Three Ways to Write a Poem

Of Plain Poems, Figurative Poems & Metaphoric Poems

Call this post a rough draft; and there are more than these three (like Allegorical Poems) but these are the three primary ways a poem is written, I think. On and off I get queries from poets who would like my opinion on their poems. In a very general way, I can break down their poems down into three main types — the Plain Poem, the Figurative Poem, and the Metaphoric Poem; though almost all the poetry sent me falls into the first two categories. I don’t know whether these categories are original to me. I doubt they are, and I may be using the terms differently (if they’re already out there). But so be it. There are poetic masterpieces in all three categories, so I’m not going to argue that one is superior to another, but of the three types of poetry — the Plain Poem and the Metaphoric Poem are the kind I admire most. But first things first:

The Plain Poem

plain-chant 002When I first began writing this, I called this kind of poem a ‘Literal Poem’; but I decided ‘Plain Poem’ is a more poetic description, and reminds me of plain chant. Plain Poem also allows for some variation, some touches of figurative language perhaps, whereas the term ‘Literal’ invites too strict an interpretation. I have no idea what percentage of contemporary poems are Plain Poems, possessing minimal figurative language, but my hunch is that they represent fewer than one might expect, maybe only single digits. They’re very difficult to write well (or memorably). Perhaps Edwin Arlington Robinson would be its finest exponent in traditional forms. The fact of his plainness may, in some measure, contribute to his relative neglect. (It’s ironic that Ezra Pound preached the gospel of “everyday language and materials”, as Christopher Clausen put it, only to write a massive book, “The Cantos”, that becomes progressively all but incomprehensible.)

Richard Cory
by EA Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

RobinsonSome readers might object that Robinson uses a smattering of figurative language, but they’re of the colloquial, ‘every day’ sort. We don’t need editorial footnotes to understand “from sole to crown” or “fluttered pulses” or “glittered when he walked”. This is truly the language of the every day and the reader would have to stretch, or be a Helen Vendler, to read more into it than is there. The power of the poem isn’t to be found in any sort of figurative or metaphorical elusiveness. As with the majority of Robinson’s poems, it is what it is, but beautifully so. Robinson uses meter and rhyme to lend the poem direction, succinctness and to make the poem memorable. Until the very end the rhymes seem innocuous enough, and then the rhyme of bread and “put a bullet through his head” strikes like a thunderclap. As with many good rhyming poems, the reader is likely to anticipate the final coup de grâce, which gives the narrative that extra kick.

  • I’ve ready many passages of free verse poets, especially, posturing over the predictability of rhymes, but this bespeaks an ignorance of what good rhyme do. There are times when the predictable is exactly what the poet wants.

Another good example might be William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

There is such a reflexive determination to think that a poem has to mean something more than what it says. I’m not sure how much sweat and blood has been spilled over what Williams really meant. And yet, the haiku-like sublimity of the poem is self-evident and probably instinctively grasped by anyone who reads it (and needs no explanation or rationalization). This poem, wc williamsquite simply, means what it says. But what makes it so memorable? There’s no rhyme or meter, so something else is at play. In part, it’s very much its similarity to the best haiku. There’s no discourse or disquisition. In other words, a narrator doesn’t thrust himself, nattering, between the reader and the poem (an intrusion into the conversation that Williams can rarely resist). We are permitted to consider the facts as they are and draw our own conclusion — and that is how a poem is like a haiku. The next facet is the imagery. Williams has carefully chosen what to emphasize — the contrast between the red of the wheelbarrow and the white of the chickens, for example. As an experiment, substitute blue for red, or brown for white.

Red is an impish color when you think about it. It attracts attention to itself; (there’s a reason we call red cars “cop magnets”). The poetic juxtaposition of a loud color like red on a humble wheelbarrow gives it a sort of underdog status — like a red Volkswagon beetle — and endears it to the reader (maybe not universally but as a generalization I think this is probably true). After all, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. What other color could it be? (Unfortunately, my own wheelbarrow is blue, but I’m going to spray paint it red.)

And then there are the chickens. What if they had been brown? Nah. The white chickens make the wheelbarrow all the redder. The contrast is easy to imagine. But what if Williams had written white horse or, white house, or white tractor? When the reader imagines the scene, the chickens will always be smaller than the wheelbarrow; and this has the effect of making the red wheelbarrow a little bigger, and a little more important, and a little more there, like an ever present, reassuring background to the lives of the chickens. If Williams had written ‘white horse’, then that might have diminished the importance of the wheelbarrow. The white chickens give us a contrast in color and in size.

But what about a white house or white tractor? These two would have diminished the wheelbarrow’s ‘scale’ (for lack of a better term). Not only that, but we can imagine the lives of the chickens being dependent on the wheelbarrow, but not an inanimate house or tractor. The wheelbarrow is larger than the chickens, and is brought into the living ecosystem of the barnyard by being beside the chickens. In a certain sense, it’s given life by giving life.

And glazed with rainwater? Why this detail? Well, what if it had been coated with dust? My own feeling is that a coat of dust implies disuse. There are certainly farm implements (and carpentry tools) that get dusty, but that coating is always disturbed by use. I think it’s safe to say that a well-used wheelbarrow would seldom be covered by dust. The word glazed is one most commonly used in reference to pottery. When we glaze a piece of pottery we are finishing it. We are, one might say, making it beautiful and, to a certain degree, transforming it into a finished work of art or, at minimum, a usable implement. Williams choice of word is probably no accident. There’s also the sense that o much depends on the wheelbarrow that it cannot be spared even in the rain. This is an indispensable presence in a living and working environment.

But this poem is lightning in a bottle. Williams only pulled it off twice, I think. With The Red Wheelbarrow and This Is Just to Say. These two poems are justly famous and plain poems. They are plain (or very literal), easy to grasp, but in their choice of observation, like the best haiku, they successfully evoke a world of emotional associations. And this, perhaps, is the trick to the greatest poems of this kind — the art of evocation.

  • I haven’t discussed haiku, but these deceptively simply poems (and carefully literal) are some of the most evocative poems in any language.

Another example of a plain poem would be Frost’s Stopping by Woods:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Many attempts have been made to read meaning into this poem, but it is what it is. It’s beautifully simple and, in that simplicity, is profoundly evocative. This is poetry that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. The combination of rhyme and meter add to the memorability of the poem — a revelry in the “felicities of language” as Frost called it. William Pritchard had this to say:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant… [Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

There’s a certain kind of reader for whom plain poems are anathema. One of the more common criticisms leveled at Frost was that his poetry was that of the “simple, farmer poet” — as if that were bad thing in and of itself. In truth, the plainly stated poem, done well or even greatly, is an exceedingly rare accomplishment. The criticism itself says vastly more about those making it. They seem to think that the only good poem is the “difficult” poem. The 20th century is nothing if not the pursuit of obscurity/difficulty as an end in itself, and not just any obscurity, but the kind meant to evoke layers of “meaning”, elusive and implying depth, brilliance and perhaps genius. As a rule of thumb, the more ambiguous — the more interpretations available to the poem — then the better it must be. And while that sort of writing may be candy to the critic and academic, the precipitous decline in modern poetry’s audience suggests that the average reader has better ways to spend their time (rather than sort out a poet’s “meaning”). “Make it plain”, a reader might say, and the modern poet hears: “Dumb it down”. But that’s not at all what the reader is saying.

Greatness in literature has nothing to do with how “difficult” it is.

And perhaps the most remarkable 20th century writer of Plain Poems was Charles Bukowski:

we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.

my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’

and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw

one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother

Charles-BukowskiIn the process of writing this post, I read through about two dozen poems by Bukowski, and if he ever wrote a simile, I haven’t yet found it. I would judge Bukowski’s favorite rhetorical device to be the analogy. In the poem above, for instance, Bukowski is essentially drawing an analogy between the goldfish and the suffering experienced by himself and mother. Even then, Bukowski’s use of analogy is sparing and far from obvious. A reader may read a Bukowski poem, read a scenario which he or she has never experienced, and yet feel a commonality because the subject is nevertheless analogous to his or her own experiences. This, I think, is at the root of Bukowski’s genius — his ability to provide a context for experiences that make them recognizable and universal. In the poem Bluebird, Bukowski is again essentially drawing an analogy between his suppressed empathy and compassion and a symbolic bluebird he keeps locked in his heart.

