Katherine Govier: On Mother Goose and Reading With Mum

Half For You and Half For Me

What is the magic and what is the meaning of the nursery rhymes that stay in our heads for a lifetime? The answers are here in Katherine Govier's new book, Half For You and Half For Me, whose enchanting introduction appears below.

Some rhymes describe historical events and some are just plain nonsense. Some of the oldest rhymes were never intended for the nursery, but for the street—where they came to life as popular judgments on events of the day. In Half For You and Half For Me, the author breaks the codes of these nursery rhymes in accessible, amusing explanations. She also adds some classic Canadiana, including a poem by star children's poet Dennis Lee.

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95 years ago, when my mother was born, her parents bought a beautiful book: The Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose. They read it to her while she sat on their knees. When she was old enough for crayons and scissors, she expressed her affection all over the pages. She kept it until she grew up and became a mother. I have a picture of Mum reading to me; I am about two, and I am entranced. I remember how she laughed. I loved the fact that words on a page could make her laugh.

30 years passed and I had two children of my own. When we visited their grandparents, the Mother Goose came out, and we read together. Now my kids are grown up. Soon I may have grandchildren. And my beautiful young mother has become one of those bent old women we saw in the pictures.

This year she gave me her vintage Mother Goose. Antiquarians say the Jessie Willcox Smith collection is the best ever published, with its beautiful colour plates and lovely thick paper. A good condition copy sells for $750. But ours is falling apart, its spine like shredded wheat, its pages floating, cut up and crayoned upon.

Mum and I leaf through it (carefully). Her vision is clouded with macular degeneration. Possibly the greatest reader in the world, she now has trouble making out letters. She can’t remember what I told her before lunch. But she does remember

Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,

The beggars are coming to town.

Some in rags and some in jags

And one in a velvet gown.

We wonder what it means. I tell Mum I’ve read that in Elizabethan times, roaming beggars threatened people in lonely villages. But “beggars” may also refer to the Dutch, who invaded England in 1688, overthrowing King James II; the one in velvet might be King William of Orange himself. “Imagine that!” I tell Mum . . . We turn the page. “Mary, Mary, quite contrary . . . ” She recites the rest of that one too.

Why do ancient nursery rhymes stick fast in our minds when what we did yesterday slides away? Is it because of the scary visions they conjure—gangs of motley beggars setting off the dogs, kittens down wells, children brained with clubs? Because we heard them when we were so young? Because they are mysterious?

Do we love the rhymes just for themselves, the way they bounce and repeat? Their sounds are as rich as their wisdom is questionable. They are charming in their nonsense—and striking in their logic.

There was an old woman

Lived under a hill

And if she’s not gone,

She lives there still.

Is part of the secret to the endurance of nursery rhymes their immediacy? Each one seems to be a moment preserved in amber, a tiny incident, real and particular—a girl frightened by a spider, a boy falling asleep when he’s supposed to be watching sheep.

I’m not sure.

Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose

I only know that Mum gave me more than this tattered treasure. She gave me my love of words. My awe at the power of a few lines on a page. Often when I’m writing, a Humpty Dumpty or a Wee Willie Winkie elbows his way into the front of my shop window of phrases, displaying his cadences and dire consequences. “Beat them all soundly and put them to bed.” “Your house is on fire and your children all gone!” Countless other writers have given nursery rhyme characters moments in novels and popular songs. The farmer’s wife with her carving knife and her fellows appear throughout art, advertising and film.

The violent ends these characters meet thrilled me, once. Nothing better than hearing about dread consequences from the security of my mother’s lap! The world was out there and it was dangerous. But it’s been a long time since I tucked myself into Mum’s side and stared at the pages, hoping to learn to read by osmosis. Now as much as nursery rhymes delight me, they make me curious. What real incidents lie behind the stories? Why are they full of mishaps and murder? Yes, children’s lives were more violent three or four hundred years ago. But there are other reasons.

The oldest rhymes were not intended for the nursery. They were not for children. They were for adults, repeated by the irreverent and mostly powerless population to mark events, satirize the powerful or pass judgment. Quite often they can be read as code.

Many scholars have opined on their meanings. “In their seeming lightness are portrayed the tragedies of kings and queens, the corruptions of opposing political parties, and stories of fanatical religious strife,” said Katherine E. Thomas of Boston, quoted by Cecil and William Baring-Gould in The Annotated Mother Goose. One professor did the math, to discover that half the rhymes in an average collection “harbour unsavoury elements.” He counted “8 allusions to murder, 2 cases of choking to death, 1 case of death by devouring, 1 case of cutting a human being in half, 1 case of decapitation, 1 case of death by squeezing,” and 16 further allusions to misery and sorrow. We can hold with psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who says in The Uses of Enchantment (1976) that the demons in fairy tales symbolize a child’s destructive urges and enable him to overcome them. Or we can just conclude that violent deeds and evildoers are there because they are part of life. I prefer the latter. “The nursery rhyme is the novel and light reading of the infant scholar,” says James Orchard Halliwell in The Nursery Rhymes of England, published in 1886.

But like many a novel the rhymes seem to have a double purpose, both to entertain and to teach. When first published, Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes appeared with a moral—never what you imagine and often quite funny. Over centuries the more ghoulish ones were cleaned up or misremembered or updated. In the older rhymes we discover lost bits of our language—curses and jokes and street vendors’ cries. We glimpse village life, its characters, its gossip and its nightmare scenes—marching armies and women in the stocks. There’s history to be learned, but of the best kind, born in the gritty and petty everyday.

Children aren’t the only ones who love rhythm, wordplay and pratfalls. I hope you read nursery rhymes as we did in our family: together. This collection aims to amuse the adult as well as the toddler.

My mother made up her own rhyme last summer as we were reading over the manuscript for this book on holiday in the Rockies. Future decoders may find in it a critique of the accessibility features in the Jasper Park Lodge. Then again it may mean something much more ancient.

As well as the old, I’ve included some contemporary and lesser known rhymes with the hope of nudging them into the canon. My family has English, Irish, French and American roots and these were the rhymes we knew. What I haven’t done is reflect the many cultures alive in Canada today. Friends from other parts of the globe say that if you grow up with two languages at home you hear nursery rhymes in each. It seems these little verses don’t translate easily. It would be fun to try—but that’s another book.

I hear contradictory answers to the question “Are they still in use?” Are girls skipping to “On a mountain stands a lady”? I hope so. You tell me!

—Excerpted with permission from Half for you, Half for Me by Katherine Govier, published by Whitecap Books. 

April 7, 2014
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