he presses the claims of fairytale to wisdom. His stories have been so romanticized in subsequent retellings that it comes as quite a revelation to find him cracking his typical jokes, at the expense of his material. When the Sleeping Beauty's death has been ordered by her cannibal mother-in-law (an episode usually left out these days), Perrault comments: 'She was over twenty years old, not counting the hundred years she had slept: her hide was a little tough, though lovely and white …'72 Though Perrault often asseverated the contrary in the quarrel with Boileau, the style of his Mother Goose tales betrays that he could not take the claims of native literature altogether seriously, that for him Mother Goose would always raise a laugh.
No wolf was really needed to dish up Mother Goose to hungry listeners: in some ways the most successful of accomplished Mlle Lheritier's disguises was her concealment of her true wolf nature. For it was she who came along and gobbled Grandmother, or Mother Goose, by making her polite and sociable and sortable.
In her story 'Les Enchantemens de l'éloquence, ou les effets de la douceur', the issue of women's talk is central.73 One day, when Blanche is drawing water at the well, a prince out hunting—inevitably—wounds her by mistake, but her soft answer enchants him, and he falls in love with her mild and unreproachful speech as much as with her beauty. Later, a fairy appears at the house in disguise as a poor old peasant woman to give Blanche a magic balm for her wound. Her fairy name is Dulcicula—Little Sweet, reminiscent of the dolce stil novo of the Italian troubadours. Blanche receives her kindly, even though—Mlle Lheritier is careful to tell us—she does not swallow old wives' tales readily. Alix, the unkind and foul-mouthed stepsister, meanwhile flies off the handle in her fishwife way, and bawls her out in colourful idiom, calling her an old fool, a midwife and a beast in a single tirade.74 (Mlle Lheritier unconsciously relishes the opportunity to foul her own mouth, it seems, by impersonating the profane Alix.) After this visit the fairy confers the gift of ever-gentle speech on Blanche, and perpetual invective on Alix, thus locking them in their original personalities, rather than working any magical transformation. When another fairy, this time a brilliant court lady, radiant with jewels and silks, later appears by the fountain, she asks to drink. Blanche tilts the vessel to her lips; Alix visiting the fountain refuses with a stream of abuse. In consequence, diamonds and other jewels begin to spill from Blanche's mouth as she speaks, while Alix is condemned to spit toads and snakes and other ingredients of the witches' broth.75
The complications and inconsistencies of Mlle Lheritier's tale—Why two fairies? Would Alix really have been so rude to such a grand lady asking for a drink after she knew how Blanche had been rewarded?—can be unravelled if her partisan purposes are kept in mind. The first, seemingly redundant test—the offer of the peasant cure—is much more apt to her argument than the request for water at the well, because it exactly reflects her own belief in taking from the simple folk what is good, with common sense, discrimination and unfailing courtesy. Alix is punished, at this stage, for being grossère with the poor. The fairy offering her remedy in the guise of a peasant with a possibly quack medicine is another Mother Goose, the source of pure water that does however need to be filtered. The second, resplendent fairy is called Eloquentia nativa (Native Eloquence) and she meets Mlle Lheritier's need to enter her own text as a new kind of speaking woman. There is no reason for the first fairy not to metamorphose into Eloquentia nativa. But by keeping them distinct, the narrator can occupy the latter's place, and also continue her invitation to Mme de Murat, issued in her preface, to write with native eloquence of native things herself. Eloquentia nativa is an awkward, Spenserian allegorical figure, in the midst of a lively story of virtue rewarded and vice punished, but she represents the issue of language in the present day for the tale's author; she bodies forth the potential gift of female eloquence, of speaking diamonds, not toads, for the modern receivers and disseminators of the tale, among whom Mlle Lheritier counted herself. Mother Goose must learn to speak according to the principles of civilité, the aristocratic and précieux ideal of proper language, and Mlle Lheritier continues to struggle to align this ideal with feminism. At one moment she pauses to issue another personal challenge, explicitly valuing women's eloquence over classical male oratory: 'I'd just as much like to say that pearl and rubies fell from Blanche's mouth … as say that lightning flashes issued from that of Pericles.'76 As Marc Fumaroli has pointed out, the vindication of the heroine in fairytales often expresses the teller's desire to vindicate the feminine, with which the genre was so closely identified.77
Paradoxically, Perrault imitated convincingly the bantering, old-womanly style of tale-telling associated with Mother Goose,78 while Mlle Lheritier rejected false naïveté in favour of polish. For the feminine in Mlle Lheritier's hands had to conform to certain governing principles of the courtly douceur of her title: the toads were black magic, illusion, coarseness, un-kindness, colloquial speech or orality and the upstart bourgeoisie; the diamonds were theurgy, or white magic, truth-telling, refinement, kindness and written literature mediating peasant wisdom. The oral character of Mother Goose vanished into the courtly and scripted figure of Eloquentia nativa, who is Mlle Lheritier's ultimate source figure in a new travesty or disguise, all cleaned up and polished, poli-polite.
La Comtesse de Murat did follow her friend Mlle Lheritier's urgings, and wrote several fairytales soon after. She dedicated her Histoires sublimes et al-légoriques of 1699 to Les Fées modernes—modern fairies—and she articulated a subsequent metamorphosis of Mother Goose with great clarity as she addresses them:
Oldentime fairies … no longer appear anything but wags next to you. Their occupations were lowly and childish, and the most significant effects their art brought about was to make people weep pearls and diamonds, blow emeralds out of their noses and spit rubies. Their entertainment was dancing by the light of the moon, turning themselves into Crones, and Cats and Monkeys, and werewolves to terrorize children and weak minds. That's why all that remains today of their Exploits and Deeds are only Mother Goose Tales. They were almost always old, ugly, badly dressed and badly housed; and apart from Mélusine and half a dozen or so like her, all the rest of them were just beggarwomen …79
Is there any irony in Mme de Murat's envoi? or any regret? She certainly puts her finger on the identity of the fairies, the crones, the beggarwomen, the witches and the tale-tellers like Mother Goose. The campaign Mlle Lheritier proclaimed through her tale 'Les Enchantemens de l'éloquence' shows how a woman of independent mind had to manoeuvre between negative and positive images of her sex in order to continue what she was doing and argue for its value and acceptance. She had to sentence the foul-mouthed Alix to failure (she dies abandoned in the woods), eye the peasant's remedy with circumspection, rinse the stories she accepted in the purifying language of the court, disinfect Mother Goose of her associations with babbling and spells, and turn her into Eloquentia nativa, the lifeless but direct predecessor of the Sugar Plum Fairy, or even Tinkerbell. She championed the feminine, but in order to do so successfully, she had to define its virtues very closely, and in some way betray the origins of the very literature she was defending by repudiating the grossier in favour of douceur, by consuming granny and spitting her out again as diamonds and flowers.
Mlle Lheritier achieved some of the fame and standing she desired. She was the first woman elected to one of the prestigious and exclusive French académies, the Académie de Lanternistes of Toulouse, in 1696. She was also admitted, the following year, to the Ricovrati of Padua, who chose nine women for the nine muses to their company. But she is not read today, paradoxically because the highly refined and embroidered style she chose, the mannered and flowery eloquence she evolved in order to stave off criticisms about unsuitable material in improper hands, have dated and become tedious compared to the flashing and humorous concision of Perrault, who did not have to struggle so hard with the figure of aboriginal female wisdom, Mother Goose, as he could annex her without being confused with her.
It is a shame that Mlle Lheritier is such a prolix and genteel writer, that her flashes of feline wit and her moments of inventive cruelty are few and far between. Her predicament, poised between respectability and exclusion, mirrors that of the contemporary woman writer, which is why I felt I had made a discovery when I first read her and then felt cheated that she lacked the courage to be as robust and earthy and potent as the nurses and old women she invoked, the Mother Geese of tradition. The editor of this volume of essays, Roy Porter, has asked the contributors to reflect upon their own relation to the lieux de mémoire they have chosen—otherwise I would continue to hide behind my cerebral quest for Mother Goose. For of course I want Anon. to be a woman, I would like old wives' tales to be just that, for Mother Goose to prove the existence of ancient female narrative, and for the prejudice that clings to old women, to female language and speech, to the very phrase 'old wives' tale' and the folly of Mother Goose to become a matter of history, even though I appreciate, as I hope I have shown, how much power nose-thumbing actually accords to these persistent notions. But the problem of Mother Goose's double tongue remains: is she truly a female storyteller, only now and then in drag, or does the drag constitute a claim on credence, advanced by men invoking something more authentic than themselves? If Mlle Lheritier were as bawdy and comic and knowing as she describes her peasant sources and as the British panto tradition has developed, wouldn't she have fed the prejudices that make old wives' tales suitable fare for none but children? Or would she have been able to overcome that persistent tinge of contempt? I know it to be a mistake to try to occupy some imaginary primordial femaleness, an essentialist hortus conclusus where history and law and all the other factors in sexual politics have not gained entry. So Mother Goose is another false trail in the quest for the women's version. Furthermore, there is a distinction between a woman telling a story, and telling a story as a woman, though both run up against the difference femaleness makes. Mother Goose does the latter; she may not have been a woman at all, but only a fantasy of nursery, of nurture, of female magic, of woman at the hearth. She vividly represents in Victorian culture and in our own the continuing mixed feelings both men and women experience about such a voice, such a practice. For a female writer, Mother Goose's presence is a comfort and a source of unease at one and the same time, holding up before us a long history of enchantment on the one hand, of ridicule on the other. Any writer who has identified herself with women's issues knows how she'll trip up over mockery; yet laughter can still be answered in kind, for it has its own retaliatory strength, as a goose knows when she cackles.
1. I would like to express my gratitude to the Folklore Society, who did me the honour of inviting me to give the Katherine Briggs Memorial Lecture in 1989. Some of the material in this paper was first presented then, and a version was published: 'Mother Goose Tales: Female Fiction, Female Fact?' in Folklore, 1990, vol. 101, no. 1, pp. 3-25.
2. Ryoji Tsurumi, 'The Development of Mother Goose in Britain in the Nineteenth Century', Folklore, 1990, vol. 101, no. 1, pp. 28-35; David Mayer III, Harlequin in His Element: The English Pantomime (London, 1949), p. 25.
3. Mother Goose's Melody: Or, Sonnets for the Cradle, published by John Newbery, ?1780. See article on 'Mother Goose' in Humphrey Carpenter, Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford, 1986), pp. 362ff.
4. 'The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hub-bard and Her Dog', in Iona and Peter Opie (eds), A Nursery Companion (Oxford, 1980), pp. 5-8, 28-31.
5. See E. F. Bleiler's introduction to Mother Goose's Melodies, facsimile of the Munroe and Francis copyright 1833 version, for a careful bibliographical account of the different editions published in England and the United States from 1729 to 1845.
6. Attributed to Oliver Goldsmith, in J. Barchilon and H. Pettit, (eds), The Authentic Mother Goose Tales and Nursery Rhymes (Denver, 1960).
7. 'Advice to Her Young Readers', Tales of Past Times by Old Mother Goose with Morals (London, York, 1798), pp. 93-4.
8. Charles Perrault, Contes, ed. G. Rouger (Paris: Garnier, 1967); the frontispiece was considered 'the soul of a book' in the seventeenth century. See Alastair Fowler, 'The Art of Storing a Mind', review of Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Times Literary Supplement, 28 December-3 January 1991, p. 1391.
9. Cyrano de Bergerac, quoted in Mary Elisabeth Storer, La Mode des contes de fées (Geneva, 1928), p. 12; Scarron, Le Virgile travesti, II (Paris, 1648), quoted in Perrault, Contes, p. 53.
10. 'The common people give the name tale of old wolf, old wives' tale, Mother Goose tale, tale of the stork, donkeyskin tale, tale to fall asleep on your feet, yellow, blue, violet tale, one-eyed tale, to ridiculous fables such as those with which old people entertain and amuse children.' Quoted by Claire L. Malarte-Feldman, 'Du Conte de fées littéraire au conte pour enfant', in Merveilles et Contes, 1991, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 235-45.
11. Mme de Sévigné, quoted in Perrault, Contes, pp. xxi-xxii.
12. Jean de La Fontaine, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Jean-Pierre Collinet (Paris, 1991), vol. 1, pp. 299-300.
13. Compare such Gallic saws on women's chatter as: 'La poule ne doit point chanter devant le coq', from Molière's Les Femmes savantes, V, iii; or the earlier lines from Jean de Meung's Roman de la Rose: 'C'est chose qui moult me deplaist, / Quand poule parle et coq se taist.'
14. From Rhodes, by the Pistoxenos Painter, Attic red-figure, c.460 BC, on display in the British Museum.
15. La Fontaine, 'L'Oraison de St Julien': 'La petite loie; enfin ce qu'on appelle / En bon français les préludes d'amour' (Oeuvres com-plètes, p. 135).
16. Charles Perrault, Le Labyrinthe de Versailles (Paris, 1677).
17. Charles Perrault, Fables in English and French. Translated from Original Latin of Gabriel Faerno (London, 1741).
18. Perrault, Contes, p. 3.
19. Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass, with English translation by William Aldington, Loeb edition (London, 1915); also The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as The Golden Ass, trans. Robert Graves (London, 1952; Harmondsworth, 1970), pp. 95-6.
20. Perrault, Contes, pp. 6-7 (my translation).
21. For instance, Histories of Past Times, Told by Mother Goose with Morals, 'Englished' by G. H. Gent (Salisbury, 1802); also, Tales of Past Times from Mother Goose, Ross's Juvenile Library (Edinburgh, 1805); Julia Corner, The Little Play of Mother Goose, illus. Harrison Weir (n.d.); Familiar Selections from the Rhymes of Mother Goose with New Pictures by Chester Loomis, (London, 1888); Kate Green-away, Mother Goose, or the Old Nursery Rhymes, printed Edmund Evans (n.d).
22. Perrault's Popular Tales, ed. and trans. Andrew Lang (Oxford, 1888), p. vii.
23. Old Mother Goose, Routledge 3d. Toy Book; The History of Old Mother Goose and Her Son Jack.
24. Iona and Peter Opie (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford, 1977), p. 316.
25. Pasquil's Jests Mixed with Mother Bunch's Merriments (1604); Mother Bunch's Closet Broke Open; see Carpenter, Oxford Companion, p. 364.