The Figurative Poem

By this, I mean poems that use figurative language but are otherwise (or mostly) plain in their meaning. In other words, I would consider calling a Figurative Poem a ‘Plain Poem’ that uses figurative language. Figurative Poems, as I use the term, probably represent the vast majority of poetry. Nearly all of free verse is of the figurative kind. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are all figurative poems. They are by far and away the most popular and have therefore accumulated an ocean of bad examples. The term figurative (or figurative language) refers to rhetorical figure (a figure understood as any rhetorical linguistic device). A linguistic device most commonly includes, for example the simile — the favorite rhetorical figure of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry. As soon as you see a simile, you know you’re dealing with figurative poetry. Additionally, and unfortunately, it’s nearly always a sign of second or third rate poetry — almost without fail (the exceptions prove the rule, perhaps).

I know I’ve mentioned the following passage before, but I’m offering more of it because it first got me thinking about this subject (many years ago):

“Shakespeare’s style, as everyone knows, is metaphorical to excess. His imagination is always active, but he seldom pauses to indulge it by lengthened description. I shall hereafter have occasion to direct your observation to the sobriety with which he preserves imagination in its proper station, as only the minister and interpreter of thought; but what I wish now to say is, that in him the two powers operate simultaneously. He goes on thinking vigorously, while his imagination scatters her inexhaustible treasures like flowers on the current of his meditations, His constant aim is the expression of facts, passions ,or opinions; and his intellect is constantly occupied in the investigation of such; but the mind acts with ease in its lofty vocation, and the beautiful and the grand rise up voluntarily to do him homage. he never indeed consents to express those poetical ideas by themselves; but he shows that he felt their import and their legitimate use, by wedding them to the thoughts in which they originated. The truths which he taught, received magnificence and amenity from the illustrative forms; and the poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it, than the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description, and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to be captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forgot the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which its highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. [The New Shakespeare Society Publications, Series VIII Miscellanies Nos. 1-4 A Letter on Shakespeare’s Authorship of the drama entitled THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, by William Spalding p. 16-17]

This was published in 1876, so the language is Victorian and convoluted, and Spalding didn’t quite have the tools to express his ideas. That was to come nearly three quarters of a century later with Wolfgang Clemens and The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. Clemens showed how Shakespeare essentially absorbs the simile into a metaphorical language — the idea that Spalding is trying to express. (My dictionary calls metaphor a compressed simile, which is a good way to think about it.) For example, Clemens shows how in Shakespeare’s earliest poetry he hadn’t yet absorbed the simile:

The particles “as” and “like” not only make the image stand out from the text and isolate it in a certain way; they also show that the object to be compared and the comparison are felt as being something different and separate, that image and object are not yet viewed as an identity, but that the act of comparing intervenes. It would be false to exaggerate the importance of such a fact, because in Shakespeare’s let plays we also find many comparisons introduced with “like” or “as”. Nevertheless the frequency of such comparisons with “as” and “like” in Titus Andronicus is noteworthy, and this loose form of connection corresponds entirely to the real nature of these image4s. If we take, for example, passages such as these:

…then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.

…that kiss is comfortless
As frozen water to a starved snake.

we see that these images are simply added on to the main sentence afterwards, dove-tailed into the context, appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration. They occurred to Shakespeare as an afterthought, as “illustration”, as “example”, but they were not there from the very beginning as simultaneous poetic conce3ption of subject and image. [The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery p. 22-23]

Compare this to The Winter’s Tale:

Later, in the same scene, Camillo asks him to be “cured of this diseased opinion” (I.ii. 297) and retorts to Leontes’ false assumption of his “infected” wife “who does infect her?” (I.ii. 307). The disease-imagery links up with the notion of taint and stinging things. Shortly after Camillo’s question Leontes speaks the following words which also contain dramatic irony:

Leon. Make that thy question, and go rot!
Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
the purity and whiteness of my sheets,
Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (I.ii 325)

In the next scene this collocation of disease, of stinging and poison becomes more obvious. Note the following by Leontes:

There may be in the cup,
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider (II. i 39)

The dramatic and structural significance of this image should be noted. For it is the first time Leontes builds up a full image, all the more striking as Leontes’ hasty diction does not usually allow of the elaboration of images. The directness and realism with which this image; of the spider in the cup is presented and the way Leontes turns it into a personal experience, expressed by the laconic ending “I have drunk, and seen the spider”, bring home to us the brutal and naked force of Leontes self-deceiving obsession… [p. 196-197]

shakespeareMost importantly, notice that Shakespeare never uses “as” or “like” in these two passages. The similes have been organically absorbed into the character’s “personal experience”, not tacked on as in Titus. It’s this difference that Spalding was trying to express almost a hundred years earlier. Shakespeare, in the course of his poetic development, learned to speak through metaphor rather than by the elaboration of similes (John Fletcher, not so much). It’s in this sense that Spalding delineated the difference between Shakespeare and Fletcher’s verse:

“Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness.”

  • A very simple example from Shakespeare: “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” In earlier days Shakespeare might have written: “He draweth out his argument like a spinner who draweth out his thread & etc.

The same criticism applies to all poets since Shakespeare, including the poetry of our current poet Laureate, Charles Wright (2014-). On a whim, and at random, I looked up his poetry at Poetry Foundation. The first to come up was Archeology. And what do we find?

The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to find the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
…………………………….to glow in the dark like clock hands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
………………………………………all golden, all in good time.

Just as with Shakespeare’s earlier efforts, or Fletcher, Wright tacks on the simile, “appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration”. Like will appear twice more in this short poem:

Gaze far out at the lake in sunflame,
Expecting our father at any moment, like Charon, to appear
Back out of the light from the other side,
…..low-gunwaled and loaded down with our slippery dreams.

Rather than compress the comparison of his father to Charon in the language of metaphor, Wright interrupts the narrative (amateurishly in my opinion) with the announcement of the simile, and then a little later:

Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black

Nevertheless, at the poem’s conclusion, Wright demonstrates that he can write metaphorically (compress simile):

Sunlight flaps its enormous wings and lifts off from the back
The wind rattles its raw throat,
…………………………………but I still can’t go deep enough.

And if you ask me (and in terms of technique) this ‘compression’ of simile in the language of metaphor is the better way to write poetry (though there are obviously exceptions). Loading ones verse with similes strikes me too often as a kind of poetic shorthand — roughly equivalent to inserting a thee and a thou just because that’s what poetry is supposed to do — and frequently the simile adds little to the narrative. It’s more poetic flourish than necessity. Wright’s poem is an example of figurative poetry, though not a good one. Wright tells us what it’s about: “[digging] into our childhoods…” (so that it’s cousin to the plain poem) then uses the rhetorical figures of simile, metaphor, verbal metaphor, adjectival metaphor, etc…

But there are also beautiful examples of figurative poems that work. The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

ts eliotThe poem begins with the famous simile “Like a patient etherized upon a table”. “Muttering retreats” is both an adjectival metaphor and personification. “Like a tedious argument” is another simile describing the way streets “follow” — itself a verbal metaphor. And why do I like these similes, and not Wright’s? Because Eliots are wholly original. When before has an evening been compared to a patient “etherized upon a table”, as opposed to an evening boater to Charon? (I don’t hold a high opinion of Greek mythology’s appearance in modern poetry. It’s often plugged into a poem when having to do the work oneself would be much more difficult.) When has the layout of a city’s streets been compared to “a tedious argument”. Eliot’s simile’s are not only fresh, they add a subtext to the poem. Why the choice of etherized? What does this say about the narrator? Why compare streets to a tedious argument? — And how does this play into the narrator’s own avoidance of complications and explanations later in the poem?

The Silken Tent, by Robert Frost, is not only one sentence but is comprised, but for the first two words, of a single simile! The sonnet is the simile:

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.

