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Origins: Simple Simon

“Let me taste your ware”

Simple Simon met a pie man,
Going to the fair;
Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Let me taste your ware”.

Said the pieman to Simple Simon,
“Show me first your penny.”
Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Sir I have not any.”

Simple Simon went a-fishing,
For to catch a whale;
All the water he had got
Was in his mother’s pail.

Simple Simon went to look
If plumbs grew on a thistle;
He pricked his finger very much,
Which made poor Simon whistle.

He went to catch a dicky bird,
And thought he could not fail
Because he had a little salt,
To put upon its tail.

He went for water with a sieve,
But soon it ran all through;
And now poor Simple Simon
Bids you all adieu.

The first publication of ‘Simple Simon’ that we know of is in a chapbook of 1764. The phrase ‘simple Simon’ denoting a silly or thoughtless person can be traced back at least as far as 1665 when a song of that name is included in the third edition of The Dancing Master, an English Country Dancing manual by John Playford.

An additional verse appears in Early English Poetry, Ballads and Popular Literature of the Middle Ages, published in 1842:

Simple Simon went to town,
To buy a piece of meat:
He tied it to his horses tail
To keep it clean an sweet.

The book claims that the verses it contains ‘were all of them current during the reign of Edward I’, which is almost certainly tosh, and which cannot be backed up with further evidence.

‘Simple Simon’ is part of a tradition in nursery rhymes and children’s songs of making an example of ignorance or bad behaviour (other examples include ‘There Was a Little Girl‘) and s By ridiculing Simple Simon for his attempts to catch a whale in a bucket or buy pies with no money, we internalise the notion that ignorance equals social stigma and cement in ourselves the idea that knowledge and learning are a good thing.

This message is corroborated in George Butt’s Poems, of 1793:

Saith Simon the simple to Joseph the seer,
I’m come some advice from your worship again,
What a dolt thou art, Sim, quoth the sage, to come here,
Yet hast brought me no vessel the thing to contain.

The rhyme is, too, good for the ego – if we can see that Simon is simple, we can deduce that we are not: Simple Simon does not learn and continues to make thoughtless errors (Butt portrays him as actually brainless) but we, if we put our minds to it, will not.

One response »

  1. Pingback: Origins: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe « TreasuryIslands

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