26. Wellesley College; Jan Steen, 'David Returning Triumphant', Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. See Pat Rogers, 'Gulliver's Glasses', in Eighteenth Century Encounters: Studies in Literature and Society in the Age of Walpole (Sussex, 1985), pp. 1-10, esp. p. 5; The Authentic Mother Goose Tales, p. vii.
27. Cathérine Clément, 'The Guilty One', in Hélène Cixous and Cathérine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Manchester, 1975), p. 33.
28. The writer Angela Carter, in one of her last pieces before she died in February 1992, evoked the Pantomime Dame: 'Double-sexed and self-sufficient, the Dame, the sacred transvestite of Pantoland, manifests him/herself in a number of guises … He/she bestrides the stage. His/her enormous footsteps resonate with the antique past. She brings with him the sacred terror inherent in those of his/her avatars such as … the sacrificial priest who, in the Congo, dressed like a woman and was called: "Grandma"' ('In Pantoland', Guardian, 24 December 1991).
29. See E. Tietze-Conrat, Dwarfs and Jesters in Art (Oxford, 1957).
30. Carpenter, Oxford Companion, pp. 364-5.
31. In To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay tells the story of The Fisherman's Wife. (I am very grateful to Roy Foster for recalling this to me.)
32. George Eliot, Felix Holt (London, 1866), ch. 42. I am grateful to Roy Palmer for citing this to me.
33. See Rudolf M. Dekker, 'Women in Revolt: Popular Protest and its Social Basis in Holland in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries', Theory and Society, 1987, vol. 16, pp. 337-62 at p. 353.
34. See Pierre, Abbé de Villiers, Entretiens sur les contes de fées et sur quelques autres ouvrages du temps. Pour servir de préservatif contre le mauvais goût (Paris, 1699); also Paul Bonnefon, 'Les dernières années de Charles Perrault', Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, 1906, vol. 13, pp. 606-57.
35. Louis Marin, 'La Voix d'un conte: entre La Fontaine et Perrault, sa récriture', in Littératures, 1980, vol. 36, no. 394, pp. 333-42, and Hélène Cixous, 'Sorties', in The Newly Born Woman, inspired the idea of this connection.
36. Mme la Comtesse D'Aulnoy was the first to write down a conte, framed by her novel L'Histoire d'Hippolyte of 1690, and many oth-ers followed suit: Mme la Comtesse de Murat, Mlle de la Force, Mme d'Auneuil, and Mme de Villeneuve, who wrote the first 'Beauty and the Beast'. The material of the tales often reveals a female bias, not just in the gender of famous protagonists, but in the experience they record: 'Tom Thumb' could be read as a story about the hardships of marriage to a blundering ogre who mistakes his own children for his supper.
37. Marie-Jeanne Lheritier de Villandon, Bigarrures ingénieuses, ou Recueil de diverses pièces gal-antes en prose et en vers (Paris, 1696) (also known as Oeuvres Meslées); La Tour ténébreuse et les jours lumineux. Conte Anglois, accompa-gnés d'Historiettes, et tirez d'une ancienne Chronique composée par Richard, Coeur de Lion (Paris, 1705). See also Storer, La Mode des contes de fées, pp. 44ff; Paul Delarue, 'Les Contes merveilleux de Perrault: Faits et rapprochements nouveaux', Arts et traditions populaires, 1954, no. 1 (January-March), pp. 1-22; no. 3 (November), pp. 250-74.
38. Jeanne Roche-Mazon, Les Fées de Perrault et la véridique Mère l'Oye (Paris, 1968), p. 158.
39. Lheritier, La Tour ténébreuse, pp. 236ff.
40. Lheritier, Bigarrures, pp. 169ff. See, for instance, Charles Perrault, Les Contes de fées, in the 'Librairie pittoresque de la jeunesse' (Paris, 1847).
41. 'Un récit sans façon et comme on parle': Lheritier, Bigarrures, p. 169.
42. 'Je ne cherche que quelque moralité … vous y verrez comment nos Ayeux savoient insinuer qu'on tombe dans mille désordres': ibid., p. 169.
43. See Jack Zipes, 'Introduction', in Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales, trans. Jack Zipes (New York, 1989), pp. 1-12.
44. Lheritier, Bigarrures, p. 171.
45. Ancient Gaul urges you / Stoop to bring to light these tales, / So ingenuous, though cunningly wrought, / Which the troubadours invented: ibid. p. 171.
46. For a while I hoped that the morphology of Oie was related to Oil, as in Langue d'oil or French as it was spoken in the north, and that La mère l'oye was a corruption of la mère l'oil—this fancy, it seems, might be all right in a fairytale, but is out of place elsewhere.
47. 'Ces Contes se sont remplis d'impuretez en passant dans la bouche du petit peuple; de même qu'une eau pure se charge toujours d'ordures en passant par un canal sâle. Si les gens du peuple sont simples, ils sont grossiers aussi: ils ne sçavent pas ce que c'est que bienséance. Passez légèrement sur une action licencieuse et pleine de scandale, le récit qu'ils en feront ensuite se remplit de toutes ces circonstances. On racontoit des actions criminelles pour une bonne fin, qui étoient de montrer qu'elles étoient toujours punies; mais le peuple, de qui nous les tenons, les rapporte sans aucun voile, et il les a même si bien liées au sujet ainsi dévoilées, qu'il n'en coûte pas peu à present pour raconter ce mêmes aventures et les enveloper': Lheritier, Bigarrures, p. 241.
48. 'Une Dame très instruite des antiquitez Grècques et Romaines, et encore plus savante dans les antiquitez Gauloises, m'a fait ce Conte quand j'etais enfant': ibid., p. 112.
49. 'une de ces Fables gauloises qui viennent en droite ligne des Conteurs ou Troubadours de Provence': ibid., p. 112.
50. Ibid., p. 3.
51. See Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol, 'Republican Heroines: Cross-dressing Women in the French Revolutionary Armies', History of European Ideas, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 353-63, n. 23 for full details of the translations of Prechac's tale.
52. Lheritier, Bigarrures, p. 221.
53. See Storer, La Mode des contes de fées, Lang, Perrault's Popular Tales and Delarue, 'Les Contes merveilleux de Perrault' for Perrault's position in the quarrel; also, C. A. Walckenaer, 'Lettres sur les contes de fées attribués à Perrault, et sur l'origine de la féerie', in Les Contes de Charles Perrault (Paris, 1826), pp 203-61.
54. Charles Perrault, Oeuvres Posthumes (Paris, 1706), pp. 358ff.
55. Lheritier, Bigarrures.
56. See Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel (London, 1985), illus. f.p. 101.
57. Ibid., p. 114.
58. Christina Larner, The Enemies of God: The Witchhunt in Scotland (London, 1981); Alan Macfarlane, 'Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart Essex', in Mary Douglas (ed.), Witchcraft: Confessions and Accusations (London, 1970), pp. 81-99.
59. See Rudolf M. Dekker, 'Women in Revolt: Popular Protest and its Social Basis in Holland in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries', Theory and Society 1987, vol. 16, pp. 337-62 for informal, female lines of communication in Holland.
60. I am grateful to Alison Stewart of the Photograph Archive at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities for leading me to this imagery.
61. My thanks to Roger Malbert, who showed me this print which is included in the exhibition he organized and selected for the South Bank Centre, London, 'Folly and Vice', 1989–90.
62. See, for instance, The Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction, published by J. Harris (London, 1819). The artist is probably Robert Branston. Opie and Opie, A Nursery Companion, pp. 40-43, 123-4.
63. Noah Webster, The Prompter, or Common Sayings, and Subjects, which are full of common sense, the best sense in the world (London, 1808). See Gumuchian et Cie., Les Livres de l'enfance. A Catalogue of 15th- to 19th-Century Books, 2 vols (Paris, 1930; repr. 1985), vol. 2, pl. 58, fig. 5815.
64. George Cruikshank, A Fairy Library, 3 vols (London, 1853–64).
65. The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book (London, 1933), illus. f.p. 226.
66. One of more than a thousand variations of Aarne Thompson tale type 480, 'The Kind and Unkind Girls'.
67. See Jack Zipes, The Trials and Tribulations of Red Riding Hood (London, 1983) for a full account of the tale's journey and meanings.
68. See also Paul Delarue, 'The Story of Grandmother', in Alan Dundes (ed.), Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook (Madison, 1989), pp. 13-20, and Alan Dundes, 'Interpreting "Little Red Riding Hood" Psychoanalytically', in ibid., pp. 192-236.
69. Geza Roheim, 'Fairy Tale and Dream: "Little Red Riding Hood"', in ibid. pp. 159-67.
70. Werner von Bülow, quoted in Dundes, Little Red Riding Hood, p. 239.
71. The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, trans. Angela Carter (New York, 1977), p. 28.
72. Perrault, Contes, ed. Rouger, p. 105.
73. Perrault turned this particular tale more concisely and more memorably in his collection as 'Les Fées', sometimes known as 'The Fairy', and by folklorists as 'Diamonds and Toads'. But specialists—notably Paul Delarue—have examined the manuscript evidence and convincingly shown that Perrault must have had the story from Mlle Lheritier, and adapted it. The Grimm Brothers collected a variation of it in their 'Three Little Men in a Wood' (no. 13). Their plot does not turn as narrowly on the question of proper language as in the earlier French versions, but more on proper conduct. See The Complete Grimms' Fairy Tales (London, 1975), pp. 78-83.
74. Ibid., p. 147.
75. Perrault tidied up the plausibility and the dynamics of the story, introducing a single fairy in a single test of the protagonists: both girls meet her disguised as a beggarwoman at the well, and react in their own way. But both narrators coldbloodedly despatch Alix to the same end.
76. 'J'aime autant dire qu'il sortait des perles et des rubis de la bouche de Blanche, pour désigner les effets de l'Eloquence, que de dire qu'il sortoit des éclairs de celle de Periclès': Lheritier, Bigarrures, pp. 164-5.
77. See Marc Fumaroli, 'Les enchantements de l'éloquence: Les Fées de Charles Perrault, ou de la littérature', in Marc Fumaroli (ed.), Le Statut de la Littérature: Mélanges offerts à Paul Bénichou (Geneva, 1982), pp. 153-86.
78. See Sanjay Sircar, 'The Victorian Auntly Narrative Voice and Mrs. Molesworth's Cuckoo Clock', Children's Literature, 1989, vol. 17, pp. 1-24, for the continuation of this traditional tone.
79. 'Les anciennes Fées … ne passent plus que pour des badines auprès de vous. Leurs occupations étoient basses et puériles … et les effets les plus considérables de leur Art se terminaient à faire pleurer des perles et des diamants, moucher des émeraudes et cracher des rubis. Leur divertissement étoit de danser au clair de la lune, de se transformer en Vieilles, en Chats, en Singes, et en Moynes-bourus, pour faire peur aux enfans et aux esprits foibles. C'est pourquoy tout ce qui nous reste aujourd'huy de leurs Faits et Gestes ne sont que des Contes de Ma Mère L'Oye. Elles étoient presque toujours vieilles, laides, mal vêtues et mal logées; et hors Mélusine et quelque demy douzaine de ses semblables, tout le reste n'étoient que des gueuses …': Mme de Murat, Histoires Sublimes et allégoriques (Paris, 1699), preface.
Wilson Currin Snipes (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: Snipes, Wilson Currin. "Five Ways and One of Looking at Mother Goose." Children's Literature 2 (1973): 93-104.
[In the following essay, Snipes utilizes the Mother Goose nursery rhyme canon to demonstrate in practical terms five different methodologies for analyzing the literary works of certain authors.]
In the following remarks I propose to discuss briefly five ways of approaching the literary work of a single author. Each approach, to simplify the difference among the approaches, is governed by a central question:
(1) The Biographical Approach: what kind of person was or is the artist?
(2) The Socio-cultural Approach: what are the characteristics of the age?
(3) The Humanistic Approach: what are the ethical qualities of the literary work?
(4) The Formalist Approach: what is the character of the work of art itself?
(5) The Psychological-Psychoanalytic Approach: what is the psychic life of the artist?
Obviously these questions are oversimplifications of the critical views represented, but they are indicative of the critical approaches of many contemporary, practicing critics. They are stances people adopt when they read literature seriously as literature. Now let's take a look at the five in theory and in application to Mother Goose.
I. The Biographical Approach
Many of us studied literature through what is commonly described as the biographical approach. E. M. W. Tillyard in "The Personal Heresy" states this position: "I believe we read Keats in some measure because his poetry gives a version of a remarkable personality of which another version is his life." I recall seeing a biography of Picasso that illustrates Tillyard's remarks: on the top of each page one could see the art work Picasso produced at a particular time; on the bottom of each page in prose was a description of what Picasso was doing in his daily life besides painting: his friends, mistresses, social and political life. The primary characteristic of this approach is that we study the work of art in the context of the artist's development. Hence, we study Emerson's "Compensation" essay in terms of Emerson's development. We are interested in the man Emerson in relation to the art of a man named Emerson.
The biographical critic would ask: What kind of person was Mrs. Goose, the author of the "Mother Goose Rhymes"? Of course we should be better able to answer this question had Mrs. Goose left an autobiography, a diary, a few letters, or had her friends left Memoirs of Mother Goose, or Mother Goose's Trip to Banbury Cross, but even without these the biographical critic reads Mrs. Goose's poems biographically. Thus the biographical critic can say that Mrs. Goose was a village busy-body, one who knew many intimate details of the life of her community (based on Mrs. Goose's detailed knowledge of Jack Horner, Mrs. McShuttle, Doctor Foster, Jack and Mrs. Sprat, Old Mother Hubbard, and Simple Simon). She liked children: witness her acquaintance with Lucy Lockett, Kitty Fisher, Miss Muffett, Georgie Porgie, Mary, Bo-Peep, Little Boy Blue, and others. She had a special interest in animals—kittens, mice, donkeys, rats, sheep, black hens, dogs, robin redbreasts. She followed some questionable eating habits "pease porridge nine days old"; she had a strong aversion to stealing—remember the Knave of Hearts who "after being beaten full sore, vowed he'd steal no more." Some biographical critics argue she had strong moral qualities. She would not lend Dapple-Gray again to a woman who whipped him, slashed him, and rode him through the mire. She objected to those who washed clothes on Saturday—"Oh, they are sluts indeed." In "Hush-A-Bye" Mrs. Goose said, "Hush-a-bye, baby, daddy is near; mamma is a lady, and that's very clear." Other critics have argued that Mrs. Goose was highly immoral. Remember "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children she didn't know what to do." Certainly Mrs. Goose loved the seasons of the year. In "The Year" she speaks of April as a time that "brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet." Or "Fresh October brings the pheasant, then to gather nuts is pleasant." Or, to show Mrs. Goose's lightness, she described the seasons as follows:
Spring is showery, flowery, bowery;
Summer: hoppy, croppy, poppy;
Autumn: wheezy, sneezy, freezy;
Winter: slippy, drippy, nippy.
