As we grow older, we subconsciously return to the years of our youth and adolescence, remembering – in dreams as well as when awake – the words of songs, TV tunes, and even advertising jingles from back in the day … nonetheless, we can’t remember where we left our spectacles, why we went to a room in the house, or what we were saying.
Lately, I have been awakening from fitful night sleeps with nursery rhymes running through my mind.
Have you ever revisited them and wondered — whatever was their genesis, meaning, and purpose — how they may have affected our later lives? I believe I may have put my finger on the primal source of our fears and frustrations, anxieties, neuroses and psychoses—sadistic or masochistic.
Maybe it’s my own paranoia, but I’ve come to suspect that nursery rhymes are nowhere nearly as benign as Mother Goose and her ilk would have us believe!
Consider, if you will:
“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 may well have been the first real vegan, an organic and sustainable living diehard. But why couldn’t he keep his wife? Was it something that he did or didn’t do (perhaps he couldn’t satisfy her?) or something which was her responsibility, not his? The plot thickens in the second verse, where we learn Peter had another wife and that he didn’t love her.
In terms of double names, another nursery rhyme speaks quite negatively of women. Is this how women would like to be described—or your wife, daughter, sister, friend?
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary.” And then, out of nowhere, Mary is asked, “How does your garden grow?” She answers: “With silver bells and cockleshells. And pretty maids all in a row.” Contrarian, indeed! (Not to mention sexist.)
If there ever was a case to be made for women’s health, reproductive rights, and the potential for child abuse, it dates back to that old woman who lived in a shoe:
“She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. She gave them some broth without any bread; Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.”
Maybe, in fact, Old Mother Hubbard was really that old lady living in a shoe? Talk about problems. And we blame the dog, not her, for being misanthropic:
Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard, to give her poor doggie a bone; When she came there, the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dog had none. She went to the baker to buy him some bread; when she came back, the dog was dead! She went to the undertakers to buy him a coffin; when she came back, the dog was laughing.
Cupboards and pantries bring up the matter of eating disorders. Along with bulimia and anorexia, who ever would want to eat something less savory or nourishing than this:
“Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old; Some like it hot, some like it cold, Some like it in the pot, nine days old.”
Evidently, expiration and use dates didn’t exist back in the day when children would pair up and clap their hands to the rhyme. Talk about bad influences! Is it any wonder that some youngsters reject proper table manners, with Jack Horner as their example?
Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, eating his Christmas pie; he put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum, and said, “What a good boy am I!”
Why was that poor child eating in the corner, in the first place … especially during Christmas? We’ve all heard of holiday fruit cake and even plum pudding; but a plum in a Christmas pie? Give me a break, please: What a self-serving egotist Jack Horner must have been, anyway!
And the discipline – punishments! – doled out by these sing-song voices and verses …
Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey; there came a big spider, who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away.
Poor little Miss Muffet. Not only did she have to eat while sitting on a tuffet, but her food sounds rather unpalatable. Then a spider (a big one at that) decides to sit down beside her. It’s truly frightening, I daresay.
Spiders figure prominently into nursery rhymes. Remember this one? It gives me the heebie-jeebies just imagining:
The itsy-bitsy spider went up the waterspout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out. Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, and the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.
Of course, spiders aren’t the only creatures and critters whose plight incites fear and terror. Consider mice:
Three blind mice, three blind mice. See how they run, see how they run! They all ran after the farmer’s wife. She cut off their tails with a carving knife. Did ever you see such a sight in your life as three blind mice?
Danger lurks in harm’s way amid many nursery rhymes. There’s the tale of those mischievous siblings who made it to the top of the hill, only to roll all the way back down:
Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.
Falling down and breaking more than a crown is the lot of Humpty Dumpty:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.
And then there are those nursery rhymes that, seemingly, make no sense whatsoever … unless they’re coded chatter messages to co-conspirators:
Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon; the little dog laughed to see such sport, and the dish ran away with the spoon.
There are lots more cases to be made against nursery rhymes and their nightmarish world to which children are subjected. As is the case, as well, with our favorite fables and fairy tales. Woe to Hansel & Gretel! The trials and tribulations of three little pigs against the voracious wolf. Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast. Like many of their friends — the Pied Piper, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, et al — they’re Frankensteins in disguise.
People love to tell dark scary stories. Fairy tales often had lessons in them to teach kids. They were dark, because the protagonist would suffer a consequence for a behavior that is deemed undesirable. Essentially, they served the same purpose as telling a kid that Santa won’t deliver presents if they’re not good.