She is like a silken tent, says Frost, and from there the sonnet elaborates. Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116 would also fall into the category of the Figurative Poem:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
··If this be error and upon me proved,
··I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The whole of the poem is an example of personification, in which Love is endowed with personality, intent, and conviction. The figure itself is called prosopopia: “(Rhet.) A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is represented as animated, or endowed with personality…” Shakespeare was extremely adept at using this figure (a common one during his era); and his skill, above and beyond that of his contemporaries, was surely attributable to his dramatic genius. In essence, the inanimate became characters. Take a look, for example, at the following brief passage from King John, at the way Shakespeare so beautifully personifies grief:

“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”

And this also reminds me of Richard Wilbur’s extraordinary poem Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, wherein the morning breezes are, in a sense, animated and endowed with the personality of angels. One might justifiably dispute whether this is really personification (since Wilbur never attributes the angel-like behavior to the breezes, but rather distinguishes the angels and air by saying that the “morning air is all awash with angels”) — perhaps more accurate to call the angel-like behavior of the breezes a poetic conceit (in the sense of an extended metaphor that nearly governs the whole poem).

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
··············Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

···Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

···Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
·······································The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
··············“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
··············keeping their difficult balance.”

richard-wilburThe poem, as I read it, comes very near to being what I would consider a Metaphoric Poem. I’d say it falls in the far spectrum of figurative poems, but still a Figurative Poem, because the poetic conceit of the angels is framed by the reality of eyes opening “to a cry of pulleys”. The conceit is framed by the reality of the “morning air” at the beginning and the thieves, lovers, and nuns at the close. It’s is brought ‘down from its ruddy gallows’, back into the difficult balance of the real world.

  • The conceit is itself considered a trope. The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms writes that “In general usage, most poets and critics use the term to indicate, as Coleridge proposed, any language that aspires toward the state of metaphor.”

The Metaphoric Poem

I’m trying to coin a new term and I’ve sweat over it. As far as I know, this type of poem hasn’t really been given a name. It’s not just poetry that uses metaphor, or a conceit, but a poem that, in its entirety, is a metaphor for something else. So, I settled on Metaphoric rather than Metaphorical. I’ve checked all my poetry dictionaries. I’ve Googled the term. I checked my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, and the term “Metaphoric Poetry” isn’t used in any specific way. So, I’m claiming it to mean something very specific. As I judge it, a poem may be metaphorical simply by using metaphor, but what distinguishes the Metaphoric Poem is that the poet doesn’t, or only in the most oblique way, give the reader any indication that the poem is really about something other than its apparent subject.

To me, the metaphoric poem is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment. The poem can have the appearance of a Plain Poem or a Figurative Poem, but is really, in its entirety, a beautifully modulated, extended metaphor on what can be an altogether different subject. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in fact, Robert Frost more or less invented and perfected this kind of poetry, though it’s tempting to go back in history, point to other poems, and say that this or that poem was never really about X, but about Y. We have become somewhat accustomed to this way of reading and critiquing poetry, but I’d assert that this way of thinking about poetry is really a very late development. For instance, I had a reader write the following after my post on Ann Bradstreet’s poem, Before the Birth of One of Her Children:

“…when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work”

That’s reading Bradstreet’s poem as a Metaphoric Poem. My response was that this is probably anachronistic. Bradstreet was a contemporary of John Donne and near contemporary of Shakespeare. There’s no evidence (that I’ve ever found) that poets wrote or thought this way prior to the 20th century. In every poem that I’m aware of, the conceit, or metaphor, or analogy, is framed as a poetic construction within the poem. The reader is always made aware of the poet’s “misdirection”. In all of John Donne’s poems, for example, there’s no confusion as to what the poem is about (setting aside the usual interpretive challenges). He famously constructs elaborate conceits, but we always know that he knows that we know what the conceit is really about.

Not so with Robert Frost.

For years he was accused of being “a simple, farmer poet”. The accusation, as accusations usually do, revealed more about the critics. In short, despite considering Frost a 19th century hold-over, it was in fact the critics who were behaving like 19th century readers — reading all poems as Plain Poems or Figurative Poems. The day that readers and critics realized that Frost might have been fooling them all (all along) can actually be dated very precisely. While it’s not the birth of Metaphoric Poetry, it might be the birth of it’s broader awareness. It happened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in 1959, on the evening of Frost’s 85th birthday. It happened when, to the shock and consternation of all those gathered, Lionel Trilling called Frost a “terrifying poet”. (Trilling, embarrassed by his own comment and worried that he’d insulted Frost, reportedly left the gathering early.)

Trilling opened the world’s eyes to the possibility that yes, all along, they’d been reading Frost with outdated expectations. As Frost said himself, as if to drive home the point that he wasn’t just writing about “nature”: “I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems.”

Even when there isn’t.

As a nice essay at FrostFriends.Org puts it:

“Frost uses nature as metaphor. He observes something in nature and says this is like that. He leads you to make a connection, but never forces it on the reader. Read on a literal level, Frost’s poems always make perfect sense. His facts are correct, especially in botanical and biological terms. But he is not trying to tell nature stories nor animal stories. He is always using these metaphorically implying an analogy to some human concern.” [Frost and Nature ~ March 7 2015]

But then Frost had already been telling the world as much. In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, Judith Ostler begins her contribution entitled “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor” with the following paragraph, quoting Frost at the outset:

“‘Metaphor is the whole of poetry.’ ‘Poetry is simply made of metaphor… Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.’ Such are the burdens Robert Frost placed upon metaphor, and on himself as a poet. He went even further in his claiming that metaphor is the whole of thinking, and that, therefore, to be educated by poetry — note: by poetry — is to be taught to think.” [p. 155]

 Why did it take so long for readers to realize that Frost had been ‘fooling’ them? He was cagey in life, and cagey in his poetry.

A Drumlin Woodchuck

One thing has a shelving bank,
Another a rotting plank,
To give it cozier skies
And make up for its lack of size.

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.

Robert-Frost-TFWith those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.

All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.

We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.

And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),

If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,

It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

I hesitate to call this a Metaphoric poem, as the narrator gives away the game (if the joke wasn’t already painfully obvious) with a wink and a nod to “my dear”. You could read it as Frost’s commentary on his own art and persona with a sly pun on Thoreau in the closing rhyme of thorough/burrow. To read quite a good essay on the significance of the pun, visit Two Woodchucks,or Frost and Thoreau on the Art of the Burrow by Fritz Oehlschlaeger.

“Further suggestion that the woodchuck be seen as a poet figure can be found in the somewhat submerged tension between the poem’s playfulness and the seriousness of the matter at hand. The woodchuck’s jocularity nearly causes us to forget that his survival is at stake. While the burrow provides him a wonderful possibility for fanciful comparison to his counterpart at Walden, it also serves the mundane but equally important purpose of saving him from the hunters.” [p. 5]

And there’s more at stake than that. Who are the hunters? Could they be his critics? Think of Frost’s uncanny poem this way: The burrow as his poetry and the two entrances are two ways (among many more we suspect) to enter therein — a “two-door burrow”. As soon as you try to catch Frost by hunting down one crevice, he’s out the other. While pestilence and war rage, and notably “the loss of common sense”, Frost remains cagey enough not to be cornered. He won’t be caught up one side or t’other.

There are a good many of his poems that are ‘two-door burrows’. The most famous example might be “Stopping by Woods” and its many interpretations. At the two extremes are notions of the poem as a simple and beautiful lyric on the one hand and a suicide poem on the other. It may have seemed that Frost grew impatient with readers trying to identify the meaning of the poem, as if they all tried to come in at the same door, but he’d also never say what a poem wasn’t. Frost, in the end, always wanted to keep his burrow a “two-door” burrow

“Mending Wall” and “Birches” can both be read as Metaphoric Poems and I’ve offered a reading of Birches and Mending Wall suggesting how (though my interpretations may or may not reflect Frost’s thinking). The trick in Metaphoric Poetry is in knowing how to be understood or how not too be too obscure. The poet writes to be understood (unless you’re a John Ashbery).

WE make ourselves a place apart
··Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
··Till someone find us really out.

’Tis pity if the case require
··(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
··The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
··At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
··Must speak and tell us where they are.

‘Revelation’ is from Frost’s first book of poetry and reveals him, early on, searching out the balance between hiding “too well away” and having to “speak the literal to inspire”. Frost, much later in life, addresses this same question in the Metaphoric Poem For Once Then Something. In it, Frost cannily addresses the accusation that his poetry is shallow by using the very device, the Metaphoric Poem, that his critics stubbornly and shallowly misread. It’s an elaborately constructed tour-de-force, and perhaps a little too much so, not being among his better known or understood.