Mrs. Goose emphasized the importance of motherhood through such poems as "Rock-A-Bye, Baby"; "Sleep, Baby, Sleep"; "Diddle, Diddle, Dumpling"; "Dance, Little Baby"; "Clap Handies"; and "Pat-A-Cake! Pat-A-Cake!"
Based on such deductions from the corpus of Mrs. Goose's works the biographical critics would probably divide into three groups in their evaluations and interpretations of Mrs. Goose's character: in the first group a C. Frederick Postlethwaite said, "Mrs. Goose had an imagination that belongs to all ages." A rural physician, a kindly one, who lived between Claypool Hill and Taswell, Virginia, said, "Anyone who sees a cow jumping over a moon or a dish running away with a spoon is in immediate need of psychiatric help." A third group of critics, represented by a well known member of Alcoholics Anonymous, said, "A member of our organization would have talked with Mrs. Goose at any time she wished." Hence the biographical critics may have concluded that Mrs. Goose was highly-imaginative, mentally ill, or a confirmed alcoholic.
II. The Socio-Cultural Approach
David Daiches in "Fiction and Civilization" represents those who insist on approaching the work of art through its socio-cultural milieu; Daiches states, We affirm dogmatically that that critical approach is more useful which involves relating the art of fiction at any given time to the civilization of which it is a part, and endeavoring to see all other questions of form, technique, style, subject matter against the background of this relationship." To illustrate, Shakespeare's Hamlet must be considered as work of art against a late sixteenth and early seventeenth century background. Fundamental to the socio-cultural approach is this question: what is the character of the civilization of which Mrs. Goose is a part?
The socio-cultural critic of Mother Goose would be particularly interested in the background of Mrs. Goose's rhymes. What are some of the specific characteristics of Mrs. Goose's civilization? In "Old Mother Hubbard" we learn that there were bakers to bake bread, joiners to build coffins, fishmongers to catch fish, fruiterers to sell fruit, tailors to make clothes, barbers to make wigs, taverners to sell white and red wine, cobblers to mend shoes. These descriptions would suggest that Mrs. Goose lived in a world of guilds; her friends and acquaintances were craftsmen. Next, notice the richness of rural imagery in Mrs. Goose's poems. Think only of "Little Boy Blue"—poems filled with sheep, cows, corn, hay-cocks, mowing, candlesticks, farmers, ravens, mares, rams, market days, and such. A third characteristic of Mrs. Goose's world involves a monarch: "Old King Cole"; "a princess who has lost her shoe"; "a little girl who has been gathering roses to give to the queen"; "an old woman who fell asleep on the king's highway"; "a pussycat who has been to London to look at the queen"; a past that involves the "Good King Arthur" and "Hector Protector being sent to the queen."
Mrs. Goose lived in a religious age: "Little Fred always said his prayers when he went to bed." In "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John" we hear Mrs. Goose saying "Bless the bed that I lie on! Four corners to my bed, Four angels overhead." In "Christmas" the wish that "God bless you"; in "A Week of Birthdays" the conclusion "But the child that's born on the Sabbath day is blithe and bonny, and good and gay." Perhaps the best overview of the religious customs of Mrs. Goose's time is provided by "The Death and Burial of Poor Cock Robin." You will recall that the fish, birds, animals and insects participated in this death and burial. Remember "Who killed Cock Robin?" "I," said the sparrow, "With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin." A sequence followed involving the murder, a witness the fly, a fish who caught the blood, a beetle who made his shroud, a lark who served as the clerk, an owl who would dig his grave, a rook who would be the parson, a thrush who would sing a psalm, a dove who would be the chief mourner, a bull who would toll the bell.
Many other comments may be made about the civilization to which Mrs. Goose belonged: Her people were seafaring people ("Dance to your Daddie," "I Saw a Ship," "Bobby Shaftoe"); folklore of her day included "Robin Hood," "Pancake Day," and "when good King Arthur lived"; her world included superstitions involving sneezing, three straws, "A Sun-shiny Shower," "Pins," "Dreams"—remember in "Jack and Jill" after Jack fell down and broke his crown, he went to bed and plastered his head with "vinegar and brown paper." And then there is:
The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day,
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be.
Mrs. Goose's world involved thieves, huntsmen who hunted both with bows and arrows and with guns and bullets (obviously a transitional period), and a domestic life that centered around the fireplace, drinking, porridge, broth, curds and whey, the dairy, hoeing and mowing, reeling and spinning and singing.
It should be clear that the socio-cultural critic would pursue these many suggestions found in Mrs. Goose's poems—or rural imagery, monarchy, dress, foodstuffs, romantic notions, superstitions. And based on his examinations of these in Mother Goose's world he would see the poems in the socio-cultural context.
III. The Humanist Approach
The humanist critic asks: what are the ethical qualities to be found in Mrs. Goose's work? Douglas Bush describes his personal faith in an essay entitled "The Humanist Critic": "I believe (1) that criticism should use all helpful means and methods for the study of literature; (2) that historical knowledge and aesthetic analysis need to work together, and preferably in the same mind, not in different minds; (3) that … the scholar or critic cannot be content with the elucidation of works of art, central as that function is; (4) that he has the further and traditional function of actively conserving the ethical and cultural inheritance that we are in danger of losing altogether; (5) and that he has a social or … a missionary obligation to labor to convert the heathen. (6) If my position is naive, reactionary, and unrealistic, I can only say that I would rather go to hell with a Christian Platonist than to heaven with a naturalistic positivist."
Mrs. Goose made clear the importance of moral responsibilities: Little Boy should be tending his sheep; Tom the Piper's Son was beaten for stealing a pig; Taffy who stole a piece of beef was beaten on the head; and, Little Johnny Green who put pussy in the well was considered a naughty boy (Little Johnny Stout who got pussy out of the well should have been given a good licking for going into the well). In "The Clock" Mrs. Goose summarizes her concept of moral responsibility:
There's a neat little clock—
In the schoolroom it stands—
And it points to the time
With its two little hands.
And may we, like the clock,
Keep a face clean and bright,
With hands ever ready
To do what is right.
Mrs. Goose was a philosophical woman. Remember her "Birds of a Feather flock together," or her "Little girl with a curl right in the middle of her forehead," who was either good or horrid.
Typically Mrs. Goose believed strongly in the importance of marriage. According to Mrs. Goose the progress of true love is as follows:
One, he loves; two, he loves;
Three, he loves, they say;
Four, he loves with all his heart;
Five, he casts away.
Six, he loves; seven, she loves;
Eight, they both love.
Nine, he comes; ten, he tarries;
Eleven, he courts; twelve, he marries.
There are no alternatives.
Mrs. Goose had the realistic streak of a charter member of the American Chamber of Commerce. Remember in "Simple Simon":
Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair,
Says Simple Simon to the pieman, "Let me taste your ware."
Says the pieman to Simple Simon, "Show me first your penny."
Says Simple Simon to the pieman, "Indeed, I have not any."
Would someone care to guess whether or not Simple Simon was given a taste of pie?
Mrs. Goose believed in a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. Remember "Seesaw, Margery Daw": "Jackey shall have but a penny a day because he can't work any faster." Remember Mrs. Goose's famous axiom: "For early to bed and early to rise is a way to be healthy, wealthy and wise."
The humanistic critic would say that Mrs. Goose was a common sense philosopher, one who emphasized moral responsibility, one who recognized the social and ethical significance of man, one who held a realistic view toward the problems of daily life.
IV. The Formalist Approach
The new critic asks: what is the character of the work of art itself? This position was stated by Cleanth Brooks in "The Formalist Critic." He affirms (1) that literary criticism is a description and an evaluation of its object; (2) that the primary concern of criticism is with the problem of unity—the kind of whole which the literary work forms or fails to form, and the relation of the various parts to each other in building up this whole; (3) that the formal relations in a work of literature may include, but certainly exceed, those of logic; (4) that in a successful work, form and content cannot be separated; (5) that form is meaning; (6) that literature is ultimately metaphorical and symbolic; (7) that the general and the universal are not seized upon by abstraction, but got at through the concrete and the particular; (8) that literature is not a surrogate for religion; (9) that, as Allen Tate says, 'specific moral problems' are the subject matter of literature, but that the purpose of literature is not to point a moral; (10) that the principles of criticism define the area relevant to literary criticism; they do not constitute a method for carrying out the criticism. What would the new critic say of Mrs. Goose's works?
Among other things he would say her works are playful ("Dance, Thumbkin, Dance"), musical ("The Cat and the Fiddle"), imaginative ("I Had a Little Nut Tree"), humorous ("Where Are You Going, My Pretty Maid?"), imagistic ("Pease Porridge hot"), symbolic ("I had a little husband"), paradoxical ("Henry was a worthy king"). Perhaps the best way to show the new critic's position is to suggest some of these characteristics in Humpty Dumpty:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the King's horses and all the King's men
Cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again.
To begin with, what is a Humpty Dumpty? A swift glance at the Oxford English Dictionary will reveal that "humpty-dumpty" has a number of lexical meanings.
(1) Around 1698 "humpty-dumpty" referred to a kind of liquor. That doesn't fit the rhyme.
(2) Around 1700 "humpty-dumpty" meant "a drink made with ale boiled with brandy." Although the idea of the drink sitting on the wall is far removed, the idea of the drink as a symbol of the drinker is not too wild.
(3) A "humpty-dumpty" may refer to a "short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person," or "a short, clumsy sort of person." This is possible.
(4) Or a game called "humpty-dumpty."
(5) Or someone who is "short and fat."
(6) Or it may be "applied to a mechanical rhythm."
Traditionally, Humpty Dumpty is associated with an egg. As a playful piece, eggs don't sit on walls. As an imaginative thing, eggs can sit on walls, but eggs that do, fall off walls. Hence, practically, eggs should not sit on walls. Secondly, an egg is what a goose lays. Could it be that Humpty Dumpty belonged to Mrs. Goose? Hence, this poem is autobiographical. Or eggs are symbols of fertility and life. Remember "Humpty had a great fall"; so too did Adam. Is this poem a study of original sin? Finally, Humpty Dumpty may refer to the fact of being born. Each of these views the new critic would carefully examine, not neglecting to point out that the spondee at the end of line two emphasizes the abrupt end of the fall.
V. The Psychological and Psychoanalytical Approach
The psychological-psychoanalytic critic often begins with his theory and applies it to a given work of art, a character in a work, a phrase; then, if he is ambitious, he goes behind the work of art and comments on the psychic life of the artist. Herbert Read in "Psychoanalysis and Criticism" explains the position of this group of critics: "Psychoanalysis finds in art," he writes, "a system of symbols, representing a hidden reality, and by analysis it can testify to the purposive genuineness of the symbols; it can also testify to the faithfulness, the richness, and the range of the mind behind the symbol."
Such an analysis as we have begun of Humpty Dumpty may be applied to Mother Goose's works in order that we may discover the hidden life behind the art, behind the symbols of her poems.
One of the most interesting poems suited to the psychoanalytic critic's approach is the familiar "One, two, buckle my shoe…." In this poem we see the values parents teach girls as they grow. Remember, "Three, four, shut the door; / Five, six, pick up sticks…. / Thirteen, fourteen, maids a-courting; / Fifteen, sixteen, maids a-kissing; / Seventeen, eighteen, maids a-waiting"; / And "Nineteen, twenty" gives the editors of the nursery rhymes problems in the text I have used; the line reads "Nineteen, twenty, my stomach's empty." In context, in the series in-volving courting-kissing-waiting, obviously this last line does not refer to the stomach being empty. In The Tall Book of Mother Goose the sequence doesn't make sense: 13, 14, maids are courting; 15, 16, maids in the kitchen; 17, 18, maids are waiting; and 19, 20, my platter's empty. I am prone to think the editor has taken privileges with Mrs. Goose's verses. It may be that the House Un-American Activities Committee will investigate both sides of the matter; or the Illinois American Legion will attack Mrs. Goose for indecency; or the American Civil Liberties Union will defend Mrs. Goose against the American Legion attack.
What might the Freudian critic do with the "Humpty-Dumpty" poem? What kind of "hidden reality" in Mrs. Goose's life do we find waiting for us in the poem? Can we invoke such a logic as the following: geese lay eggs; a goose will lay a goose egg; Mother Goose lays goose eggs; Humpty-Dumpty is a goose egg, one of Mother Goose's goose eggs, in fact, one of her goslings. Now the question occurs, why would Mrs. Goose want "All the King's horses and all the King's men" to put Humpty back "together again"? Could it be that Mrs. Goose did not want to have Humpty? An indiscretion, perhaps? The fund of possibilities to the psychological-psycholanalytic critic are limitless.
Remember, too, that our consideration of Mrs. Goose has been somewhat limited, for we have not at all considered Mr. Gander:
Old Mother Goose, when
She wanted to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.
Marina Warner (essay date spring 1990)
SOURCE: Warner, Marina. "Mother Goose Tales: Female Fiction, Female Fact?" Folklore 101, no. 1 (spring 1990): 3-25.
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Betty Carter (essay date November-December 1996)
SOURCE: Carter, Betty. "A Second Look: The Inner City Mother Goose." Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 6 (November-December 1996): 707-12.
[In the following essay, Carter provides a critical reading of Eve Merriam's The Inner City Mother Goose, concluding that, despite its nursery rhyme format, Merriam's text is obviously intended for an adult audience.]
Jack's back. And once again he's jumped straight from the nursery into the streets:
Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Snap the blade
And give it a flick
Grab the purse
It's easily done
Then just for kicks
Just for fun
Plunge the knife
And run …
This menacing character debuted in 1969 in Eve Merriam's The Inner City Mother Goose (Simon), a stark social commentary delivered through the childlike cadences of traditional nursery rhymes. In sixty-five ditties chronicling injustice, despair, and poverty, Jack joined other familiar folk, such as Simple Simon and Jeremiah Obadiah, to reveal the dark side of the Great Society.
