Curious Origins of Nursery Rhymes: Mother Goose
The oldest known Lullaby
The oldest known lullaby is one from a Roman wet Nurse. This was documented in the margin notes ( scholium) of Roman poet Aulus Persius Flaccus
'Lalla, Lalla, Lalla, aut dormi, aut lacte...' meaning lalla, lalla, lalla either sleep or nurse( feed)
As Rhyme goes by...
There is one universal constant that children the world over sing and delight their parents with - the humble nursery rhyme. They learn it at home and in their nursery schools, caring very little for any deeper meaning.They simply enjoy the use of words and their associated mimed actions.
Many of these nursery rhymes go back several hundred years. Originally they existed in oral tradition, passing from one generation to the next. With the advent of printing press and the rise of literacy, these collected rhymes became popular as an early reader owing to their simplicity, entertainment value and their memorable lyrics.
The earliest known forms are perhaps simple lullabies, created to sooth the baby to sleep. Some were riddles and others were counting or alphabetical rhymes. As their popularity grew, there were veiled propaganda and satire, nonsensical ballads, proverbs and in some cases a beautifully constructed poem.
Time goes by and meanings and lyrics change. The longer these rhymes are in existence, the more historians and puzzle seekers attribute hidden meanings to them.
While some of these rhymes do have some historical lineage, many are just simple nonsense poems created to entertain, educate and amuse children.
The oldest known publication of nursery rhymes is dated before 1744 and is the popular 'Tommy Thumb's song book' and its sequel' Tommy Thumb's pretty song book' by a 'Nurse Lovechild' .The frontispiece of the book quotes that it is 'for all little masters and mistresses' and ' to be sung by nurses until they can sing themselves'
Granary Burial Ground, Tremont St., Boston
Granary Burial Ground, Tremont St., Boston
Every pretty moral tale, o'er the infant mind prevail...
Perhaps the most popular compilation of English nursery rhymes is John Newberry's publication' Mother Goose's melodies or Sonnets for the Cradle. This publication dates back to 1765. There has been some speculation that some of the text of the book including the preface and additional 'fortune cookie' type morals in each page may have been penned by Oliver Goldsmith. This could be because Goldsmith was in employ of the publisher John Newberry between 1762 and 1768 as a 'hack' writer and is also known to be fond of children's rhymes and riddles.
The original edition also has William Shakespeare's Lullabies in part II.
The book was reprinted in America some twenty five years later in Massachusetts by Isaiah Thomas. This could be the reason why nursery rhymes are called 'Mother Goose rhymes' in the United States.
A Facsimile of the original Mother Goose's Melody can be found here at Project Gutenberg as an ebook in many formats. It makes a fascinating read and shows just how far back our popular nursery rhymes go and how long they have endured.
There are many apocryphal stories for the name of Mother Goose. One such story attributes the rhymes to a Mrs Elizabeth Goose of Boston ( c.1660) who allegedly had a large flock of grandchildren.Tales go that she crooned many melodies to appease the kids. After the death of her husband Isaiah, she went to live with her daughter and her son-in-law, Thomas Fleet, who was a printer by trade. Fleet is said to have published her verses for popular consumption as 'Mother Goose's melodies'. This story bears no truth as no such editions exist and there is no historical truth attached to it. However, tourists are still led to her gravestone at the Granary burial ground on Tremont Street in Boston.
It is more likely that when John Newberry published his collection, he was merely stealing the title from the famous French collection of fairy tales by Charles Perrault called 'Contes de ma Mère l'Oye,' or 'Tales of My Mother Goose.' This compendium was published in 1697 and contains many popular fairy tales collected by Perrault such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb.
English readers were familiar with the archetypal 'Mother Hubbard' figure from Edmund Spenser's ' Mother Hubbard's tale'.
There are others who attribute Mother Goose ( Mère l'Oye) to Berthe pied d'oie ("Goose-Foot Bertha" ) , the wife of Robert II of France. She is well known in France as a legendary spinner of tales. Once again this is mere speculation.
Popular Early Nursery Rhyme Collections
Tommy Thumb's song book
Tommy Thumb's pretty song book
Mother Goose's Melodies
John Newberry/ ? Oliver Goldsmith
England c. 1765
Popular Rhymes of Scotland
Mother Goose's Melodies
Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano,
The Nursery Rhymes of England
James Orchard Halliwell
Popular Rhymes and Tales
James Orchard Halliwell
L. Frank Baum
Book of Nursery Songs
The Nursery Rhyme Book
Hey Diddle Diddle Picture Book
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes
Iona and Peter Opie
Old Mother Goose - The Whole story
Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander.