But now that I’ve made the argument that Frost was the first to deliberately write Metaphoric Poetry, there is a genre of poetry that anticipates Frost by several centuries (in some cases) — the nursery rhyme. Many of these poems mean something entirely other than their ostensible meaning. They were written in a time when speaking freely, and too freely, could be a life and death matter. “I Had a Little Nut Tree”, for instance, is speculated to be about the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII, though I happen to disagree with that 19th century assertion. “Little Boy Blue” is said to parody the life of Cardinal Wolsey. “Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle”, is thought to originate with Queen Elizabeth. The cat is Queen Elizabeth, who was known to greatly enjoy dancing to the fiddle at Whitehall Palace (throughout her reign). The moon is said to represent the Earl of Walsingham (who she skipped over, choosing to remain unmarried) and the dog was the Earl of Leicester (jeered in the poem as a laughing dog) because he “skulked at the Queen’s flirtatious behavior”, asking to leave the Court for France [Origins of Rhymes, Songs and Sayings, p. 157-159]. Nursery rhymes could be seen as related to the fable and apologue (being symbolic, metaphorical and archetypal in nature). The notion that Frost was the first to write metaphorically is not what I’d assert; but I think he was the first to make the poem the metaphor, as it were.

So, the next time you write or read a poem, these three categories might give you another way to approach it.

And that’s that.

up in Vermont: March 7 2015

I had a little nut tree…

I had a little nut tree is easily one of my favorite nursery rhymes. There has always been something, to me, beautiful and mysterious about it. Of all the nursery rhymes, this is the only one that has ever had a touch of the profound and reminds me of the mystical poems one would otherwise expect from a poet like Rumi.

I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;

The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.

I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

If any of you are already familiar with this rhyme, then I’m sure you’re probably aware that it has been associated with actual events in English history.The poem was first recorded in 1797, printed in London in the Newest Christmas Box. At a later date, the antiquarian James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (who devoted himself to antiquarian research, specifically English literature, and later to a Life of Shakespeare) asserted that the poem was much older. Halliwell-Phillips was a man who loved literature. More importantly, and judging by his later interest in Shakespeare, he was keenly interested in the history behind the literature. When he gave up textual criticism in the 1870’s, he devoted himself to piecing together the particulars of Shakespeare’s life. This revealing bent for biography and explication is important when considering his opinions on the origin of A Little Nut Tree. As concerns this rhyme, Halliwell-Phillips wrote [this first link will take you to Google books and a reprint, I think, of the actual book from which the quote comes]:

“The following perhaps refers to Joanna of Castile, who visited the court of Henry VII in the year 1506.

‘I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear,
But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear;
The King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me,
And all was beacuse of my little nut tree.
I skipp’d over water, I danced over sea,
And all the birds in the air could not catch me.'”

[Notes and queries, Volume 72, by William White p. 521]

Because of my abiding interest in all things science, I’ve learned the value of skepticism. That extends to literary scholarship. Worth knowing is that Shakespeare scholarship was, and still is, rife with speculation, excess and outright fraud. I haven’t found anything to suggest that Halliwell-Phillips engaged in that sort of excess, but he was also a man of his times. If no information was forthcoming then speculation was fair game — the responsibility of the scholar, it seems, was often to speak even if there was nothing to be spoken of. This was a time when reputation often trumped the truth.

The first thing I wondered was whether the The Little Nut Tree was a fake. Don’t think it’s not possible. More than a few modern scholars speculate that some of the nursery rhymes in Mother Goose were cooked up. The 18th and 19th century was rife with forgers, the most famous being William Henry-Ireland. A recent book was written on Ireland called The Boy Who Would be Shakespeare. Or consider the struggling poet James Macpherson. He only gained real success when he fabricated the mythical Gaelic bard Ossian. He announced:

“Though the poems now published appear as detached pieces in this collection, there is ground to believe that most of them were originally episodes of a greater work … by a careful inquiry, many more remains of ancient genius, no less valuable than those now given to the world, might be found in the same country where these have been collected. In particular there is reason to hope that one work of considerable length, and which deserves to be styled an heroic poem, might be recovered and translated, if encouragement were given to such an undertaking.”

The English of the 18th and 19th century were besotted with their “newly” discovered literary past. The true genius of Shakespeare was just beginning to be appreciated and the corpus he left behind would have made any nation proud. The British, naturally, wanted more. They began looking in dusty pantries, the shelves of old libraries, and any other nook that might yield a new literary treasure (and fame). If it couldn’t be found, then arrangements could be made. To this day, scholars dispute the provenance of Double Falsehood. Just in the last decade, the Shakespearean scholar Brean Hammond made a name for himself by once again (just as the original scholar Lewis Theobald almost 300 years before) trying to link a forgery (at worst) to Shakespeare.

Collecting old sayings and nursery rhymes was undoubtedly part of this general besottment with literary history. There’s no reason to exclude the possibility that there wasn’t a touch of fraud in that collecting as well. Scholarly fidelity was understood a little differently. If a little ditty could be passed off as original, then what harm in that? It’s not as if they were forging a Shakespeare play or a fifth biblical testament. The world could stand one more nursery rhyme and the perpetrator could go to his grave knowing, in some small anonymous way, that a piece of himself had attained literary immortality. Not all the Mother Goose rhymes may be original, but there’s no way to know.

Fortunately, the modern scholar can narrow down the odds. For a rhyme like Monday’s Child, one can find precedent going all the way back to the 1500’s (and before). There are parallels, and poems like Monday’s Child are mentioned, in passing, by writers during the 17th century. These sorts of clues suggest that Monday’s Child is probably not a fake and could date back hundreds of years before it was officially recorded in the 19th century.

There’s no similar precedent for Little Nut Tree, but we do get some verification. In the same passage already quoted above, William White mentions that one “Mr. C.W. Penny supplies from memory the same verses, which were taught him about 1842.” Reading between the lines, this tells me that the question of forgery must have occurred to others, and the fact that the poem was being passed on, orally, in 1842, seems to have argued in favor of the rhyme’s provenance (and sufficiently so for those concerned).

This brings us back to Halliwell-Phillips, On what basis does he assert that the rhyme may have stemmed from the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII?


Halliwell-Phillips provides no evidence to support his contention and he doesn’t claim to (which, to me, works in his favor). He writes: perhaps. When you read other analyses of this rhyme on the Internet and elsewhere, and when the analyses are written with an implied certainty, just remember this: It’s speculation. Just as Shakespearean “scholars”, in the past and present, have a rich history of fabricating biography (leading some on the “wild goose chase” of an Oxford, Bacon, or a Queen Elizabethan), Hallewill-Phillips was probably compelled, by the same urge, to speculate on the origins of A Little Nut Tree. (This kind of speculation, by the way, is no different than the speculation surrounding Browning’s My Last Duchess.) All of it makes for a good parlor game and keeps academics in business.

Wikipidia sums up the current thinking on A Little Nut Tree:

The characters in the nursery rhyme are believed to refer to the visit of the Royal House of Spain to King Henry VII’s English court in 1506. The ‘King of Spain’s daughter’ refers to the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. There were two daughters, Princess Juana and her sister Catherine of Aragon. The princess in the nursery rhyme is probably Catherine of Aragon who was betrothed to Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne of England. Arthur died and Catherine eventually married King Henry VIII. It was sad that “So fair a princess” had such a difficult life with Henry as she was the first of Henry’s six wives and discarded by the King to make way for Anne Boleyn. Queen Catherine was much loved by the British who were not fond of her replacement. The young, ‘King of Spain’s daughter’ relates to the young Catherine as a princess, and is immortalised in this old nursery rhyme.

Another site offers a variation on the same:

The characters in the nursery rhyme ‘I had a little nut tree’ are believed to refer to the visit of the Royal House of Spain to King Henry VII’s English court in 1506. The ‘King of Spain’s daughter’ refers to the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. There were two daughters, Princess Juana and her sister Katherine of Aragon. The princess in the nursery rhyme is probably Katherine of Aragon who was betrothed to Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne of England. Arthur died and Katherine eventually married King Henry VIII. It was sad that “So fair a princess” had such a difficult life with Henry as she was the first of Henry’s six wives and discarded by the King to make way for Anne Boleyn. Queen Katherine was much loved by the British people who hated her replacement, who they called ‘The Great Whore’. The young, beautiful princess relates to the young Katherine, as a princess and is immortalised in this old nursery rhyme.