Here, social servants answer to their own masters: "I love the local pusher / Who's part of my beat, / Whenever I see him / I cross the street. / I do not see a thing, / And I wish him good day; / Who can make ends meet / On just a cop's pay?" Similarly, businessmen look out for number one. Taffy, for centuries remembered as a Welsh thief, is reincarnated as a store owner who overcharges "for a tough piece of beef." And there's the taxi driver who won't let a frantic mother fly away home because "even in an emergency / Cabs don't go to Harlem."
Victims also found their voices: "Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the double lock will keep; / May no brick through the window break / And no one rob me till I wake." And Mary's urban garden sports not a single cocklebell nor pretty maiden, but is rather a sidewalk with "chewing gum wads / And cigarette butts / And popsicle sticks / And potato chip bags / And candy wrappers / And beer cans / And broken bottles / And crusts of pizza / And coffee grounds / And burnt-out light bulbs / And a garbage strike all in a row."
Originally issued as an adult work, The Inner City Mother Goose earned the distinction of being the most banned book in America. Some citizens wanted to keep the nation's dirty little secrets symbolically locked behind the White House gates of the frontispiece illustration; others used a single epithet, citing the line that contained, in Merriam's words, "an extremely vulgar, if commonly used, thirteen-letter word," as reason for censure; while still others misunderstood the author's intent, purpose, and audience. Despite such challenges, the book sold over 100,000 copies before going out of print in the 1970s. Since then it's languished like a social artifact on library shelves, frequently being dismissed as an in-your-face protest from a bygone era.
But Merriam never abandoned it. In 1982 she appended a preface, removed eleven dated poems, added seventeen more contemporary ones, and self-published a revised, limited edition. It is these contents that Simon & Schuster has this year reissued in a sleek, handsome volume introduced by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by David Diaz, and aimed at young adults. It's worth another look both for what it is and what it is not. The poems are not retro rhymes for babies but instead accessible and powerful parodies intended for their older siblings.
Mother Goose rhymes began life as aural mnemonics chronicling the incidents and interactions of an adult population. They carry, as a narrative byproduct, a social history of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Merriam admits that this element drew her to the traditional verses when she wanted to make a statement about the social and political issues of her day. But her poems do more than simply telegraph a message. They frequently encapsulate one moment, or one incident, so telling of the human condition that it startles the reader with its clarity and precision. Consider "Wisdom": "A wise old judge sat in a court, / The case was long, his judgment short. / Why change the way it's always been? / The john goes free, but she's brought in."
A few rhymes, such as "Rub-a-Dub-Dub" and "Dump It, Dump It," appear forced, but the majority effortlessly adopt the practiced meter of oft-repeated verse, as, for example, this ditty about an individual plugged in to his Walkman: "With tapes for / His headset / And skates on / His toes, / Music takes over / Wherever he goes." But Merriam borrows more than simple cadence from Mother Goose. The voice most often heard in the traditional rhymes is that of a solid peasant, sometimes anxious, sometimes querulous, but most frequently pragmatic, an unbiased observer of the immediate surroundings. Neither emotional nor judgmental, the inner city's descriptive narrators perfectly imitate this detached bystander. "Fee, fi, fo, fum, / I smell the blood of violence to come; / I smell the smoke that hangs in the air / Of buildings burning everywhere; / Even the rats abandon the city: / The situation is being studied / By a crisis committee."
Both the triumph and the tragedy of the collection lie in its power to evoke contemporary images of violence, distrust, and racism for a new generation of readers. The majority of signature references to the sixties have been eliminated, while the 1982 poems addressing the Reagan years mark unrealized social progress and remain as poignant today as they were fourteen years ago. As surely as the black-and-white checkered border of The Real Mother Goose promises a pastoral view of Western Europe, The Inner City Mother Goose provides the same kind of social history for modern America.
Graphic differences mark the 1969 and 1996 volumes. As stylized as bell-bottoms or Nehru jackets, the book's original design of black-and-white photographs, collages, and varying typefaces pound the reader with a visual volley that overpowers and over-explains the individual poems. Facing pages juxtapose "Sing a Song of Subways" with a photo of a fancy Rolls Royce to underscore the point that the privileged and poor use two different methods of transportation. The poem "Numbers," set within a Dow Jones report, parallels the ghetto's game with Wall Street's, while the studio photograph of a baby doll caught in a mousetrap illustrating "You'll Find Mice" nags at the reader with a heavy-handed insistence that leaves little room for individual response. The 1996 edition avoids these pitfalls. With only ten color illustrations and a clean, unadorned font, this volume allows the poems to speak for themselves. They do so loudly.
Although there's been a recent spate of Mother Goose collections designed to foist environmental (Jaha and Jamil Went Down the Hill: An African Mother Goose [Charlesbridge]), religious (The Christian Mother Goose [World Bible]), nonviolent (Positively Mother Goose [H. J. Kramer]), and gender neutral (Father Gander Nursery Rhymes [Advocacy]) messages on unsuspecting toddlers, The Inner City Mother Goose is not one of them. The difference between the two kinds of collections illustrate that which separates propaganda from literature. In the former, the authors know precisely how their readers should think and act, and simply pen morality tales to reiterate these conclusions. Father Gander's flap copy supports this view: "It is time to take the delights of the old Mother Goose and apply them to the ideals we all want our children to have—equality, love, responsibility, an appreciation of life and all living things, good nutrition and conservation of resources." Similarly, The Christian Mother Goose outlines its agenda, stating that the book "has been sincerely and lovingly written and illustrated so that the endearing 'Mother Goose' may also teach little ones the love of God, without which no child is complete." Such moralizing readmits children to the Little Female Academy and hands them Father Gander's lines for a primer: "Both Spratts, I'm sure of that, / Much better off would be, / To leave the fat upon the plate, / And be cholesterol free."
It's not the message but the messenger that causes problems in such works. By attempting to bypass the centuries of aural filters that polish nursery rhymes, Father Gander and Christian Mother bury the age-old playful observations under a mound of good intentions. Far from forcing Mother Goose to eat crow, these insipid verses pale next to the indelible rhythms of traditional folklore.
How does Eve Merriam differ? She looks at the world around her and shares those observations. Yes, Merriam chooses the images she wants to portray, and through this selectivity develops her message. But she shows what she sees without telling readers how to act. There are no answers here, no directions for living. As she states in the introduction, the verses are not intended to "eliminate any of the dismaying conditions" but rather to point them out.
Make no mistake. This book is not for young children. Merriam reserves her messages for those ready to receive them. Today's young adults cut their literary teeth on fractured fairy tales such as Fiona French's Snow White in New York (Oxford) and Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (Viking). Just as the nonsense of Mother Goose once introduced them to the sounds and structure of language, French's and Scieszka's clever stories provide an elementary background for Merriam's more scholarly satire.
But there's more than attention to audience that elevates these rhymes. The social interactions among peasants, simple merchants, and farmers and among lords, ladies, and royalty characterize many a traditional Mother Goose ditty. Here we find Hector Protector, banished simply because neither the queen nor king like him, and a young stablehand overwhelmed when a heartless lady mercilessly whips Dapple-Gray. Their contemporary Inner City counterparts are equally helpless in the face of social inequality: "Lady's baby out / With my mommy all day / While I stay in / By myself and play."
In the 1996 edition of The Inner City Mother Goose, David Diaz's illustrations focus on individuals rather than setting, underscoring the iconographic power of Mother Goose. Traditional collections, for example, frequently include a weary shepherd crying "Young Lambs to Sell." The rhyme points less to the commercial value of wool than to the broker, with his repetitive task of hawking the same product, day in, day out. Diaz retains this focus by depicting a bored prostitute whose exaggerated and stylized pose carries her through the motions of peddling "young flesh to sell." Similarly, the illustration for Jeremiah Obadiah centers on the tragic youth smoking, "puff, puff, puff," rather than on the schoolyard where it's "tough, tough, tough." And, in one of the strongest rhymes of the collection, "Who Killed Nobody?" Diaz evokes the primitive comfort a policeman finds by stroking his piece while declaring, "With my off-duty gun, / I killed no one."
Perhaps three hundred years from now, Merriam's characters and setting will be as archaic as the pieman and village well are today. But that's for none of us to know and later generations to find out. For now, let young adults read her rhymes, discover her images, and grapple with her themes.
Keith Polette (essay date December 1996–January 1997)
SOURCE: Polette, Keith. "Poetry, Pastiche, and Purpose: Making Meaning by Merging Mastertexts and Mother Goose." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 40, no. 4 (December 1996–January 1997): 286-94.
[In the following essay, Polette utilizes Mother Goose nursery rhymes to demonstrate how students can expand their knowledge of literary formulation by experimenting with "pastiche"—"a textual parody or a literary imitation." Polette offers several examples of original pastiches created by blending elements from Mother Goose with qualities from noted novels, plays, and motion pictures.]
Customarily we concur that pastiche is a musical term, one that denotes a medley of tunes or an assembly of often disparate strains into a single, coherent composition. In language and literature, however, a pastiche can signify either a textual parody or a literary imitation. As such, a pastiche does not restrict itself to one form or style; rather, it can reflect any type of work and may be, for instance, a humorous, linguistic caricature of a particular text or a serious mimesis of the style, technique, and subject matter of a specific writer (Holman Harmon, 1992).
Examples of the pastiche (see list for sources) include Amy Lowell's A Critical Fable, which adopts the matter and meter of (her ancestor) James Russell Lowell's A Fable for Critics; Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead," which often carries the same tone and concern of (again, his ancestor) James Russell Lowell's "Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration"; John Berryman's Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, which frequently succeeds in capturing the diction and tone of Anne Bradstreet's "Contemplations"; Richard Wilbur's poem "Junk," in which the opening lines echo the initial section of Robert Frost's "The Axe Helve"; Eugene O'Neill's Mourning becomes Electra, which parallels the physical and thematic structure of Aeschylus' Oresteia; Akira Kurosawa's 1957 film Throne of Blood, which transplants William Shakespeare's Macbeth into the Samurai soil of 16th-century Japan; the 1961 movie The Magnificent Seven, which faithfully transposes another Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai made in 1954, into the idiom of the American Western; and even Tales of Mystery and Imagination, a 1976 Polygram rock album by The Alan Parsons Project that offers musical versions of stories by Edgar Allan Poe.
By using the pastiche as the basis for a writing workshop with secondary students, we can afford them opportunities to explore and enter a rich tradition of imaginative invention and literary formulation—one about which they may know little, or even nothing at all.
The pastiche-as-product workshop places students in the difficult, but advantageous, position where they can discover a variety of ways to make meaning. The goal of the workshop is for students to probe, consider, select, and blend the works of various master writers and Mother Goose rhymes. Moreover, because students must construct meaning on the piles of their previous knowledge and prior experiences (M. Early & B. Ericson in Nelms, 1988, pp. 31-44), the pastiche workshop relies on their memories, recollections, fantasies, and images of Mother Goose. By inviting students to consciously reexperience these seemingly simple poems, we can help them tap into a potent source of creative energy.
As students revisit their memories of and fantasies about these rhymes, and as they compare their past Mother Goose experiences with present ones, they may reawaken their capacity for linguistic and imaginative play which, as Singer and Singer (1990) tell us, "is a necessary element in creativity and the development of a capacity for fantasy and mind magic (p. 1). Although this capacity for play, for creativity, and for the beholding of wonder may often be unconscious in many adolescents, it is not dead. Again Singer and Singer state: "As skill in internal speech and thought develop, make-believe play may become an ongoing fantasy activity, but the urge to play in this way may persist into adolescence, and indeed, where social circumstances permit, even surface in adult life" (p. 32).
Through this "urge to play," students will learn to make meaning through their dynamic and personal engagements with ideas, images, intuitions, and texts—both old and new—that capture and fire not only their discerning intellects, but also (and more importantly) their generative imaginations. These engagements, however, must take the form of discoveries, because they cannot be dictated or programmed; that is, the inherent idiosyncratic nature of the imagination does not readily align itself with a linear, pedagogical approach. In discussing the fundamental importance of "discovery" in learning, Bruner (1979) states:
Emphasis on discovery in learning has precisely the effect on the learner of leading him [or her] to be a constructionist, to organize what he [or she] is encountering in a manner not only designed to discover regularity and relatedness, but also to avoid the kind of information drift that fails to keep account of the uses to which information might have been put. Emphasis on discovery, indeed, helps the child to learn the varieties of problem solving, of transforming information for better use, helps him [or her] to learn how to go about the very task of learning.
If students are to "discover" ways of designing their own pastiches, they must actively reconnoiter, engage, and respond to mastertexts. As they do, students will forge their own links in the reading-writing connection and come to see, as Stewig suggests (1980), "that reading and writing are closely linked, that reading literature and writing it are interrelated processes" (pp. 11-12). These connections are essential for the continued growth and development of the students' evolving literacy and their expanding facility with language, thought, and expression. Furthermore, as students create pastiches, they will discover that they must "solve the problems" of style and structure, must "transform information" from one form to another (from written texts to ones that they fashion), and must "learn how to learn" by seeing how poems function and how ideas are transmitted in a variety of texts, contexts, and configurations.
Undergirding and informing the pastiche workshop, then, is the notion that any encounter with a literary text—and in this case, poetry—should be holistic and aesthetic, and not simply reductive or narrowly analytical. The pastiche workshop does not require students to know of poetry by forcing them either to listen to or arrive at an abstract exegesis of a poem. Rather, the workshop invites students to learn to know poetry through poetry—through vigorous and multiple poetic confrontations with, and imaginative distillations of, poems. When students grapple with poems poetically, when they respond to poems aesthetically, and when they fabricate pastiches that are grounded in (and also leap away from) the poems they are caricaturing or imitating, they will discover that poems cannot exist apart from their own minds and experiences as readers. Underscoring this notion, Paz (1973) writes
The poem is just this: a possibility, something that is only animated by the contact with a reader or a listener. There is only one note common to all poems, without which it would never be poetry: participation…. The poem is a work that is always unfinished, always ready to be completed and lived by a new reader.
As students participate in the first stage of pastiche process—reading and thinking about mastertexts—they will discover and add new layers of meaning to a poem's indeterminate and malleable imaginative zones. Thus, the organizing principle of this workshop is based on the sense that "meaning is not located in the text, but in the reader" (R. E. Probst in Nelms, 1988, p. 24)—and here we extend the idea and image of reader to that of reader-writer.
