Monday, August 3, 2009

Killer Rhymes??? or Am I just Paranoid?

I know this can be construed as another set in my long stream of random ramblings, but ever wondered why so many of the nursery rhymes we learnt as kids, feature animals or people dying, being slaughtered and otherwise inanimate objects being broken beyond repair? I was listening to an old tape of me in my early days reciting some of the rhymes I knew and it got me thinking about how the words making these poems totally contradict the natural adult tendency to shelter younglings from the big bad world around. Or is it reflective of a human being’s inherently violent nature which amidst the constant battle of duality, has to surface every now and then?

Take Humpty Dumpty for example. A humanoid egg replete with limbs, a quizzical face and a really sordid destiny.

“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!”

The poor egg (pun intended) was just sitting there on a wall, doing his thing, when he had to fall and shatter into a million pieces. The worst part is that the tragedy could not be undone in spite of all efforts to put the pieces of the eggshell back together. That reeks of sadness doesn't it?

Some explanations have been offered about the origins of the story about the egg with the deplorable fate and one of them had to do with Humpty Dumpty actually being the name of a canon used for defence purposes in the siege of Colchester in 1648 during the English Civil War. As the story goes, the canon was mounted on top of St Mary’s at the Wall Church in Colchester, which was ultimately hit by the enemy, sending the canon plummeting to the ground. Apparently all the king’s horses (cavalry) and all the king’s men (infantry) tried to fix it but it vain.

Ok, so there’s an explanation to the origin of the egg’s story. But what I fail to understand is why it was converted into a nursery rhyme to be told to children who would easily be able to relate to the bald headed egg man and his imminent death?

“Rock a bye baby” is another such rhyme with grim endings.

“Rock a bye baby on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

Down will come baby cradle and all.”

One of the explanations I found for this says that it was originally written by an English immigrant, based on his observations of the way native American-Indian women rocked their babies in birch-bark cradles, which were suspended from the branches of trees. Somehow when taught to a child without explanation of that context, the image of a baby hanging from a tree and eventually falling to the ground, may very possibly imprint itself in a child’s subconscious mind and have long lasting consequences. But then again, maybe I’m just paranoid about just how impressionable a child’s mind is.

Like the verse from Jack and the Beanstalk, which when told out of context, actually sounds scary:

“Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he 'live, or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.”

and may very possibly instill an anti-British sentiment early on in a child’s life or

“Goosey, goosey, gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs, and downstairs,
And in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers!
I took him by the left leg
And threw him down the stairs.”

which although painted benignly with the cute little ganders and the gooseys thrown in, may cause a child to come to believe that it is ok to hurt old men who don’t say their prayers or some such.
Of course the all time favourite:

“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.”

seems rather harmless since it has become such a common buzzword as far as nursery rhymes go. But if thought about carefully one wonders whether it was absolutely necessary for Jack and Jill to come tumbling down the mountain with seemingly gory consequences like Jack ending up with a cracked skull. Sure one can argue that it teaches a child to be careful, and the second para of the rhyme,

“Up Jack got
And home did trot
As fast as he could caper
Went to bed And plastered his head
With vinegar and brown paper.”

promotes self-sufficiency, street-smart and quick action in case of life troubles. But come to think of it, how many kids actually know/recite the second verse, let alone think of the subtle meanings behind the words?

Of course nurturing tender feeling towards animals, suffers just as much in some of these rhymes.

“Ding, dong, bell,Pussy's in the well.
Who put her in?Little Johnny Green.
Who pulled her out?Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was that,To try to drown poor pussy cat,
Who never did him any harm,And killed the mice in his father's barn.”

Sure the rhyme establishes the cat as a friend to man-an animal that should not be hurt since it tends to provide a service to man by catching the mice that plague him. Sure fat Tommy emerges a hero having pulled the cat out. But here I ask, was there any reason to put the cat into the well in the first place? Couldn’t there have been a poem or song which talked about the wondrous/unique traits of felines? A recitation which promoted not only love for the animal but also respect towards it,simply because it’s the right thing to do? Am I being too paranoid again?

I don’t think I am and my opinion about the inherent morbidity of traditional nursery rhymes was cemented when I recalled the one about the pig with the unfortunate fate:

"Piggy on the railway line,
Picking up stones,
Along came an engine
And broke poor Piggy's bones.
"Oh" said Piggy,
"That's not fair"
"Oh" said the Engine,
"I don't care"

Need I say more? I don’t think I have to expand the “I don’t care” attitude being introduced to children at the beginnings of their lives, and what it can do to them growing up. It’s surely not the whole cause of the negativities in the world today, but definitely evident in the crimes committed by children against animals, and adults against fellow human beings.

All I have to say is that nursery rhymes in my opinion should be more benign, more positive. They should make the child wonder and be in awe of the beauty of life that surrounds them. Children should want to live and be good and do good when they learn their first words in life. I have often heard and I certainly believe that children are the closest reflections of God that we can ever witness. Guileless, pure in heart and free in spirit, children are flowers which need tending and careful nurturing. The ill-behaved children we see around us are not to blame-it’s the upbringing that makes them what they are. And the same goes for the well behaved, well moulded ones.

Make up better rhymes people, if you want to start off successfully on the path to creating a future filled with good human beings. It’s a long and arduous path. But the results are well worth it I believe. Or am I just being paranoid?

ps : the views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and in no way mean to hurt, insult or injure rhyme composers worldwide.


  1. brilliant intellectualization .... i never thought about nursery rhymes this way :)

  2. lol thnks! I have been thinking about it for a while now :-) prefer twinkle twinkle little star anyday :-)


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