The first question to ask is this: Why did Halliwell-Phillips suggest that Joanna of Castile (6 November 1479 – 12 April 1555) was the subject of the poem? No answer is forthcoming. There’s nothing in the poem to suggest Joanna of Castile but for the fact that the rhyme mentions “the King of Spain’s daughter”. (Joanna of Castile was briefly a guest of a younger Henry VIII due to a shipwreck.) This is probably why later scholars decided a more likely candidate would be Catherin of Aragon. (If we’re going to play this game, then the facts have to fit — at least a little.)

“I had a little nut tree…”

This is where interpretations of the poem remind me of Baconians or Oxfordians reading Shakespeare. It’s easy to read into poetry evidence that isn’t there and that’s because poetry is notoriously figurative and open to interpretation. (That’s largely what makes poetry so powerful.) So, if we want the poem to fit the facts, this is how we read the poem:

I had a little nut tree

This line refers to the genitals of Prince Arthur, Henry the VIII’s older brother. From there, we enter a hall of mirrors where speculation fits the poem to history and history to the poem.

Nothing would it bear

This is said to refer to either Arthur’s impotence or to infertility. (I personally think this is a peculiarly modern misinterpretation of the line.) Historians argue over whether Catherine and Arthur ever consummated their marriage. The matter was of paramount importance to Henry VIII (who later married her) and some  historians speculate that Catherine expediently lied, claiming that she and Arthur never consummated their marriage. On the other hand, Arthur was quoted as saying (the day after), that “Masters, it is good pastime to have a wife.” This sounds like a young husband who enjoyed himself. Then we enter into the hall of mirrors. Some scholars speculate that Arthur said this in order to cover up his impotence. Others counter that Catherine never raised the subject until Henry VIII evinced interest in marrying her. Worth keeping in mind is that nursery rhymes weren’t meant to be historically accurate. Indeed, if this poem really was inspired by the events surrounding Catherine and Arthur, it could have started out in the spirit of a modern day limerick — a jest and a way to explain occurrences that were steeped in gossip.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the poem’s meaning is quite straightforward. All boys are born with “a little nut tree” that, by itself, ‘bears nothing’. That brings us to the next two lines.

But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;

Nutmeg was a very valuable and sought after commodity that can be dated back to the medieval cuisine. It was used both as a powder and (more importantly as concerns our rhyme) as an oil (expressed from the nut). Continuing with  our interpretation, it’s hardly a leap to interpret the “silver nutmeg” as a bawdy and humorous reference to Arthur’s semen (presumably “expressed” by Catherine). The pear has a long tradition in pre-Christian and Christian iconography. According to an article by Jules Janick, “The Pear in History, Literature, Popular Culture, and Art“,

The first mention of the pear is found in Homer’s (9th century BC) epic poem, The Odyssey, confirming that the pear was cultivated in Greece as early as three thousand years ago. The pear is included as one of the “gifts of the gods” which grew in the garden of Alcinöus, the King of the Phaeacians…

By this, we learn that the pear was associated with divinity and royalty. Janick adds that “the grouping of pear, apple, and fig would persist in early Christian iconography, probably as a metaphor for sacred trees.” The idea of royal lineage as a sacred tree was a common place. Now, mix this in with the English proclivity for bawdy humor (in just about anything) and we come to Shakespeare:

Your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears, it looks ill, it eats drily; marry, ‘tis a withered pear; it was formerly better; marry yet ‘tis a withered pear. All’s Well that Ends Well i(1).

The comparison of a pear to a woman’s sex could have been original to Shakespeare, but I think it more likely that he was echoing common bawdy that equated the pear’s shape (just as we do today) to a woman’s belly and hips (pregnant or otherwise). What happens when we put all this together? The golden pear turns into an expansive pun and joke that combines the notion of Arthur’s lineage (the tree) and the golden pear (the royal womb). In other words, all that Arthur has to offer (and promise) is his semen, (the silver nutmeg), and an impregnated womb. The pear, or the womb, is gold because it will carry a royal child. (The mention of gold may additionally echo the gold of the crown.) “Nothing would it bear” can be understood, in the grammar of the day, not as meaning that Arthur is barren but that, because Arthur is a Prince, he can’t offer anything but the gold of his lineage. In other words, the Little Nut Tree, the prince’s genitalia, can produce nothing other than ‘silver’ semen and a ‘golden’ pear because of his royal lineage. Translation: The Little Nut Tree won’t settle for anything less than an equally royal womb. The Prince must wait for a Princess.

  • More grist for the mill: From A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance: Pear / pair, appear / a pair 1.) Testicles. Pear-tree (‘pyrie’ – TWR): penis, as in Chaucer’s, ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, where May, wanting ‘peres’, climbed up the tree to her waiting lover. 2.) Copulate (L copula, sexual union, from co(m)-, with apere, to fasten). Pair: a mated couple; to match, couple. Aperire: to open (F).

Knowing that the nut, then as now, was a pun on testicles, and knowing that Chaucer used the word pear as a pun for the penis, still more possible interpretations arise: Nutmeg = Testicle; Silver = Semen; Golden = Royal; and the Pear equals the Penis. If the rhyme originated during Elizabethan times, then we might well expect all these puns and connotations to have existed at once. I personally find it compelling that Chaucer was punning on pear as far back as the 12th century. This suggests that the provenance of the The Little Nut Tree may be far older than anyone has yet suggested – easily predating the events of Catherine and Arthur.

Lastly, Janick makes the observation that “In many parts of the world the pear symbolizes the human heart which it resembles.” It’s all there.

The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

The king of Spain’s daughter is visiting in order to be impregnated – for the sake of his “little nut tree”, a euphemism for his royal lineage and its future.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.

This is where the rhyme, as a history of Catherine and Arthur, runs aground. It was well-known during the time that Catherine was fair skinned, blue-eyed and red-haired – (nothing like the common Spanish caricatures). This is precisely the kind of gossip the people of Britain closely followed. Apologists will argue that the originator (or originators) of the rhyme probably had to conceal the true target of the poem but I find that a self-defeating argument. If it’s all but obvious to us, several hundred years later, who was targeted by the rhyme, then it would have been obvious to the court of Henry VIII. Would the change from red hair to “jet black” really have protected anyone? I doubt it. In fact, it might have been more insulting had Catherine’s appearance been described as jet black. This would  not have been considered praise.

I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

This verse, given what has come before, is all but self-explanatory. Arthur will marry Catherine and they will ‘to bed’, where he will give her all the fruit of his “little nut tree”. Many versions of this poem end here. If this rhyme is truly about Arthur and Catherine, then it would imply that the poem was created before Arthur died.

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

This beautifully poetic stanza is probably best appreciated as describing the exhalation of lovemaking. A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance tells us the following:

  • Dance Fornicate (‘daunce’ — TWR). Dekker and Middleton, The Honest Whore I, III.ii: a reformed whore reviles her ex-bawd who ‘guard’st the dore/Whilst couples go to daunching’. Danser: to dance, leap (Cot). Leap: coit (C;P). Cf. R2, II.iv.12 ‘ruffians [pimps – OED] dance and leap’. De la panse vient la danse: “when the bellie is full, the breech would be figging’ (Cot.)

As I’ve written already, correspondences like this encourage me to think that the poem is as old or older than the events of Catherine and Arthur, though there’s no way of knowing.  But does all this sound convincing? The thing to remember is that this is all, every bit of it, hearsay and gossip based on speculation by a 19th century amateur, almost 400 years after the fact. I personally think it’s a shame that this lovely rhyme, the loveliest of all nursery rhymes in my opinion,  has been buttonholed as a reference to Catherine and Arthur. I was saddened to read a comment like the following:

“The rhyme is neither charming nor cute, but politically ironic in origin, like most nursery rhymes. This one refers to the arrangement to marry the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon (who was by no means mad) to Prince Arthur (the elder son of Henry VII) and his failure to perform in the marital bed. Other cutesy ‘nursery rhymes’ originating in the Tudor/Stuart period include ‘Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ (ref. the decapitation of Anne Boleyn)’Little Jack Horner’ (ref. a contemporary Fat Cat trying to cream off from the Dissolution of the Monasteries) and ‘Ring-a-Ring of Roses’ which references the Great Plague. Then there’s ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary ..’ – a snide Protestant reference to Catholic Mary Stuart ….. Not so beautiful, but life as it was: viz. people wanting to comment on the activities of their political masters but afraid to do so overtly. (So, whats new?)”