The process of pastiche production that I have used successfully with secondary students is outlined as follows. The students (a) read a variety of mastertexts without initially concerning themselves with what these poems "mean"; (b) keep a journal in which they jot down reactions and responses to the poems they have read; (c) read Mother Goose rhymes and make note of those that continue to circulate in their minds and memories well after they have finished reading; (d) read a number of pastiches and the originals from which they were drawn in order to see the relationships between them; (e) individually or in cooperative-learning groups, explore the structure (rhyme, meter, line and stanza arrangement), theme, imagery, figurative language, and motifs in a mastertext and in a Mother Goose rhyme; (f) rewrite the Mother Goose rhyme as a pastiche by adopting the form and style of a mastertext they have scrutinized; and (g) share their pastiches.
The purpose of this process is for students to plunge directly into texts so that they can discover meaning in immediate and dynamic ways. And because the outcome of their meaning-making forays will be the pastiche, students must investigate how poems are constructed, not as an end in itself, but as a step towards their own poetic formulations. If, for example, students are to imitate or caricature William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow," they must see how it is assembled: it offers a general statement of value, "so much depends / upon," and then a specific image that is expressed in clear line breaks that accent the adjective-noun combinations: "a red wheelbarrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens" (see Sources, The American Tradition in Literature, pp. 1171-1172). In this way, students can then write their own poems that capture Williams's thematic and stylistic qualities. By engaging in the 7-step process, students can enter the realm where the intellect fires the imagination and the imagination, in turn, stimulates the intellect. In other words, as students allow their minds to dance between analysis (understanding both a mastertext and a Mother Goose rhyme) and synthesis (the creation of the pastiche), they will enter an area of free play where content and context shift and interpenetrate in the forging of new and unplanned-for meanings.
Here are two pastiches that I wrote and then shared with my students. I had three reasons for doing this: First, to understand the concerns that my students would have with their attempts to create a pastiche, I knew I had to create one too; second, I knew I could not teach something effectively if I had not done it myself; and third, I wanted to offer my pastiches as models. My pastiches are both grounded in "Little Miss Muffet." The first merges it with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" and the second blends it with the overall style of Emily Dickinson.
"The Spider" by Edgar "Orkin" Poe
Once upon a tuffet weary sat I feeling wan and weary
Over a boring bowl of curds and whey.
While I gobbled, nearly slurping, suddenly there came a burping
From the creature who haunted me night and day.
"'Tis the Spider belching by the door," I muttered, "only this and nothing more."
Ah, distinctly I recall, it was with premeditated gall
That the Spider began to crawl, and scampered towards me from the door.
Eagerly I wished him vanquished—vainly I swatted and missed!—
And took flight as he scurried laughingly across the floor.
I searched for RAID, and nothing more.
[Editor's note for overseas readers: RAID is an insecticide; Orkin is a U.S. pest control company.]
Emily Dickinson's "Little Miss Muffet"
Arrayed in dinner dress,
Afloat in streams of lace—
The Little Girl—the younger lass—
Sups on curds and whey.
Above her dangles Spider—
The artless artist, humorless,
Swinging in arachnid arcs.
Down he drops in loping loops—
He aims for her—contritionless—
The Prospect in Tiffany—
Innocent and tuffetted—unknowingly
Awaits the eight-legged Tyranny!
At first a tap, almost a tender touch—
Until she pivots round,
And inspects the insect's presence—
The jaws, the legs, the rapacious gape—
Alas—the terror's found!
She flies—clothed in starkest Madness—
Her exit, a hollow howl!—
And he, bold Fellow—
Munches, uninterrupted, delighted—
'Til there's Zero in the Bowl!
Writing a pastiche will certainly stimulate students to wrestle with the formal aspects of poetry. It will also engage them in what I have come to call "creative acts of subversion." Because many secondary students seek to define themselves against their image of adults, school, and organized systems of thought, the pastiche workshop actually taps into and enlists this energy. For example, before I began using the pastiche (and other such divergent approaches to teaching poetry), I was usually greeted with groans, moans, and upturned eyes when I mentioned to my classes that we were going to read poems. When I asked my students to explain their reactions, they generally said things like "Poetry is boring," "Nobody talks like those poems," or "We just don't get it."
It has been my experience that these comments are not uncommon among secondary students. Moreover, I have found that these comments reflect less the desire to learn on the part of students and more the disastrous nature of their encounters with poems. As readers of poems, many of my students felt inept, befuddled, and illiterate. They knew that they had neither the experience nor the background knowledge to perform the kind of New Critical "close readings" that usually had been required of them in past English classes. Many of my students had come to the conclusion that reading poems was a game they could not win because they could not come up with the right answer to the inevitable question: What does this poem mean? Because they did not know (and often did not care) what the poem in question meant, they had come to believe that they could never master poetic texts—at least in a formalist way—and consequently had adopted the attitude of Why bother? We can't get this stuff anyway."
Motivation and Meaning
To help my students move beyond this painfully negative reaction, I knew I had to offer them genuine ways both to enjoy and make sense of poetry. Like all of us, students value only those things that are personally meaningful, things with which they are actively and willingly engaged. If students are to find value and meaning in the writings of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, or T. S. Eliot, for instance, they must see "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain," "I Hear America Singing," and "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" as texts that are both approachable and relevant, and not as linguistic sacred cows in whose presence they must silently bow and scrape. (See Sources, The Poems of Emily Dickinson and The United States in Literature.)
To show my students that poetry can indeed be meaningful and reader friendly, I changed the way they expected me to teach it. Rather than donning the robe of the high priest of literature who solemnly and all-knowingly delivered a sacrosanct, poetic text to them, which I then expertly explicated for their edification (an image that many of my students initially had of me as an English teacher), I altered the rules and invited students to play with poems.
Such invitation to play is not an attempt either to water down or trivialize literature; rather, it is quite the opposite. Because enjoyment and lasting learning are two sides of the same coin, students must be given the opportunity to enjoy reading poems in ways that are unique and meaningful to them. Most of my students were struggling to find their own voices, and more often than not the voice that granted them some freedom was the one that satirized those things that adults take seriously.
The poetry of canonical writers is one such item. Because many students perceive poetry as being important to English teachers but not to themselves, they have no difficulty generating the energy necessary to satirize it. And I have learned that if the energy's there, it is best to rechannel it into a constructive and enjoyable learning activity.
When approaching a poem that will serve as fodder for a pastiche production, I first read it aloud two or three times and then ask the following questions: (a) What words or images struck you? (b) What did you connect with? (c) What did you not connect with? (d) What pictures did you produce in your mind as I read the poem? (e) What does this poem seem to be doing?
My goal here is not to push students to the point where they must tell me what they think the poem means. Instead, I simply want them to react and respond. For example, after reading and discussing Whitman's "I Hear America Singing," my class of juniors and I came to the following conclusions: (a) the poem offers a clear catalogue of songs and singers of songs that seem to be examples of the idea that "life is a chorus"; (b) the poem contains free verse and long, free-wheeling sentences; (c) the poem contains specific, concrete images of people working and singing; (d) the poem has alliteration and onomatopoeia; (e) the poem has many noun-participle combinations; and (f) the poem does not contain strong meter, rhyme, similes, or metaphors.
By seeing through the surface content into the structural design of Whitman's poem, my students found that they were in a position to replace what they had originally perceived to be the poem's "seriousness" or "stuffiness" with a fierce silliness and a genuine playfulness. In this way, they came to see that the poem was not a foreign and inaccessible piece of language, but the meaningful expression of a lived, imaginative experience.
A Class Pastiche
I then suggested that we write a class pastiche that blended "I Hear America Singing" with a variety of Mother Goose rhymes. To accomplish this, I distributed about 20 Mother Goose rhymes, arranged the class into pairs, and asked them to follow these directions:
Write a few lines that unite the style of Whitman and the content of various Mother Goose rhymes (each line should be a part of a catalogue of Mother Goose characters and the sounds they make).
- Use free verse (long, freewheeling sentences).
- Create specific images in each line.
- Use alliteration and/or onomatopoeia.
- Use noun-participle combinations.
- Do not use strong meter or rhyme.
- Avoid similes and metaphors.
As my students worked, I circulated among them and assisted them in their writing. For example, I helped some students sharpen their language. Because I wanted to help my students realize that they had the option of deleting flat words and adding more vigorous ones, I encouraged them to focus on their verbs and to replace them with ones that were more dynamic. After discussing the language they had used in one of their lines and then reviewing their choices for replacement, for instance, one pair of students changed their original line, "Humpty Dumpty yelling as he fell off the wall," to "Humpty Dumpty howling in his fall, then going splat and silent."
Additionally, I was able to help students create images that were more focused than the ones they had originally produced. For example, after one pair wrote: "Little Jack Horner asking for a pie to eat," I suggested that the picture in the line could be more specific. I then asked them to think of a camera lens zooming in on Little Jack Horner with his pie and to describe exactly what they saw lack doing and saying. After reflection and discussion, they arrived at the following: "Little Jack Horner shouting 'Ah hah!' as he pulled his plum-thumb from his warm pie."
By acting as encourager and editor, I was able to help my students discover options and strategies for making their lines more precise, more energetic, and more like Whitman's in structure and style. Here, then, is the class poem we created:
"We Hear the World of Mother Goose Squawking"
We hear the world of Mother Goose squawking, the various honks and hollers we hear,
Those of Mother Goose, honking her tunes as she flies through her rhymes,
Old Mother Hubbard yelling at her barking, boneless dog,
The Crooked Old Man crying crooked tears at the corner of his crooked house,
Jack and Jill laughing down the hill, Jack groaning after he smacked his head,
Lean Jack Sprat spitting some fat at his plump, platter-licking wife across the table,
Humpty Dumpty howling in his fall, then going splat and silent,
Little Miss Muffet screaming her scream after the spider hissed down beside her,
Little lack Horner shouting "Ah hah!" as he pulled his plum-thumb from his warm pie,
Schitzo-Mary being quite contrary, reporting that pretty maids grow in her garden.
Each of these squawking what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The goose what belongs to the goose and the gander to the gander,
Squawking with wide open mouths their happy and horrible honks and hollers.
As readers-writers, my students began adding strategies and techniques—specifically, critical thinking and new linguistic constructions—to their storehouse of rhetorical skills and options. Also, as they read and thought in order to write lines for the pastiche, they discovered new ways of approaching and apprehending Whitman and Mother Goose. The upshot of this lesson in writing a class pastiche was that my students reported to me that they had discovered Whitman's poem was not as difficult to understand as they had first imagined.
Poetry and Real Life
Students who produce pastiches will thus learn that reading and writing are really only elaborate games, and that the reception and creation of texts is governed by game-driven rules. Elbow (1981) says, "What you need for writing poems are some interesting games to play, that is, some interesting rules to obey" (p. 102). The trick, then, is to understand the rules well enough to know which ones to follow, change, break, or throw away.
By following some rules and altering, breaking, or jettisoning others, students can learn to strengthen their own aesthetic response to poems. When they read and write in order to discern, differentiate, and create, students will be well on their way to seeing that poetic language is vital and that it can indeed play a significant and immediate role in their lives.
For example, the following work by one of my former high school students mirrors the rhetorical strategy of Linda Loman's pre-elegiac defense of Willy in Act One of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. As the student read and reread Linda's account, she discovered that Linda's arguments to her sons included the following
- An accurate account of the specific reasons why Willy is not famous;
- The specific reason why he has "fallen";
- His minor accomplishments;
- A plea for attention;
- Specific facts and images;
- Clear, direct and fairly short sentences;
- Light use of similes and metaphors.
The student then wrote an elegy about Humpty Dumpty by incorporating these strategies. As she worked, I was able to offer suggestions that helped her keep her language specific and clear. For instance, she had originally written: "Humpty Dumpty was not the most famous egg," and I suggested that she think of stringing together three or four statements to explain why he was not famous. As we talked, we rehearsed various ideas, but none of them seemed satisfactory. The next day, however, she showed me her revision: "Humpty Dumpty was not made of great yolk. His name was never on a egg carton. He was not the toughest shell that was ever laid."
Additionally, I encouraged her to stick as closely as possible to Miller's text and to "borrow" (as T. S. Eliot tells us to do) some of his words and phrases. The following are some of the lines she lifted from Miller and seamlessly fitted into her pastiche: "I don't say he's a great…." "But he's an…." "Attention must be … paid…." "You called him…. "But you don't have to be very smart to know what his trouble is …" (see Sources, Death of a Salesman, p. 56). These lines served as rhetorical anchors because they furnished the student writer with a tone and style that she could adopt and use as the scaffold in the following pastiche:
Arthur Miller: Death of an Egg, Act 1:
(The King is defending Humpty Dumpty to all of his horses and all of his men.)
I don't say he's a great egg. Humpty Dumpty was not made of great yolk. His name was never on a egg carton. He was not the toughest shell that was ever laid. But he's an Egg and a terrible thing has happened to him. So attention must be paid. Do you hear my darlings? Attention must be paid!
You called him unbalanced. A lot of people say he's lost his balance. But you don't have to be very smart to know what his trouble is: his yolk settled, bottomed out, and threw him off center. What do you expect? He sat on that wall for years and years. He furnished a rounder kind of shade in this oven of a sun for who knows how long. He let the neighborhood kids decorate him every Easter without a single complaint. And now, now, after the fall…. He must not to be allowed to sit there in a busted heap of goo.
Oh, he was something to be proud of. Think of the quiet lives he touched, the hens he influenced, the eggs he inspired. And you, disaster-mongers, would have him over-easy, scrambled, fried. You would add dough and roll him into a crepe bigger than a parking lot. But for how long? How long? Look at him! See for yourselves. His yolk hasn't even stopped running! That egg never sat on that wall but for your benefit. And what I want to know is this: what, what, does he get for that?
Now, pass the spatula.
After she had written this pastiche, the author commented to me:
You know, as I was writing this, it finally hit me and I realized that Linda really loved her husband, but that she was caught in a weird mix of emotions: love, fear, sadness, and loneliness. And she was saying all these things to her sons as a way to try and make sense of what she was feeling. mean, my heart really went out to her.
When students arrive at this kind of genuine, empathetic understanding, I know that they have made a deep and personal connection with a work of literature—a connection that goes far beyond a one-sided exegesis.
