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Origins: Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater

This is probably not what he meant

This is probably not what he meant

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had another and didn’t love her;
Peter learned to read and spell,
And then he loved her very well.

‘Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater’ was first anthologised in the UK in 1797 in Infant Institutes and in 1825 in North America in Mother Goose’s Quarto: or Melodies Complete. The Opie’s posit that ‘Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater’ is a variant of this verse collected in Aberdeen and its Folk in 1868,

Peter, my neeper,
Had a wife,
And he coudna’ keep her,
He pat her i’ the wa’,
And lat a’ the mice eat her.

and this one from around the same time,

Eeper Weeper, chimbly sweeper,
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her.
Had another, didn’t love her,
Up the chimbly he did shove her.

A psychoanalytical reading of the rhyme suggests that Peter’s treatment of his first wife exemplifies fear of (and desire to control) women. Lucy Rollin explains in Cradle and All: A Cultural and Analytical Study of Nursery Rhymes:

“Keep” here carries the meaning of “provide for” and suggest that Peter was a practical man who used his resources cleverly. But the image of the wife in the enclosed shell certainly implies “keep” in the more sinister modern sense (sinister even when the “shell” is an elegant suburban home).

p. 46

Peter clearly didn’t keep her that well though, as by the second stanza he seems to have remarried. In the most common version of the rhyme ‘Peter learned to read and spell, / And then he loved her very well’.

The association of marriage and learning to spell might have a strong unconscious appeal for the child just repressing  its unsatisfied curiosity about sexual matters in favour of the knowledge that adults offer instead – in this case the knowledge of the alphabet.

p. 111

In a version collected later (1918) the rhyme ends ‘Had another, didn’t love her / Causing instantaneous bother’. Rollin doesn’t mention this alternate ending, which provides a warning to learn from your mistakes, in her psychoanalytical reading, but would perhaps note the lack of companionate marriage is not unusual in nursery rhymes, where Jack Sprat is an anomaly.

More recently Dr Doug Larche has re-written the rhyme to appear in his non-racist, non-sexist, non-violent 1986 collection Father Gander’s Nursery Rhymes: The Equal Rhymes Amendment (which is also incredibly gender essentialist and heteronormative, from what I’ve read so far). His version sees Peter keep his wife:

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and wished to keep her.
Treated her with fair respect,
She stayed with him and hugged his neck!

This version has not yet caught on.

One response »

  1. I always thought the poem was about a cannibalistic wife murder, and his wife was unfaithful. He couldn’t “keep her” put her in a pumpkin shell and he being a pumpkin eater, there he kept her very well.

    Reply

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