My own speculation (I can’t stress that enough) is as follows: The wordplay, if that is what it is, makes me think the origins of the rhyme are contemporaneous with or predate the events of Catherine and Arthur. The original poem probably was not exactly like the poem that came down to us. It’s possible that the rhyme was associated with the events of Joanna of Castile or Catherine of Aragon but there is no evidence to support this interpretation. (It’s up to you to decide whether you accept this interpretation.) It’s likely that the original ‘girl’ was not “The King of Spain’s Daughter”. This was probably an alteration meant to suit (what were then) current events or could have been for other reasons (which I’ll touch on). If one is going to take the phrase “The King of Spain’s Daughter” literally, as evidence that the poem was intended to describe either Joanna or Catherine, then it’s willfully capricious and arbitrary to then disregard the fact that the rhyme describes the princess as having jet black hair. If the appellation “King of Spain’s Daughter” strongly argues for Joanna or Catherine, then the princess’s jet black hair as forcefully argues against the claim. As I wrote before, it was widely known that both women were fair skinned, blue-eyed and red-haired – qualities that were considered attributes of beauty, not dark or “jet black” hair.

I do not think this rhyme is about Joanna or Catherine.

“jet black hair…”

My own theory as to the identity of the princess with the jet black hair is steeped in folklore and mythology. In 1959, Eric Berne wrote an article called The Mythology of Dark and Fair: Psychiatric Use of Folklore. In the article, discussing northern European mythology, he writes that  golden hair was an attribute of the pure and innocent maiden, while dark hair suggested the ardent, passionate, inexpressibly terrible temptress who offers the treasure trove of a great sin.” Dark hair and complexion was also seen, in a conventionally literary sense, as less desirable. It’s for this reason that Shakespeare could write his sonnets to the “Dark Lady” in the full knowledge that his audience would “get it”.

Sonnet 127

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Shakespeare’s contemporary, the poet Sidney, also stews in the sexual promise of the dark haired girl (and black’s contrary associations with death and mourning):



When Nature made her chief work – STELLA’S eyes
In colour black why wrapt she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise
Frame daintiest lustre, mixed of shades of light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise,
In object best to knit and strength our sight?
Lest if no veil these brave gleams did disguise,
They sun-like should more dazzle than delight.
Or would she her miraculous power show?
That whereas black seems beauty’s contrary
She, even in black, doth make all beauties flow!
But so and thus, she minding LOVE should be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed;
To honour all their deaths, which for her bleed.

In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, the inviting dangers of the dark lady’s sexual excess are made explicit:

Sonnet 129

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest, to have extreme,
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe,
Before a joy proposed behind a dream.
All this the world well knows yet none knows well,
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The point isn’t that Sidney or Shakespeare wrote the The Little Nut Tree, but that they wrote with the expectation that their audience understood the associations surrounding the dark haired girl and woman — that there is something of the forbidden and alluring about them: libidinous and desirable.

“the King of Spain…”

From what I can tell, the temptation has always been to assume that the “King of Spain” must be a literal historical figure. However, other features of the nursery rhyme don’t quite add up. My own hunch is that the “King of Spain” was more a symbolic reference than a literal one – like the King of the Elves.

If we think of the rhyme as having originated sometime between the 15th and 17th century, we find that relations between England and Spain could be surprisingly cordial and warm. Most importantly, Spain had discovered the Americas. Whole new trade routes were being explored. New and exotic products — herbs, spices and fabrics — were being exported to England, along with stories of fabulous wealth and strange peoples. For a period of time, the King of Spain must have seemed, indeed, like the King of a fabled magical horizon burgeoning with strange delights, untold riches and fantastic stories. (The newfound wealth and trade routes of the Spaniards would increasingly rankle the jealous British aristocracy.) My hunch is that the King of Spain, in The Little Nut Tree, is better  understood as a sort of mythical King in a land that allures with new and exotic wealth and strangeness.

In this light, the idea of the daughter with the jet black hair also makes more sense. She is the archetypal dark haired beauty who epitomizes the allure that is sexual, dangerous, promising, fecund, unknowable but desired. All of the previous analysis still stands, minus the intrusion of Catherine and Arthur. Not only that, but there’s an inner mystical beauty to the rhyme that makes itself felt – and may account for it’s survival.

I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;

As before, the nursery rhyme can be read as a little fable — a foretelling of every child’s sexual awakening (and its necessity). The little nut tree is the boy and young man’s genitalia. “I have a little nut tree”, says the mother to the little boy (as though speaking for him) and “nothing would it bear”. It cannot and never will without union (remember the pun on pear and pair) with a girl or woman. He has nothing to offer but a silver nutmeg (his semen) and a golden pear. The golden pair serves as a pun on his penis and symbolizes the fruit of his lovemaking – the golden (their combined love) pear or the impregnated womb.

The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

The King of Spain is every father and the Princess in the crimson dress and jet black hair is every daughter. The King of Spain is the mysterious, feared and powerful King whose alluring wealth is his mysterious and exotic daughter with the jet black hair. Someday, says the mother through the nursery rhyme, the King of Spain’s daughter will come to visit you all for the sake of your little nut tree.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.

Crimson, as we all know, symbolizes passion and sexuality, but also suggests the blood of a woman’s virginity and her period – what she has to offer for the boy’s silver nutmeg. The daughter’s “jet black hair” (which is always symbolically jet black) symbolizes the daughter’s sexual allure, mystery and libido. She promises pleasure and wealth by asking for the boy’s golden pear (his penis). Their “pairing” (and his child in her womb) will make him a “King of Spain”.

I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

…a dress made of crimson…

In these lines we can hear the mother, through the rhymes, instructing her son. She will be beautiful. Do not be afraid. Give her all the fruit of your little nut tree. Give her your silver nutmeg (your semen) and your golden pear.

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

In the closing stanza, without which (in my opinion) the poem is only half the poem it could be, the mother promises the boy the physical and spiritual ecstasy of sexual union, love and lovemaking (in terms he won’t yet understand). The mother could also be describing her own ecstasy, and that of his father’s, during the conception of their son. Read in this light, the poem is nothing if not a beautiful prompting and celebration of love and procreation.

Naturally, the bawdy and humorous elements are there; and the poem is enriched by them.

But there’s also a mystical undercurrent that captures my heart. We can read the little nut tree as our  soul. The King of Spain is the physical world and his daughter, the princess, is the gift he offers our soul — crimson, jet black, sexual and of the earth. The beautiful girl offers us both life and death. If we freely give to her all the fruit of our soul when she asks for it (both sexual and spiritual), the reward will be a physical and spiritual ecstasy — the golden pear. On that day we will dance o’er the water and dance o’er  the sea and not even the birds i’th’air will catch us.




I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

Monday’s Child is Fair of Face

Illustration by Blanche Fisher Wright

  • As of today, Sept. 21 2013 and the first full day of autumn, this post has been viewed over 50,000 times. :-) Also, if you enjoy this post, you might also like the discussion of Mother Goose’s: I had a little nut tree…

I just picked up a used book A Child’s Anthology of Poetry, which I’ll talk more about in a later post. Suffice it to say, I like it very much.

After writing analyses of serious poems by serious poets, I wanted to try something different: a well-known nursery rhyme by Mother Goose, which isn’t to say that a nursery rhyme can’t be taken seriously. One of the most interesting facets to Mother Goose’ nursery rhymes is how amazingly interesting they really are! I suspect that most of us, when we first read them, think of them as nothing more than cute doggerel. (Modern poets have tried to write nursery rhymes with the flavor of the originals but, at least for me, there’s always the feeling that they’ve been contrived.) In fact, almost every one of Mother Goose’s rhymes has a rich history behind it. To demonstrate, I’ve picked out Monday’s Child. As of this sentence, I don’t know anything more about the poem than you do (and probably less). To me, it’s just a cute rhyme. But let’s see what we turn up.

Here’s the rhyme. Most of you know it well.