How the Workshop Works
The pastiche workshop is open ended enough to allow for a variety of responses and poetic constructions. As such, the pastiche may spring from a specific mastertext, as the Poe, Whitman, and Miller ones do, or it may imitate the style of a particular author and draw upon a number of different poems, as the Dickinson one does. Moreover, the students will also discover that there is no one "right" way to write a pastiche, and that each pastiche can be—in fact, must be—different, and yet still be "correct." What makes a pastiche correct is both the precise and imaginative manner in which its form and content echo its sources as well as the students ability to identify and articulate those echoes and connections.
The pastiche workshop is also effective because it allows students to reenter the land of childhood—of "make-believe" as Robert Frost termed it in "Directive" (see Sources, The Poetry of Robert Frost, p. 378)—as they investigate a variety of Mother Goose rhymes. This reentry is of particular importance, not only because it pitches students backwards into their "actual" childhoods, but also because it furnishes them with vectors and access points so that they may enter into what psychologist Hillman (1983) calls the "imaginal realm": the psychic domain where nonliteral play, image, and metaphor predominate and manifest themselves as a sensibility that seeks purposeful expression. By becoming aware of, and then employing, this "imaginal" sensibility, students will be in a stronger position to call upon the synthesizing energies of the generative imagination that constructs meaning by reconciling opposites: fact and affect, sense and nonsense, analysis and synthesis, and the seen and the unlooked-for. In other words, by challenging students with what may seem to be the "incongruous" assignment of blending the opposites of a Mother Goose rhyme and a mastertext, we are creating a situation that stimulates their desire to explore, to become curious, and ultimately, to move towards "a holistic response" to that which they have read and written (Singer & Singer, p. 27).
Furthermore, the workshop may also stimulate students to become curious about the origins and histories of Mother Goose rhymes and to explore those origins in a highly focused "information safari." In their probings, students may then discover, for instance, that the person known as "Mother Goose" may actually have been Charles Perrault; that "Little Miss Muffet" was written in the 16th century by entomologist Thomas Mufet, for his daughter's delight; and that "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was penned by Sarah Josepha Hale of Boston in 1830 and records an actual incident (Panati, 1987).
The pastiche may also serve as a vehicle for helping students respond to other situations and texts as well. Here are two examples written by high school sophomores. The first blends William Carlos Williams's "This Is Just to Say" (see Sources, The Ameri-can Tradition in Literature) and the classic 1933 movie King Kong in order to reenvision and depict a personal situation. The second adopts Edgar Lee Masters's tone, style, and approach in Spoon River Anthology in order to (re)imagine and investigate the mind and experience of Curley's wife in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men:
"This Is Just to Grunt"
If I were King Kong
were Fay Wray
I couldn't be sorrier
for the dumb-ape-way
I acted Yesterday.
I'm not King Kong,
am I …?
I was a girl when I met Curley. To flee
my mother, I married him.
We lived on a ranch, in a big white house:
me, Curley, and his father.
I fled into a trap.
I was made for better things.
To be an actress was what I craved
But I settled for bearing the burden of boredom
instead of being buoyed by bright lights.
Curley choked the joy out of my life
and his jealousy whipped-away all my would-be friends.
One day in the barn, with my puppies—
my only friends—I met the big guy,
the dumb one, the hand-crusher,
and I let him touch my hair.
He pawed my head
and his hand got locked in my locks.
I struggled. I panicked. I screamed.
He snapped me
into eternal silence with his throttling grip.
And I ended my days in that hay-filled stage
like a play half-performed.
As I look back now, I know he meant no harm.
He only liked the softness of my soft, soft hair.
I wish we could have been friends….
Sometimes, as I drift through this new part I'm playing,
I wish I could go back,
just to see how it might have been—had I lived….
At its deepest level, the pastiche workshop will bring into relief the sense that language is potent and fluxional, that linguistic meaning results from the fusing of sense and sensibility, and that our understandings of self and other (and idea and text) do not spring from cognition alone, but from the wedding of intellect and imagination.
Additionally, the workshop creates avenues for learning through the production of memory spots: those moments in life that William Wordsworth called "spots of time" because they are charged with sufficient energy to secure an everlasting place in memory. As students realize that they can successfully tackle a mastertext by trusting their own responses and that they can produce an effective pastiche by working and reworking an imaginative, linguistic product, they may never forget such an experience, one that for many of my students has become an educational highpoint.
If we agree with Elbow who says that most people "feel poetic" (1981, p. 101), then we will see that the pastiche workshop provides an appropriate setting and scaffolding for students to transpose this poetic feeling into form. By reading to write and writing to read, students may then come away from the workshop with a new vision of both how their thinking and imagining creates their realities and how reading and writing stimulate their reality-producing thoughts and imaginations.
Bruner, J. (1979). On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Elbow, P. (1981). Writing with Power. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Hillman, J. (1983). Archetypal Psychology. Dallas, TX: Spring.
Holman, C. H., & Harmon, W. (1992). A Handbook to Literature (6th ed.). New York: Macmillan.
Nelms, B. (Ed.). (1988). Literature in the Classroom: Readers, Texts, and Contexts. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Panati, C. (1987). Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper & Row.
Paz, O. (1973). The Bow and the Lyre: The Poem, the Poetic Revelation, Poetry and History (R. L. C. Simms, Trans.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Singer, D. G., & Singer, J. L. (1990). The House of Make-Believe: Children's Play and the Developing Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stewig, J. W. (1980). Read to Write. New York: Richard C. Owen.
Sources for Pastiche Examples
An Anthology of Greek Drama II. C. A. Robinson, Jr. (Ed.). 1967. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
The American Tradition in Literature. G. Perkins, S. Bradley, R. C. Beatty, & E. H. Long (Eds.). 1990. New York: McGraw-Hill.
The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell. A. Lowell. 1955. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare. H. Craig & D. Bevington (Eds.). 1973. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
Death of a Salesman. A. Miller. 1967. (G. Weales, Ed.). New York: Viking.
The Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. J. Berryman. 1956. London: Faber & Faber.
New and Collected Poems. R. Wilbur. 1975. New York: Harcourt Brace.
The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Vols. 1 & 2). N. Baym, R. Gottesman, L. B. Holland, D. Kalstone, F. Murphy, H. Parker, W. H. Pritchard, & P. B. Wallace (Eds.). 1989. New York: W. W. Norton.
Of Mice and Men. J. Steinbeck. 1970. New York: The Heritage Press.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson. T. H. Johnson (Ed.). 1983. Cambridge, MA. The Bellknap Press of Harvard University.
The Poetry of Robert Frost. E. Connery Lathem (Ed.). 1969. New York: Holt.
Spoon River Anthology. E. L. Masters. 1961. New York: Macmillan.
Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose. T. dePaola. 1985. New York: G. P. Putnam.
Three Plays of Eugene O'Neill. E. O'Neill. 1958. New York: Vintage.
The United States in Literature. J. E. Miller, Jr., C. Cárdenas de Dwyer, & K. M. Wood (Eds.). 1985. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
Jacqueline Berben-Masi (essay date summer 1999)
SOURCE: Berben-Masi, Jacqueline. "Mother Goose and Brother Loon: The Fairy-Tale-in-the-Tale as Vehicle of Displacement." Callaloo 22, no. 3 (summer 1999): 594-602.
[In the following essay, Berben-Masi examines the canon of John Wideman and his use of the Mother Goose nursery rhyme format to convey the African American experience from a personal perspective.]
Mobility as the essence of the American experience has been a staple in historical theory since Frederick Jackson Turner. It finds expression in a spectrum ranging from the concrete to the abstract, from the road and the train to the reinterpretation of simple forms in art, music, film, and literature. From the commercial to the cultural realm, life and literature both are in a state of "perpetual transfusion" of ideas and influences that continuously alter the patterns of perceiving knowledge and events. As the civilization moves, its language and culture move alongside it. Thus, human displacement is reflected back in the spiraling chain of meanings read into the signs and symbols encountered from the mundane level to the ethereal. Yet the past is not entirely abandoned. The image that best captures the notion is the palimpsest, originally a parchment overwritten with layers of text covering an imperfectly removed earlier script. Gérard Genette has appropriated the term as sovereign to the vast territory of intertextuality that he explores in Western literature. His discoveries nourish my methodology as I examine how John Wideman transposes and transforms the fragments of his experience, lived and learned, reinvesting the whole into a coherent literary universe.
Wideman's entire opus is a palimpsest: thematically, the past lives on in the present; structurally, time sequences can defy chronological order; linguistically, different levels of language rival for dominance; vocalization shifts without warning, as does the enunciator; stylistically, intertextual references embed the writing in multiple cultural and literary traditions. Among these latter, the fairy tale, in its broad sense of folk myth, offers the author ideal material for grounding his fictional and non-fictional works alike, providing the reader ample opportunity to measure the gap between the orthodox version and the eccentric, between the experience of standard American society and that of its black component. By framing the reality of the African-American condition in the Mother Goose tradition, Wideman casts a long, discomforting shadow over mainstream values and expectations. Indeed, for protest literature, Mother Goose lays the proverbial golden egg. Firstly, as a popular form, its roots are hundreds, even thousands of years old while it has undergone continuous adaptation to the tastes and values of innumerable "contemporary" societies. Secondly, these stories brim over with deceptively innocent optimism, a psychoanalyst's wonderland. Thirdly, they harbor an element of cruelty and danger. My study here will briefly review Wideman's works from the perspective of his handling of borrowings from and references to folklore that falls within the general category of fairy tale or Mother Goose stories.
Beginning with the three novels that constitute Wideman's first creative cycle, I will show how his artistry evolved through the Homewood period, and into his recent writings. Finally, I will home in on these latest works through a close reading of the short story, "Loonman." As Wideman's style has matured, his handling of fairy tale elements has gone from figurative to abstract. Whereas his early fiction reveals fidelity to the source, his more recent work features subversion of familiar plots and characters, complemented by an ever-present threat of disintegration.
The novels of the first cycle suggest the author was trapped in a Pandora's Box syndrome, having raised the lid of his imagination and let all but hope escape. The standard American-dream solutions proposed by establishment society in A Glance Away and Hurry Home, when applied to non-standard figures, prove inoperative. Wideman exposes the underlying threat, lets it loom and ultimately explode, dashing dreams and compromising survival. His third novel The Lynchers proposes a more drastic formula but to no avail: for a Black man to try and invert an established design, undo a white man's conjure with white methods, was doomed to self-destruction. Pessimism in the novel was echoed by its counterpart in life, the subsequent eight-year silence of the author. On the creative level, Wideman had "painted himself into a corner" by negating any prospect for escape into new patterns. Finding an antidote to this paralysis was achieved by a pilgrimage back to the family sources where he reclaimed the inheritance of his youth in oral story telling. While literary critics were deconstructing the entire body of literature, Wideman as author was perfecting the process of "re-membering" fragments of myriad stories. Subsequently, he applied regulation academic techniques and Black cultural instruments to his family saga, interfacing it with universal forms, including the fairy tale or folk tale.
It was an inspired choice for a writer whose political commitment was and remains inseparable from his art. Indeed, in this genre, as Bruno Bettleheim, in the wake of other critics, has illustrated in The Psychoanalysis of the Fairy Tale, displaced conflict is the common denominator in both Oriental and Occidental tales, from the Thousand and One Nights to Mother Goose. The earliest versions of these stories manifest the oedipal nature of children's fantasies, on the one hand, and the rivalry among the components of the psyche, the Ego, the Id, and the Superego, on the other. Contrary to contemporary demands made upon children's entertainment today, the tension built up in the fairy tale is not always ultimately resolved either in the acceptance of the proper familial role or in the successful integration of the personality. The satisfaction derived from the story may differ according to the age and condition of the reader/listener. Moreover, having evolved from centuries of oral tradition, the form offers a viable opening for fresh motivation and a new departure, precisely the uses to which Wideman puts it. I offer the present paper as an exercise in testing the validity of a thesis I began defending a decade ago, namely that with artistic maturity, Wideman would deconstruct and ever more subtly reassemble the building blocks of world culture.
Rapidly reviewing the forerunners to the period that I want to scrutinize, I would like to skim over the author's use of intertextuality in his early stories and novels. Not surprisingly, he begins with the least sophisticated of the five phases of transtextual relationship retraced by Gérard Genette in a progressive process toward the abstract, the implicit, and the global (8). To wit, there is a co-presence between one or several texts. Effectively, quotations from literary giants like T. S. Eliot and Paul Verlaine dominate these sequences; refrains from popular music weave in and out; more germane to the question at hand, snatches of children's story, song, and rhyme punctuate longer sequences. Although by no means "tacked on," these citations feel rather mechanical as devices go. At times, they seem more like footnotes, a scholarly reflection on the internal battles devouring the characters, or an essayist's obsession for noting distinguished precedents. Where used most effectively, they are shifters. In A Glance Away, for example, three separate narratives told in stream-of-consciousness mode overlap and intertwine, playing memories of the past against the present condition and the prognosis for a future. The novel's prologue offers Wide-man an opportunity to evoke the past through the cultural baggage common to his characters and readers alike. At a poignant moment, he emblazons his text with the first and last lines of the nursery rhyme, "Tom, Tom the piper's son," substituting "Gene, Gene," the name of the beloved grandfather who had just died (5). While the choice may initially appear incongruous, the element of surprise helps set off in brackets, as it were, a eulogy worthy of Eliot's Sweeney poems. Moreover, Tom-Gene, the misfortunate thief, introduces the "ba-ad man" motif, doing justice to the grandfather's street reputation. Lastly, Wideman echoes Beatrix Potter's version of Tom's misadventure, one that offers the final line, "Over the hills and far away!" In the context, it neatly wraps up the sequence, reiterating the notion of distance put between the living and the dead.
Still, both the nursery rhyme and the Eliot-inspired passage are merely juxtaposed: they are associated, but are not amalgamated with one another. In the same prologue, Wideman turns to the folksong, "Froggy-went-a-courtin" to frame verbal snapshots of the grandchildren bouncing on the old man's knee (6, 7, 13). "Froggy," thereafter, evokes comforting memories of good times shared with a stabilizing male role model. Later in the novel, the hand-clapping game "Paddy Cake, Paddy Cake" [sic] trips another memory and heralds the transition from childhood-to-adulthood relationships spanning the stages of hand-jive, gender initiation, and emerging sexuality (180). The changing perspective on "buns" that follows puberty evokes the schoolboy humor Wideman revels in when waxing nostalgic. Here there is more of an attempt to internalize the borrowed material, but its implementation nonetheless maintains an extraneous quality. It is referential rather than structural, decorative rather than substantive. It grounds the stories in a period, serves as shifter or tag, draws a simple parallel, or exploits play on sounds and rhythms.
