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Tag Archives: Mother Goose’s Quarto

Origins: Sing a Song of Sixpence

“Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie…”

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four-and-twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Now wasn’t that a dainty dish
To put before the King?

The king was in his counting house
Counting out his money,
The Queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey,


The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ describes a domesticity foreign to most of us.  The first and second stanzas refer to a show stopping dish described in The Accomplisht Cook, published in 1671.

 … where lifting first the lid off one pie, out skips some Frogs, which makes the Ladies to skip and shreek; next after the other Pie, whence comes out the Birds; who by a natural instinct flying at the light, will put out the Candles; so that what with the flying Birds, and skipping Frogs, the one above, the other beneath, will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company.

Such dishes were designed to display the wealth of those whose table they graced, so it’s not surprising that the King has taken to his counting house – a place where business transactions would take place, essentially a home office – to luxuriate in his wealth. In nursery rhymes royal families often represent ‘proper’ gender hierarchies and relations, and so it is here. The King is patriarch  auditing the means of his control, the Queen in her parlour is social and the maid works for her keep.

The maid of the rhyme is an enigma. ‘Maid’ could refer to a servant, as her activity suggests, or to her unmarried state. And why is she getting her nose pecked off? Could it be a punishment? In Christianity the blackbird is a symbol of damnation and in centuries passed a missing nose was a sure sign of untreated syphilis – is our maid being punished for sexual indiscretions?

A verse closely resembling the rhyme we know today appeared in the oldest book of nursery rhymes Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (vol. II, pub. 1744) to have survived to the present day. The lyric is identical save the first verse:

Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
Bak’d in a Pye.

But it is in Gamer Gurton’s Garland, from around 1784 that we first find the full four verses that we know today. The rhyme appears in all the usual publications in some form or another; Tom Tit’s Song Book, Mother Goose’s Quarto, and The Nursery Rhymes of England (and other less well-known tomes) each reproduce a version, with some adding a ‘happy ending’ in additional stanzas such as this that appears in 1866:

They sent for the King’s doctor, who sewed it on again,
He sewed it on so neatly the seam was never seen;
And the Jackdaw for his naughtiness, deservedly was slain.

Though this tactic appears unsuccessful, it did not stop the BBC having a go on Listen with Mother in 1950:

They made such a commotion that little Jenny wren
Flew down into the garden and put it back again.

It’s possible that Shakespeare references the rhyme in Twelfth Night (Come, there is a sixpence for you; let’s have a song [II.iii]), which dates the verse further. ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ is likely to pre-date its first known publication significantly.

As to the origins of this song, competing theories exist. Since the appearance of this spoof snopes.com page, sometime between 1995 and 2000, the belief that the rhyme is a coded recruitment song for pirates has gained momentum. The theory falls at the first hurdle  – how would the potential recruits understand the coded message before they’d got the job and learned the code?

The most widely accepted theory concerns, as so many nursery rhyme origin tales do, Henry VIII; Henry counts his money following the sizeable cash injection dissolving the monasteries provided, his Queen, Catherine of Aragon and the maid his mistress and soon to be replacement spouse Anne Boleyn.

This theory suggests that sensitive documents – in this case property deeds – were transported about the country inside pies before being gifted to the king by churchmen (blackbirds) hoping for a cushy job in government (or the newly formed Church of England). When Anne Boleyn failed to produce an heir the same blackbirds concocted a plot accusing her of adultery and incest, and had her nose removed by virtue of the fact that it was attached to her head, which they chopped off.

If all that sounds a little far-fetched, well, it is. It’s easy to read far too much into verses designed to be nonsense, and I rather like my syphilis theory, but the Opie’s suggestion that the rhyme is merely ‘a description of a familiar entertainment’ (p. 471) is, alas, most probable.

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.