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

So, being methodical as ever, let’s go from the most to the least. The most being this: Who was “Mother Goose”? Seems that scholars are mostly in agreement: She’s a mythical personage whose name most probably derived from the title of Charles Perrault’s collection of fairy tales, “Contes de ma mère l’oye” or “Tales of Mother Goose”. The collection was published in 1697. Britannica states that “Mother Goose” is derived from a French expression that roughly translates as “old wives’ tales” [“Mother Goose.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe Edition.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010].

Both Britannica and Wikipedia mention the claims made for the true life Bostonian Elizabeth Goose. The claim that Elizabeth Goose was the origination of Mother Goose, though charming, is flatly and sadly dismissed by Britannica.

The persistent legend that Mother Goose was an actual Boston woman, Elizabeth Goose (Vergoose, or Vertigoose), whose grave in Boston’s Old Granary Burying Ground is still a tourist attraction, is false. No evidence of the book of rhymes she supposedly wrote in 1719 has ever been found. The first U.S. edition of Mother Goose rhymes was a reprint of the Newbery edition published by Isaiah Thomas in 1785. [Ibid]

If you’re curious to read more about this “persistent” urban myth, Wikipedia offers a bit more information.

The Poem

The poem, like many if not most nursery rhymes, is accentual. A poem written in meter, like Iambic Pentameter, would be called an accentual syllabic poem. This means that the accents (stressed syllables) are the same (or mostly) in each line and that the number of syllables in each line are the same (or mostly). In the case of Iambic Pentameter, there are mostly 10 syllables per line and of those 10 syllables 5 are almost always accented.

  • What does “fair of face mean“? I’ve seen this query several times in my dashboard. Seems like this is a good place to answer the question. Fair has the meaning: beautiful, but also auspicious and fortunate. So, Monday’s child, in a fortune-telling sense, means that Monday’s child is not only beautiful, but promises good things and a fortunate life.

In accentual poetry, the poet is only counting the number of accents per line, not syllables but only stressed syllables. So, Mother Goose’s little ditty would look like this:

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Four stressed syllables per line. What does this tell us?  Britannica tells us the following:

The oldest extant copy dates from 1791, but it is thought that an edition appeared, or was planned, as early as 1765, and it is likely that it was edited by Oliver Goldsmith, who may also have composed some of the verses. [Ibid]

First, we know that accentual/syllabic meter (Iambic Pentameter for example) was only firmly established between the 1570’s and 1590’s. Chaucer had written Iambic Pentameter (not blank verse) but his innovations were largely forgotten until the Elizabethan era rediscovered the meter. We also have reason to believe that many of the poems in Mother Goose were probably poems passed from generation to generation by memory. One of the poems, I had a little nut tree, is thought to stem from the visit of Katherine of Aragon to England in 1506 – Katherine was betrothed to Prince Arthur and later married King Henry VIII when Prince Arthur  died.

So, given those two pieces of information, it makes sense that these nursery rhymes would be largely accentual. They reflect an earlier poetic tradition dating as far back, possibly, as Anglo-Saxon song and language. These nursery rhymes are old poems and even if we grant that Goldsmith may have penned some of the verses, he seems to have imitated the accentual language of the originals.

The poem Monday’s Child, interestingly, was not in the original edition but was first recorded in 1838, in A. E. Bray’s Traditions of Devonshire (Volume II, pp.287-288). This doesn’t mean that Monday’s child is a contrivance of 1838. As we’ll find out, the tradition (from which this proverbial poem springs) can be dated back, at least, to the 1570’s.

Fortune Tellers

If the tradition of this poem can be dated back to the 1570’s, then it surely predates the 1570’s. And what was that tradition? Fortune telling. I’ve read some commentary on this poem portraying it as no more than a mnemonic aid to help children remember the days of the week, but I think the poem is much more interesting than that. Turns out, the poem springs from a tradition of fortune telling proverbs. Human beings have always wanted a way to foresee future events and we’ve always been suckers for predictions. In his book, Oral and literate culture in England, 1500-1700, author Adam Fox provides us the following:

The Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe remembered how, as a boy growing up at Lowestoft, Suffolk, in the 1570s, he had been spellbound by the faiths and fables which the old women had solemnly handed down around the home fire.

I haue heard aged mumping beldams as they stay warming their knees ouer a coale scratch ouer the argument verie curiously, and they would bid yong folks beware on what day they par’d their nayles, tell what luck euerie one should haue by the day of the weeke he was borne on; show how many yeares a man should liue by the number wrinkles on his forhead, and stand descanting not a litle of the difference in fortune when they are turned vpward, and when they are bent downward; him that had a wart on his chin, they would confidently assertaine he should haue no need anie of kin: marry, they would likewise distinguish betweene the standing of the wart on the right side and on the left. When I was a little childe, I was a great auditor of theirs, and had all their witchcrafts at my fingers endes, as perfit as good morrow and good euen. (*)

So it was, according to the old wive’s catechism, that Friday was the unluckiest day. ‘Now Friday came, your old wives say, of all the week’s unluckiest day.’ Despite this, however, every milkmaid knew that a dream on Friday night was sure to come true. [Page 182]

(*) John Melton, Astrologaster, or, The Figure-Caster (London, 1620), 53, and see 45-7, 67,69,71; Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night (1594), in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. McKerrow and Wilson, i. 369.

Is that a smoking gun or what? There’s ample reason to believe that Monday’s Child is much older than it’s first printed appearance in 1838. And what’s also worth noting is Nashe’s emphasis on old women ( the old wife or Mother Goose as the French might have called her). Women were the culture’s poetic memory and story tellers. In fact, there seems to have been a cottage industry in fortune telling by rhyme. Monday’s Child has some siblings.

Sunday’s child is full of grace
Monday’s child is full in the face
Tuesday’s child is solemn and sad
Wednesday’s child is merry and glad
Thursday’s child is inclined and thieving
Friday’s child is free in giving
Saturday’s child works hard for a living

Born on Monday, fair of face;
Born on Tuesday, full of grace;
Born on Wednesday, merry and glad;
Born on Thursday, wise and sad;
Born on Friday, Godly given;
Born on Saturday, earn a good living;
Born on Sunday, blithe and gay

Sunday’s child is full of grace,
Monday’s child is fair of face;
Tuesday’s child loves to race,
Wednesday’s child is kind of heart;
Thursday’s child is very smart,
Friday’s child will never part;
Saturday’s child is good of heart. [Page 105]

In the book, Baby Lore: Superstitions and Old Wives Tales from the World Over Related to Pregnancy, Birth and Babycare, the author Rosalind Franklin ascribes these variants, respectively, to the West Country of the UK, to Scotland and to the United States. If there was one thing that characterized the early United States it was the sense of optimism and hope typified by its immigrants. I don’t think it’s random that the variant found in the US is the most optimistic and hopeful (although the Scottish variant isn’t far behind  and many American immigrants were Scottish). The most pessimistic of the variants belong to the UK.

But there are more rhymes of the fortune telling kind. G.F. Northall, author of English folk-rhymes; a collection of traditional verses relating to places and persons, customs, superstitions, etc (evidently, collectors of really, really short poems like really, really long titles) found two more variants:

Born of a Monday,
·Fair in face;
Born on a Tuesday,
·Full of God’s grace;
Born of a Wednesday,
·Merry and glad;
Born of a Thursday,
·Sour and sad;
Born of a Friday,
·Godly given;
Born of a Saturday,
·Work for your living;
Born of a Sunday.
·Never shall we want;
·So there ends the week,
·And there’s an end on’t.

Born of a Monday,
·Fair in face;
Born on a Tuesday,
·Full of God’s grace;
Born on Wednesday,
·Sour and sad;
Born on Thursday,
·Merry and glad;
Born on a Friday,
·Worthily given;
Born on Saturday,
·Work hard for your living;
Born on Sunday,
·You will never know want. [Page 161]

But what if you need to know what day of the week to marry? In the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 25, we find the following:

Monday for health, Tuesday for wealth,
Wednesday the best day of all,
Thursday for losses, Friday for crosses,
Saturday no day at all.

Or, if you prefer:

Monday for wealth;
Tuesday for health;
Wednesday the best day of all;
Thursday for crosses;
Friday for losses;
Saturday no luck at all. [Page 160]

What’s the best day to sneeze?