The next stage, allusion, was reached by Wideman during his Homewood Trilogy period. Here, he begins to tamper with major features of the traditional fairy tale, giving the whole a unique cant that assimilates the original into his prose. The established piece seems to stand guarantor for the new, supporting the authenticity of the hauntingly bleak picture of the African-American condition in white society that Wideman paints. One such effective episode in Homewood is that of Samantha, the beautiful, tall, prolific, black Earth Mother of Sent for You Yesterday. "Crazy Sam," a female neo-Noah, builder of an ark that she stocks with her own brood, aspires to save the Black race from the destruction of World War II that rages without. Like the Biblical patriarch, Sam feels called to issue in a new beginning when the earth will be purged of all its (white) corruption. No direct reference to Noah is made, however. Allusion as technique of transreferentiality continues in Sam's story. Ultimately defeated, the inconsolable mother suffers doubly from the loss of her albino son Junebug and the betrayal of her other children, guilty of fratricide. Wideman bonds fragments of dream and reality to the tale we instinctively recognize as Rapunzel, rife with points of similarity: long, "good" hair, symbolizing fertility and power; a beautiful princess guarded by jealous keepers; a towering phallic image for a prison. With a wink toward his former mentor, Wide-man's prince is a sailor, another discrete literary allusion. This is The Waste Land. The horror of Sam's lost dreams is ritualized by the recurring nightmare of this twice twisted tale. As heroine, she lets down her single golden braid for her lover to climb the tower, only to watch flames singe her tresses and transform them into "black, nappy wool plaited into a hundred pigtails," the kind that make little black girls feel ugly, inferior, and helpless (128-30). Together with the emblematic loss of fertility and power, Sam's narrative attests to the futility of Black America's struggle for a decent life. There is an echo of the impossibility of attaining the imperialistic standards of Aryan beauty that American mainstream culture has set for all, regardless of race. Perhaps, too, the image of this "towering inferno" of destruction is meant to recall the tarot card reading done by Madame Sosostris for the Phoenician Sailor, even if he should fear death by water, rather than fire. In résumé, what we see is one allusion becoming embedded in another and tailored to fit the sequence, enhance the detail, and play a riff on it, enriching the story. Classic tale and Wideman's re-embroidered tapestry become a working whole, a literary symbiosis in which each original unit will carry the marks of the graft, but bear unique fruit. A "paratext" has emerged, one that depends upon the reader's perceiving the implicit relationship between a work and its precursors. As Michael Riffaterre points out, this is what makes literature literary.
In his post-Homewood pieces, Wideman has stretched the possibilities of his borrowings further, attaining the level of a "metatext" in Genette's terms (10). No longer a mere memory fetish nor a photographic negative, Mother Goose material offers the writer an opportunity to tie its homely moral values directly to hypocritical, corrupt, capitalistic white society. Now, sounding the refrains of classic children's literature in an adult context enables the writer to replace the nostalgic links to childhood with sad adult wisdom about human nature, a critical commentary upon the text without directly naming it. Thus in the documentary Fatheralong (1994), the writer's personal, ambivalent response to a nude dance show leads first to a psychoanalysis of his own inconsistent attitudes toward race, then to the question of sex and color in America in general. Like a cinematographic parable, a self-playing scenario emerges:
A group of men, white men, bobbed along in a lifeboat stranded in the middle of the ocean. They are caricatures, really. Hogsleek, middle-aged, sunburned CEO types. The hospital gowns they wore could have been togas or expensive business suits and sometimes were. They crowded each other in the tiny rubber raft, yet the raft had once contained tons of booty from a sinking ship they'd destroyed, pillaged, and deserted. To survive in the lifeboat, the men had been forced to jettison their misbegotten hoard. They were arguing now about what should go next. The choice was either tossing out their women and children or giving up the illusion they were still in control…. They voted and decided the illusion of being in charge worth whatever it cost. Women and children overboard.
Plop. Plop. Plop….
Rub-a-dub-dub. Image of sad, drowning white men in an empty tub. Each one wearing his captain's hat.
Notice only the last lines point to the Mother Goose text, which, as cloture to the allegory, suggests that finding a solution to the problem posed is at once child's play and a Sisyphean task. Sexism and racism are the children of the economic powers that be, monopolized by rich white men whose greed has led them to foul and destroy their own nests. They may have regrets, but no scruples. "Plop. Plop. Plop," the onomatopoeia evoking the jettisoned human cargo lures us into a more scatological reading, surely intentional here and perfectly in keeping with 18th-century Mother Goose. Might Wideman have had in mind an alternate version of the familiar nursery rhyme, one that goes
Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.
According to the editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, the three tradesmen had "apparently … been found in a place where no respectable townsfolk should be, watching a dubious sideshow at the local fair" (Baring-Gould 106). Precisely where the writer has ensconced his persona, mulling over the wisdom of sharing this experience with his father by introducing him into the predominantly white milieu of the Mardi Gras bar. The title Fatheralong, a take-off on the hymn that resonates in the minds of his characters, "Farther along," here seeks the filial bonds in a macho ritual that cynically plays upon the promise of hope to which the ancestors had clung. Father and son not gone to a spiritual heaven and its sacred pleasures, but to a worldly one, more like a den of iniquity whose main attraction consists in crossing over into formerly alien territory and sampling forbidden fruits. The guilt elicited is ambivalent, half Puritan, half sado-masochistic. "Wrestling with the naked blond" in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was a potent allegory for capitalistic racism, a dementia Ellison truculently reserved for the white spectators delighted in denying economic and social advancement to the "colored boys." Do I err in perceiving here an implicit reference both to the archetypal passage from classic African-American literature and to its nameless protagonist?
Having introduced the invisibility motif, I would like to exploit it as transition to a recent story at Genette's fourth level of transtextuality (11-12). Here reigns de-motivation, a change in the motif that prepares the way for re-motivation, yielding a transmotivation from a hypotext or theoretical original to a hypertext, its "remake" (383). Wideman thus pens an ecological fairy tale wherein ethnic protest joins forces with environmental concerns. "Loon Man," from the collection All Stories Are True is set in the northern woods, the promised land for the runaway slave fleeing the peculiar Southern institution. Alas, the North, too, has its institutions. Traditional Black double-talk prepares a literary technique of duality. Thus, a binary reality structures the sequences and vehicles the basic theme of a struggle between rivaling personalities, identities, and interpretations. "Now you see me, now you don't!" or invisibility on command, the refrain fits the modulations in narrative voice that have become Wideman's trademark. Constantly struggling to locate the point of enunciation, the reader grapples with competing truths, just as does the main character Foster, the schizophrenic narrator through whom the tale is focused. Foster is apparently the archetypal "dummy" or slightly retarded adult, like Clement in Hiding Place. His superego dictates the words and ideas he reiterates. His having internalized the lessons inculcated at the country home allows him to live a marginal existence as a black mental outpatient working and living much like a plantation "house nigger" for a white farm owner. Witness the advice he reviews on how the new man taken on should get along:
We're a family. Very lucky to be here. Fortunate there are people like this generous lady who will accept us into their homes, treat us like family members. That's it. That's why you must be grateful and show respect at all times. Obey. Do exactly as you're told. A privilege to be welcomed into someone's house….
You are lucky to be part of a family, I wanted to tell him. The living and the dead. You must learn to be a ghost and one day if you master the se-crets, the patience and skills of a ghost, after you've learned to hold your breath, stifle your noises, wipe every trace of yourself so there is no animal trail of you on pieces of furniture, walls, counters, no hairs, no rings in the sink, no footprints in the soil, none of your blood on the roots, no fingerprints because you've remembered the handyman gloves every time, when you hear speak nor see any evil and can dangle for hours on end motionless, invisible from the monkey tail of your unraveled brain, then perhaps she'll touch your forehead with her sword and you'll be free.
The frames of reference run the gamut from paternalism to fairy tale, from hoodoo to mythology, from magic to Medieval romance. The principles and language he mouths are displaced from white mouths as part of Foster who has become brainwashed into portraying himself fortunate, part of the family, a post-Emancipation Uncle Tom who draws solace and security from reading his own story into "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Gone is the blond, naked or otherwise, and idem Papa Bear. The ruling matriarch is Mama Bear, and Foster is either a new or a surrogate Baby Bear, a replacement part to fit into the mechanical gloves intended to chain him to the role until a more enticing substitute appears.
As for the feminine element, whether a figment of Foster's imagination or narrative reality, the role analysis remains constant. Like the cruel step-mothers in Snow White and Cinderella, during the working day the boss lady assumes the "bad-mother" figure; at night, however, she changes first into the caring, "good-mother" figure of Mama Bear. Even as the metamorphosis continues on one plane, the malevolent spirit retains overall control. After manifesting her power to mutate into a little mouse who erotically nibbles at Foster's body until he becomes sexually aroused, she reverts to her polar bear form: dominant, white, and inured to the cold. No chance that she will be gobbled up in her vulnerable state, as happens to some powerful animals in the Uncle Remus tales when they are goaded into changing form.
Foster, as scared rabbit, highlights the trickster facet: feigning sleep until there is no turning back, he savors the pleasures incumbent upon Papa Bear. Paradoxically, though we are assured Papa Bear and the other Baby Bears all sleep permanently, great care is exercised to save appearances. Phantasm or fact, seduction or sex abuse, Uncle Remus or Father Divine, the passage invites speculation. It is tempting to assume that the underlying Oedipus prophecy of the fairy tale is fulfilled with the white woman consecrating Foster's black manhood. The secrecy of the act, however, suggests instead that he is forever condemned to his puerile status. The "man boy person whatever" has made little gain in the battle for equality in the white man's world. Just as Goldilocks must fail in her attempt to slip into the parental roles while trespassing at the bears' house, Foster ultimately must accept his own arrested development and incapacity to assume a significant role in the microcosm of the house. His sense of self-preservation results in the emergence of the Loon Man, part vigilante, part revenging angel, part man, part fish or fowl, demanding a reckoning from an egotistical and domineering society. African religious beliefs resurface in the union between the Black man and nature, joined in a common cause: their mutual survival in a hostile environment is aggravated by capitalistic ignorance. Loon Man, the monster, the ogre who feeds on the love/hate schism in parental love redresses the balance by leading the children into the reeds of the lake wherein nest the loons. Pied Piper? Child-devouring beast? Folklore supplies multiple sources for this purveyor of poetic justice.
On the psychoanalytic level, Foster's exclusion from meaningful membership in the adult world is exacerbated by the challenge to his monopoly on the Baby Bear role. First there are Silas and Walter who, despite their muteness and transient standing, are regarded by Foster as perturbing elements, upsetting the harmony of the house on the days they are present: "Sundays … used to be the best day of the week. A long silence their silence didn't disturb" (57). Second, there appears another Intruder, the one Foster dubs "Loonman" because he tells the Loon Man stories. The virtual identity of names reveals an obsessive pairing as every character in this short story has his or her counterpart: Walter and Silas, Silas and Walter, the new man and Foster, represent sibling rivalries; Foster and the Grinning Groom hitching post reflect each other's blackness; Foster and the Crooked-Man-who-walked-a-crooked mile are interchangeable as handymen. The meticulous side of his abnormal psyche obliges Foster to eliminate intruders that came before him as well as after. "Goldilocks" in the fairy tale incarnates the child's feared rival, a sibling, disrupting the established familial order. Foster's alter egos excite his jealousy, but only one of these can free him from himself.
In sum, all these twinnings underline the schizophrenic aspect of the filtering persona. Foster and the Loon Man, the bear and the mouse, the bear and the rabbit, imply a Freudian duality between Superego and Ego, Ego and Id. There is a rapprochement to be made with the African-American double-vision that W. E. B. DuBois described and which still accurately portrays the cultural fracture of modern America. Perhaps it will ultimately spawn monsters to prey upon our ill-loved children, a critique of the social order and its inherent discomfort before the growing phenomenon of the homeless. Deprived of any permanent point of reference, Foster has nowhere else to go—unless, as Loonman surmises, he and the Loon Man can sneak back into the "loony bin" to rest up for a while. Limbo, as it were, nonetheless raises the subliminal theme of the perpetually frustrated quest for a hearth. In Foster's eyes, the one they find matches the description of the mistress of the house herself: "Three heads stacked one on the other. The first a face so mean you quickly look away, look up and find the other two—helmet, crown" (53). Is this simply another schizophrenic vision? Or is this an allusion to the woman with the ice-cream cone in Hurry Home, the Statue of Liberty that towers in Wideman's imagination?
Whichever, this is the garden, if no longer the forest primeval, choked by deeply entrenched roots struggling for life. By jumping back and forth from one sense of the word root to another, Foster engages in childlike wordplay, but with mature intent. The roots in the garden, the root of the brain, the root of the phallus, the empty tunnels from which the roots were extracted, the black holes for the fingers in the handyman gloves all assimilate the man to the plants in the garden, those roots he must pull out, driven by instinct rather than sense. The ghost of Booker T. Washington, another maker of fairy tales to bewitch black folk, visits the struggling man, keeping Foster in his place as the handyman vainly "tr[ies] to raise [him]self by these ropy bootstrap roots" (51). Foster's coaxing the protesting roots from the soil in the daytime endangers his own link with the earth that nourishes his roots, his race, his reason. In addition, there is no protection to be gained from wearing the imposed gloves that he sees as his predecessor's lost appendages (51), "Hard skin of a pair of hands run over years ago by a bus, mashed and scorched and tanned till they're tough as leather." The gloves are a costume, like the livery of the hitching post figure. They are bonds, tying the man to his fate, not the beneficial agency cut-off hands connote in voodoo magic (Hyatt 545).
At nighttime, the root-pulling roles of handyman and boss lady are inverted. Then she tries to eradicate him, to castrate him, to eliminate him for eternity with her "curved needle of a finger stabbing" at him (56). The root recalls the brain of a dead Egyptian unraveled with a hooked needle, leaving the skull intact, but hollow like Foster himself. "Not very bright," "a man boy person" (50). Foster's own brain becomes the rope from which his body dangles, a metaphoric effigy of a lynch victim. The night, however, empowers the black protagonist, even if we can only speculate on the rootwork or conjuring that Foster/Loon Man engages in when the dark (or is it the bright) side of the character comes out and plays the avenger for the loons, be they birds or persons. Ultimately, Loon Man will achieve the supreme aim of mankind as formulated by the Greek philosophers: freeing himself from his bonds.
