by Gerard Benson
My lifelong love of poetry began with nursery rhymes. And I still love them. I’ve read many great poems by many great poets. Also thousands of poems by more humble contenders ─ profound poems, funny poems, sad, happy, love poems, hate poems and probably a thousand or more about living creatures, from William Blake’s “Tyger” to Christopher Isherwood’s “Common Cormorant”. But I always return to those
marvellous little rhymes of childhood. Little Miss Muffet (what’s a tuffet? by the way) Little Jack Horner, Jack and Jill, that Black Sheep, and Bo Peep, and Mary Mary and Baby Bunting and that unfortunate baby whose cradle was put at the top of the tree. I love them all. There’s a Grand Old Duke, and Old King Cole the music lover, and that Queen who ate bread and honey while the Maid was having her nose pecked off. What a cast! They all seemed quite real to me ─ as real as my teacher or the nurse on a bike who used to
come round. Or my parents. Or even me!
I’ve been wondering why I so took to them. Partly it was the rhythm; they’re all highly rhythmic though mostly not metric. The simple patterns of sound. The powerful alliteration. The strong rhymes. The nonsense words. The marvellous sprinkling of capital letters. But all these elements served the strange little stories they
told.. If you sit on a wall you might fall off and shatter; or the lessons they taught ─ if you have no penny you can’t buy a pie; or the characters they introduced ─ that upper class thief the Knave of Hearts, the incorruptible Milkmaid, the vicious but no doubt put-upon Old Woman who lived in a shoe, the Piper’s Son who stole a pig.
Most of them have a deeper meaning ─historical, satirical, religious, anciently topical ─ available to the scholar. I once attended a lecture where a distinguished scholar/poet explained that Jack and Jill introduced children to “the terrible story of the Fall of Man” ─also dealt with, though at greater length by Milton in “Paradise Lost”. Ring-a-ring-of-roses is about the plague, Contrary Mary is probably Mary Tudor. But do we care? It’s for their pared down simplicity that I love them. And for their strange surrealism. Children have no problem with this, but what are we to make of a violin-playing cat and a spring-heeled cow? I think that was my absolute favourite. And I once took the liberty of rewriting it in style of of Robert Browning, one of my favourite poets:
Hey Diddle Diddle, t’employ a childish phrase
And thus begins my tale (tale of a cat),
And where else, tell me masters, to begin
This rigmarole of puss and violin
Than here at top o’ the page? Then Diddle I says
A feline fiddlist and a leaping cow,
You catch my drift? I thought not. Hold I trow,
Hold hard. A cat (hold on to that!)
A fiddle, and a cow i’ th’ sky
Over the moon! milk for the green cheese,
(A fancy but I set it down) and these
Occurrences watched by a Pekingese,
A pooch who laughs, though none knows how or why,
At plate and spoon eloping. Zooks! The moon’s adaze!
When I’d almost finished writing this article I opened my falling to pieces copy of Mother Goose Treasury and came across dreadful news. London Bridge is falling down. What should I do? I know, build it up with silver and gold. Trouble is I've got none.