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?

None.

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):

ASTROPHEL AND STELLA

VI

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.

·

·

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

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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.

Monday

  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.

Friday

  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.

Saturday

  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.

Sunday

  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.

The Songbird – A Fable with Poetry

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woodcut-swan-fade-correctedI wasn’t sure whether I would post my fables but many of them include poetry and many of them are all but prose-poems. The poems, or songs, are based on songs from Shakespeare’s plays – the structure and the rhyme scheme. I experimented in the last of the songs, using the older forms of the pronouns. I will print the three poems separately in posts that follow. I didn’t think it would make sense to post them as separate from the fable in which they were created. Page 1 The Songbird (No background) Page 2 The Songbird (No background) Page 3 The Songbird (No background) Page 4 The Songbird (No background) Page 5 The Songbird (No background) Page 6 The Songbird (No background) Page 7 The Songbird (No background)