In brief, Wideman has produced an ecological fairy tale of universal impact by embedding characters and motifs taken from multicultural origins and operating upon them a Genettian transvalorization, defined as a double movement of devalorization and counter valorization (418). Structurally, the author dismembers the body of his borrowings in a stylistic reenactment of the African-American tragedy. There is a decomposition of the art form itself, and a diverting of its attributes, techniques, artistic effects, motifs, and themes to new uses. He displaces the violence and horror of his universe into the fairy tale realm, itself riven with violence, yet where, mysteriously, we accept it, perhaps because, as adults, we can now read its more profound lessons. Fairy tale, in conclusion, offers Wideman an ideal forum to expose ugly truths by planting the seed of morality in a marvelous story whose lesson will blossom and bear fruit when its season comes. Nature will be the ultimate victor and with it the Natural Man who understands its sweep and synchronizes his life with its cycles. Is that not the didactic function fairy tale has been assuming for centuries?
Baring-Gould, William S. and Ceil. The Annotated Mother Goose, Nursery Rhymes Old and New Arranged and Explained. New York: Bramhall House, 1972.
Bettelheim, Bruno. Psychanalyse des contes de fées, traduit de l'américain par Théo Carlier. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 1976.
Genette, Gérard. Palimpsestes, La littérature au second dégré. Paris: Seuil, collection Poétique, 1982.
Hyatt, Harry Middleton. Hoodoo—Conjuration—Witchcraft—Rootwork. Washington, DC: American University Bookshop, 1970.
Wideman, John Edgar. All Stories Are True. New York: Vintage-Random, 1992.
―――――――. Fatheralong. New York: Pantheon-Random, 1994.
―――――――. A Glance Away. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1967; reprint, New Jersey: The Chatham Bookseller, 1975.
―――――――. Hiding Place. New York: Avon Books, 1981.
―――――――. Hurry Home. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1970.
―――――――. The Lynchers. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1973.
―――――――. Reuben. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1987.
―――――――. Sent for You Yesterday. New York: Avon Books, 1983.
Sharon Korbeck (review date May 1996)
SOURCE: Korbeck, Sharon. Review of The Inner City Mother Goose, by Eve Merriam, illustrated by David Diaz. School Library Journal 42, no. 5 (May 1996): 142.
Gr. 7 Up—Once upon a time—in 1969—the prolific, insightful Merriam penned these prophetically painful words. Fortunately for readers, they are still available. Unhappily ever after, however, they still ring disarmingly true. Originally written as a form of social and political commentary, the book was reprinted in 1982 and greeted with much controversy. The words are hard, honest, and, at times, harsh. The poetry is given fresh and updated verve with bold, multicultural illustrations by Diaz and an introduction by Nikki Giovanni. The Inner City Mother Goose travels to the place many fear to tread—and records the anger, agony, and angst present in everyday life. Unemployment, housing woes, drugs, violence, corruption, and neglect are presented in solid, rhythmic lines like "Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the double lock will keep," and "There was a crooked man, / And he did very well." If Merriam thought her lines were appropriate in 1969, she would be saddened to know of their expanded meaning today. Giovanni's introduction leaves readers with perhaps the best reason to read and reread these lines—"Sticks and stones are easily forgotten; it is the words that stay with us."
Barbara Kiefer (review date November-December 1996)
SOURCE: Kiefer, Barbara. Review of My Very First Mother Goose, edited by Iona Opie, illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 6 (November-December 1996): 752.
What can be said about yet another Mother Goose book? Quite a lot in this case. The book is not a definitive Mother Goose, with familiar rhymes such as Old Mother Hubbard missing and less familiar ones included, and there are no footnotes or sources. But as a first Mother Goose, the book does its job superbly. Sixty-eight rhymes have been selected with parents, babies, and toddlers firmly in mind. The book is oversized yet perfect for lap holding, and the rhymes are attractively placed on each page and nicely placed throughout the book so as not to overwhelm parents and babies with too many images and too much black type. Central to the success of the book are Rosemary Wells's illustrations. The orange-gold cover shows Mother Goose as a large, white, cap-bedecked goose standing on a blue-checkered border that will attract parents and grandparents who may remember Blanche Fisher Wright's edition from their own childhoods. Riding on Mother Goose's back, however, are four of Wells's signature animals—a gray kitten, brown bear, black rabbit, and tiny tan mouse—looking hopefully at the viewer in invitation and anticipation. The checkered border is picked up throughout the book to provide a nice cohesion. The first rhyme is an appropriately familiar "Jack and Jill," and the final "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, / Hold my horse till I leap on," provides a quiet good night. Unlike some editions of Mother Goose that crowd many rhymes within the pages, these rhymes are leisurely paced. While some human characters appear, Wells's lively animals are the most well delineated and appealing. A tiny mouse under the Queen's chair sticks its tongue out at Pussycat; an elegant hog rides home from market in an open limousine. Throughout the book familiar characters reappear to connect the rhymes and give parents and babies more chances to interact with the pictures. We know that the interaction that takes place between parent and baby over the pages of a good book is a primary factor in literacy learning, and My Very First Mother Goose makes such important work pure joy.
Kathleen McBroom (review date April-May 2004)
SOURCE: McBroom, Kathleen. Review of Mother Goose, by Will Moses. Library Media Connection 22, no. 7 (April-May 2004): 58.
K-5—Will Moses is the great-grandson of well-known folk artist Grandma Moses, and has lent his considerable talents to illustrating this collection of Mother Goose rhymes [Mother Goose]. A generous collection of standards (Wee Willie Winkie, Little Boy Blue, Doctor Foster) plus some more obscure selections (An Old Soldier of Blister, An Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket) are arranged two or three to a page, accompanied by delightfully detailed miniature illustrations. Every couple of pages of text are followed by a two-page spread that incorporates all of the preceding pictures into one busy landscape, where the Queen of Hearts could be chasing the Knave past Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater's house towards the river as Three Men in a Tub go floating by. Young children have always responded to rhythm and rhyme, and will delight in the meticulously rendered illustrations, flipping back and forth through the pages to remind themselves of various characters. These traditional rhymes are also effective for building vocabulary. Where else are students going to be exposed to such terms as chamber, fleece, sixpence and cockleshells? Any library media center that needs to update its Mother Goose selection would be well served by this offering.
Laurie Edwards (review date May 2004)
SOURCE: Edwards, Laurie. Review of The Top Secret Files of Mother Goose!, by Gabby Gosling, illustrated by Tim Banks. School Library Journal 50, no. 5 (May 2004): 112.
K-Gr. 4—When the Queen of Hearts discovers her strawberry tarts missing, she calls in Mother Goose, "Chief Detective of Nursery Rhyme Crime" [in The Top Secret Files of Mother Goose!]. The clues include a trail of crumbs, a dish and a spoon, and a hankie with the initials H. M. As Mother Goose questions each suspect, a full-page illustration of that individual appears opposite the text, which is printed on a manila-folder background. A handwritten note with humorous details about that particular character appears to be paper clipped to the file. Readers may question the detective's technique as she chases down alleged perpetrators who do not have the correct initials. However, logic aside, the comical rewording of familiar facts will appeal to those who are conversant with nursery rhymes. The vibrant cartoons pop off the pages, and the witty details will have youngsters studying the pictures with interest. Serving as a foil for the boisterous cast of characters, Mother Goose appears almost too charming and sweet to be pitted against this wild and wacky lineup of possible criminals, but that only adds to the comedy. With its retro art-work and imitation of hard-boiled detective speech, this text-heavy mystery is more appropriate for older children, but the story and its solution may be a bit too simplistic to hold their attention. Fans of Jon Scieszka's humor seem the most likely audience for this book's campy art and puns.
Susan Dove Lempke (review date May-June 2004)
SOURCE: Lempke, Susan Dove. Review of The Neighborhood Mother Goose, by Nina Crews. Horn Book Magazine 80, no. 3 (May-June 2004): 339-40.
The words are the same as ever—Little Miss Muffet still sits on a tuffet, the little star continues to twinkle, and Jack and Jill still try to fetch that pail of water. But Nina Crews takes the old words and gives them an eye-catching new twist by setting them in modern-day urban settings popping with color, with real live children acting out the parts [in The Neighborhood Mother Goose]. As in her previous books (One Hot Summer Day and others), Crews creates compositions that are digitally collaged yet natural-looking, with her child models looking relaxed and brimming with infectious joy. The featured children form a multiethnic group, which immediately moves the rhymes from their olde English roots into the present day; the streets, parks, storefronts, and interior shots transpose the setting as well. Crews cleverly manipulates her photos to incorporate the unreal, placing a fiddle in the paws of a cat and making the cow jump over the moon. In one especially effective picture, Crews shows a determined toddler in climbing motion—but he is climbing a gigantic shelf of pickled peppers in jars. Crews expands a child's nursery rhyme repertoire by including a few lesser known rhymes ("There was / An old woman / Tossed in a blanket / Seventeen times as high as the moon"). Most notably, however, she makes the familiar rhymes seem new. Not to be confused with Eve Merriam's gritty and groundbreaking book for young adults, The Inner City Mother Goose, this truly is a Mother Goose for young children growing up in a new century.
Jennifer Matson (review date 1 October 2004)
SOURCE: Matson, Jennifer. Review of Mother Goose, by Dan Yaccarino. Booklist 101, no. 4 (1 October 2004): 409.
PreS-Gr. 2—This stylish nursery rhyme collection [Mother Goose] is the second this year to envision Mother Goose as a city dweller. But unlike Nina Crews, who set The Neighborhood Mother Goose in modern-day Brooklyn, Yaccarino dresses his version in the garb of Manhattan circa 1935, when men wore hats and women—even those unfortunate enough to dwell in pumpkin shells—wouldn't be caught dead without their best handbag and gloves. Among the 34 rhymes here, readers will find some surprising new interpretations: the "pretty maids all in a row" in "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" are uniformed housekeepers bearing mops and brooms, and shepherdess Mary's little lamb follows her to school in a yellow cab. Kids may not find these tweaks as humorous as their parents do, but they'll surely respond to Yaccarino's boldly contrasting colors and crisply defined shapes, which nod to both organic forms and streamlined machine-age design. A fine introduction to nonsense rhymes for children weaned on Yaccarino's own Oswald and other cartoons in the hip, retro mode.
Marianne Saccardi (review date May 2005)
SOURCE: Saccardi, Marianne. Review of The Neat Line: Scribbling through Mother Goose, by Pamela Duncan Edwards, illustrated by Diana Cain Blumenthal. School Library Journal 51, no. 5 (May 2005): 82.
PreS-Gr. 3—In this brilliantly creative romp through the land of Mother Goose [The Neat Line: Scribbling through Mother Goose], a baby scribble, after much practice, becomes a Neat Line and enters a book of nursery rhymes. (Youngsters may recognize their own struggles with print as they view Scribble's humorous transformation.) There the line helps Little Boy Blue corral his sheep and cows by drawing a horn; saves Jack and Jill from another fall by drawing a pathway up the hill; waters Mary's drooping flowers (contrary Mary is in a snit and refuses to do so herself) by drawing a rain cloud; and creates a bird to scare away the spider harassing Little Miss Muffet. Tired from its labors, the line draws itself into the Man in the Moon and goes to sleep. The relevant nursery-rhyme verse follows each of Neat Line's encounters with the distressed characters. "Leave it to me," says the confident line, as it proceeds to draw itself into the problem-solving object. The large cartoon paintings, many of them spreads, are appropriately outlined with thick, bold lines and are framed by book pages on either side. This resourceful Neat Line deserves to take its place beside Peter H. Reynolds's The Dot (Candlewick, 2003) and Carole Lexa Schaefer's The Squiggle (Crown, 1996) as it inspires readers to attempt ever more challenging rescues by adding more characters and drawings to the story. A thoroughly satisfying journey.
Shawn Brommer (review date September 2005)
SOURCE: Brommer, Shawn. Review of You Read to Me, I'll Read to You: Very Short Mother Goose Tales to Read Together, by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Michael Emberley. School Library Journal 51, no. 9 (September 2005): 193.
Gr. 1-4—In this third installment in the series [You Read to Me, I'll Read to You: Very Short Mother Goose Tales to Read Together], Hoberman and Emberley introduce shared reading experiences that retell and elaborate on Mother Goose rhymes. Consisting of 14 short tales, each story is designed to be read by two voices that, at times, come together for shared lines; different colored type indicates each distinct voice. Told in verse, these stories will appeal to readers who are familiar with the original rhymes. In "Old Mother Hubbard," for example, the woman and her dog determine that since it's cold outside, they'll call the butcher and order in some food. The humor and rhythms in "Jack, Be Nimble" are reminiscent of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham (Random, 1960). The careful word choices are ideal for beginning and reluctant readers; Hoberman introduces simple contractions that easily blend into the rhythmic text. The bright and cheery artwork captures the humor; Little Jack Horner is portrayed as a raccoon sporting a shabby overcoat and fedora and Little Tommy Tucker is a bass-playing gorilla. Both the illustrations and text are set against clean white space for ease of reading. In addition to sharing in two voices, this book is also ideal for choral reading and classroom activities. An author's note provides additional suggestions.
Delamar, Gloria T. "Goosey, Goosey, Gander, Whither Dost Thy Wander?: A General History of Mother Goose." In Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, pp. 1-15. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 1987.
Charts the publishing history of Mother Goose rhymes.
Rollin, Lucy. "Good-Enough Mother Hubbard." In Psychoanalytic Responses to Children's Literature, edited by Lucy Rollin and Mark I. West, pp. 97-110. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1999.
Uses the nursery rhyme "Old Mother Hubbard" to examine the theory of the literary "good-enough" mother.
Sendak, Maurice. "Mother Goose." In Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures, pp. 11-20. New York, N.Y.: Noonday Press, 1988.
Alternate version of Sendak's critical essay on Mother Goose that originally appeared in Virginia Haviland's Children's Literature: News and Reviews.
Tsurumi, Ryoji. "The Development of Mother Goose in Britain in the 19th Century." Folklore 101, no. 1 (spring 1990): 28-35.
Traces the development of traditional Mother Goose-related imagery and texts in England.
Moth·er Goose • n. the fictitious creator of a collection of nursery rhymes that was first published in London in the 1760s.