Mother Goose had a house;
It stood in the wood
Where an owl at the door
As sentinel stood.
She had a son, Jack,
A plain looking lad,
'Twas not very good,
Nor yet very bad.
She sent him to market.
A live goose he bought,
"See, Mother?" he said,
"I have not been for naught."
Jack's goose and her Gander,
Soon grew very fond.
They'd both eat together,
Or swim in the pond.
Then, one fine morning,
As I have been told,
Jack's goose had laid him
An egg of pure gold.
He ran to his mother,
The news for to tell.
She called him a good boy,
And said it was well.
Jack sold his egg,
To a merchant untrue,
Who cheated him out,
Of half of his due.
Then Jack went courting,
A lady so gay,
As fair as the lily,
As sweet as the May.
The merchant and squire,
Soon came at his back,
And began to belabour,
The sides of poor Jack.
Then old Mother Goose,
That instant came in,
And turned her son Jack,
Into famed Harlequin.
She then with her wand,
Touched the lady so fine,
And turned her at once,
Into sweet Columbine.
The gold egg in the sea,
Was thrown away then,
When an odd fish brought her,
The egg back again.
The merchant then vowed,
The goose he would kill,
Resolving at once,
His pockets to fill.
Jack's mother came in,
And caught the goose soon,
And mounting its back,
Flew up to the moon.
Witchcraft and Wizardry
The sixteenth and seventeeth century were rife with superstitions. Everyone were frightened of witches and wizards and some used this as an excuse to extract unsavoury punishments to innocents accused of witchcraft. Some believe that Old Mother Goose refers to a witch. Instead of a broomstick she flies on a gander (when she wanted to wander, of course). Many witches were also known to have pet animals and birds as 'familiars' - Mother Goose had an owl.
The complete story of Old Mother Goose also features her son Jack and a Goose that laid a golden egg. The fact that she turns Jack into a Harlequin and his girlfriend into Columbine with her magic wand shows Mother Goose in the rhyme may indeed be a witch with some powers.
She eventually flies away on her Goose to the moon.
Mother Goose and Harlequin
The tale of Mother Goose has been further immortalised by popular Christmas pantomime Harlequin and Mother Goose: or, The Golden Egg. This was first performed in 1806-07 around Christmas Time at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.
This original pantomime was written by Thomas Dibdin and featured the popular star of the day, the clown Joseph Grimaldi. It may well have reinstated Mother Goose as a witch figure who changes her son and his girlfriend into Harlequin and Columbine.
The pantomime is still performed as a Christmas favourite to this day.
The story may well be a mish-mash of Mother Goose fairy tales.
The Poet of Oz
Before he garnered fame as the creator of the famous Wizard of Oz, Lyman Frank Baum released a 'Mother Goose in Prose' book, illustrated by William Denslow. This book features a girl called Dorothy who talks to animals.
Baum changed the name to Doris in the book's subsequent editions, perhaps wanting to save her name for a later, grander adventure for the girl that was destined to be an immortal classic.
Ma mère l'oye - The Ballet
French composer, Maurice Ravel, composed five pieces for a piano duet under the title Ma mère l'oye.
The composition featured five pieces called 'cinq pièces enfantines' (five children's pieces) dedicated to his children. These are:
I. Pavane de la belle au bois dormant
Pavane of Sleeping Beauty
II. Petit Poucet
Little Tom Thumb / Hop o' My Thumb
III. Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes
Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas
IV. Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête
Conversation of Beauty and the Beast
V. Le jardin féerique
The Fairy Garden
You can listen to the composition below.
Ravel later orchestrated this work and expanded the compositions into a ballet.
The Mother of all Rhymes
Thus commences our journey through nursery rhyme origins. Now that the mother of all rhymes has been dealt with we can move onto her various offspring - from the Horner who sat in the corner to the Gill who went up the hill ( yes I did spell that right, the original Gill who went up the hill with Jack was a boy!)
You will meet the ovoid Humpty and watch as London Bridge comes falling down.
So don't miss our next adventure.
In the blink of an eye
I bid you Goodbye
Be sure to come by
To find a blackberry pie.
Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2013
- The Curious Origins of Nursery Rhymes - Humpty Dumpty
In this episode of the curious origins of nursery rhymes we tackle the loveable but doomed egg that is Humpty Dumpty. Just what does it really mean?
Ravel, Ma mère l'Oye, Cinq pièces enfantines
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