Sneeze on a Monday, you sneeze for danger;
Sneeze on a Tuesday, you kiss a stranger;
Sneeze on a Wednesday, you receive a letter;
Sneeze on a Thursday, you’ll get something better;
Sneeze on a Friday, expect great sorrow;
Sneeze on a Saturday, meet a sweetheart to-morrow;
Sneeze on a Sunday, your safety seek,
·The devil will chase you the whole of the week. [Page 167]

And remember Thomas Nashe? He wrote that the aged mumping beldam “would bid yong folks beware on what day they par’d their nayles”?

Cut your nails Monday, you cut them for news;
Cut them on Tuesday, a pair of new shoes;
Cut them on Wednesday, you cut them for health;
Cut them on Thursday, ’twill add to your wealth;
Cut them on Friday, you cut them for woe;
Cut them on Saturday, a journey you’ll go;
Cut them on Sunday, you cut them for evil,
·All the week long you’ll be ruled by the devil. [Page 167-168]

So, all this is to say the Monday’s Child springs from a rich tradition of prognosticating rhymes and proverbial lore. In fact, our language is full of them.

A red sky in the morning is the sailor’s warning.
A red sky at night is the sailor’s delight.

Or the way I heard the rhyme from my grandmother was:

Red sky at morn, sailors forlorn.
Red sky at night, sailors delight.

Poems like these are a poetic undercurrent deeply imbedded in our language and culture but which, like the beldams, are all too frequently treated with condescension or overlooked. These women, mothers and grandmothers, entertained raised and taught the children of every generation and their music, poetry and stories are the great building blocks of all great literature. Theirs is a realm of literature which even self-professed feminists overlook in their efforts to recognize their more “literary” sisters. Shakespeare would be half the poet if it weren’t for his astounding knowledge and memory for proverbs. His poetry is literally stuffed with proverbial lore. Where Ben Jonson understood human nature through its humors, Shakespeare teased forth human nature from our proverbs.  I personally think it’s no mistake that one of the most realistic characters in all of his plays is the Nurse (the old beldam) in Romeo and Juliet. I don’t doubt that Shakespeare, in his youth, was just as enthralled by his own Mother Goose as Thomas Nashe, his contemporary. Whole books are dedicated to the proverbs he must have remembered from his childhood. Here is just one example:

The proverb fair and foolish, black and proud, long and lazy, little and loud, is at root, predictive, just like Monday’s Child. The proverb becomes a series of stinging jests in the dangerously scheming mind of Iago:

Iago I am bout it, but indeed my invention
Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze —
It plucks out brains and all. But my muse labours,
And thus is she delivered:
If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit,
The one’s for use, the other useth it.

Desdemona Well praised! How if she be black and witty?

Iago If she be black and thereto have a wit
She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.

Desdomona Worse and worse.

Emelia How if fair and foolish?

Iago She never yet was foolish that was fair,
For even her folly helped her to an heir.

Desdemona These are old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh i’th’alehouse.
What miserable praise hast thou for her
That’s foul and foolish?

Iago There’s none so foul and foolish thereunto,
But does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do.

  • Note: Black, in Elizabethan times, didn’t have the same connotations as now. Although Iago makes a sexual dig at Desdemona saying that she will find a white (her womb) “that shall her blackness fit” (Othello’s penis), the appellation black generally referred to any European (including the English) who were darker complexioned, like the Italians and some of the Scottish, noted for their dark hair and eyes. The beautiful Emilia Lanier, for example, is sometimes identified as the “dark lady” in Shakespeare’s sonnets, claimed to be his lover, and was known to be a “dark” complexioned Italian. She was a musician, feminist and poet of considerable talent.

The proverb itself is a bit of fortune telling, much like Monday’s Child, and may have arisen from just such a rhyme (each of the lines in Monday’s Child is essentially a bit of proverbial lore).

At this point I can’t help inserting my usual jab at free verse. Ask yourself: Doesn’t a rhyming prophecy lend itself to the memory? I can think of nothing duller than a free verse prophecy. If nothing else, all of these poems bespeak the richness and joy taken in the sounds of our language. Modern poets lost much when they turned away from the music of language (one of which was book sales). Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes still vastly outsell any modern free verse poet (much to their annoyance whenever I mention it).

The Days of the Week

So what’s with the days of the week. Why is Monday characterized one way and Tuesday another?

Is there rhyme or reason?

The likeliest answer is the former. The characterizations probably reflect nothing more than the convenience of rhyme. What rhymes with face but grace? On the other hand, many of Mother Goose’s seemingly nonsensical and innocuous poems refer to real historical events (and frequently events that didn’t end well). Goosey Goosey Gander was a warning not to harbor Catholic Priests. During the Tudor era, when the Protestant religion was on the rise, harboring Catholic priests (who said they’re prayers in Latin) was punishable by death. Did that threat of execution extend to the children of the family? Possibly.

Goosey Goosey Gander is, in a certain way, similar to the political and propagandist poems children chant in North Korea and used to chant in the Soviet Union (though Goosey Goosey is not so ham-fisted or, at least, has been mellowed by age).

Rosalind Franklin’s book, Baby Lore, mentioned above, provides a nice summary of what varying cultures have associated with the days of the week. One is quickly reminded of astrology. No one, if read the personality traits of the different days, could consistently identify their own day. Descriptions frequently contradict each other and, if you’re a fortune teller, this is a good thing. This is what you want. Cover all your bases.

Suffice it to say, Sunday is the Sabbath day and no God-fearing Christian is going to associate negativity with the Sabbath day. The wise (Christian) child will always choose to be born on Sunday. Friday, on the other hand, was the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Children born on Friday are treated well, but  if you sneeze or cut your nails on Friday you will get what you deserve. Friday is for losses and crosses.

Here are some abridged (by me) Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases from the book Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases: From English Writings mainly Before 1500. These are the kinds of proverbs that would make their way into the rhymes and stories of beldams at whose feet sat the likes of Shakespeare and Nashe.

M618 Black Monday

1359 Gild of St. Nicholas in English gilds, ed. Toulmin Smith: The secunde (mornspeche) shal be onblake monunday. 1435 Chronicles of London Wherefore, unto this day yt ys callyd blak Monday, and wholle be longe tyme here affter. c1443 Chronicles of London Wherfore unto this day manye men callen it the blake Monday.

M619 A Monday’s handsel (gift) is great pain to children. c1475 Rawlinson A monday-ys hansell ys grete pane to chyddryn.

T280 Thursday and Sunday are cousins 1483 Caxton Golden Legende And therefore comenly the proverbe was, that the thursday and the sonday were cosyns. For thene that one was as solemne as that other.

F621 Now Friday shines and now it rains fast c1385 Chaucer: Right as the Friday, soothly for to telle, Now it shyneth, now it reyneth faste.

F622 Sled is the Friday all the week alike c1385 Chaucer: Sele is the Friday all the wowke ylike.

F623 To have fele (many) Fridays in one’s forehead c1475 Prohemy of a Marriage: In the forehed fele fridayes this no fage. (Fage, I think, means flattery.)

S907 He that hangs himself on Sunday shall still hang on Monday. 1546 Heywood: Well, he that hangth him selfe a sondaie (said hee) Shall hang still uncut downe a mondaie for mee.

Here, by contrast, are American proverbs from the Dictionary of American Proverbs.


  1. Monday is the key of the week.
  2. Monday religion is better than Sunday procession.
  3. So goes Monday, so goes all the week.


  1. Every day is not Friday; there is also Thursday.
  2. Friday and the week are seldom alike. (Notice how this proverb survived the centuries!)
  3. Friday begun, never done.
  4. a. Friday is the fairest or foulest day. b.Friday is the fairest or foulest day of the week.
  5. Never start anything important on Friday.
  6. a. Thank God it’s Friday. b. Friday night begins the weekend.


  1. Saturday begun is never done.
  2. Saturday’s cleaning will not last through Sunday, but Sunday’s will last all week./Saturday’s flitting is short sitting.


  1. Sunday oils the wheels of the week.

I find it curious that neither book of proverbs include the proverbial lore of Mother Goose’s Monday’s Child. I think it’s an oversight on the part of the authors, but typical.

Anyway, I could go into the meaning behind the names of the days of the week but that’s getting far afield and I doubt such knowledge was common among the generations who handed down Mother Goose. I doubt there was any thought put into the origin of the word Wednesday and that Wednesday’s child is “full of woe”. In another version of the poem, after all, Wednesday’s child is “merry and glad”.

But there you have it. You know as much as I do and, still, probably more.