My neighbor is in the process of putting together a costume for her five-year old daughter. Kindergarteners from the local elementary school will be participating in a Halloween parade, this year, dressed as characters from nursery rhymes. Little Bo Peep… Little Miss Muffet… The Queen of Hearts… All require dramatic costuming and provide the opportunity for props… desirable options for a parade of this sort. We can’t help but chuckle at the thought of a classroom full of elaborately costumed five-year olds.
Years ago, in preparation for a teaching career, I was enrolled in a children’s literature class. I had loved the nursery rhymes, as a child, so I was excited when it came time to discuss them, in class. Instead of focusing on the colorful characters or the meter of the verses, we examined their content for violent themes, learning that many of the well-known nursery rhymes were never really intended for children. I found that fact interesting but I would have rather discussed why these rhymes still have so much appeal. Understanding that nursery rhymes were cartoons, of sorts, with their roots in the political and social undertones of the day, explained why they were often politically incorrect. But did anybody have any insight into how children explained the “plots” to themselves? I should have asked but it was the 70s…we were focusing on social injustices.
Rereading all of these nursery rhymes, in my college class, made me curious. Did I have a favorite one, as a child? Did it have a violent theme? Did I ever question the stories depicted in those rhymes? My mother didn’t even hesitate when I asked her about my favorite nursery rhyme. My unchallenged favorite? Taffy was a Welshman
TAFFY WAS A WELSHMAN
Taffy was a Welshman. Taffy was a thief;
Taffy came to my house and stole a side of beef;
I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy was in bed;
I picked up a marrow bone and hit him on the head.
Sort of a bizarre choice for a girly-girl who disliked confrontation. But I recognized it, as soon as my mom said the title, and I immediately could recite those four verses from memory. I would later learn that there are numerous verses and versions of this nursery rhyme. But the gist of the rhyme is clear from these four lines and they were the ones that made me laugh.
It could be argued that this is a rhyme with anti-Welsh lyrics. It was popular in England, in the 1800s, at a time when it was thought neighbors from Wales were stealing from the English. But there is also another theory that says the rhyme has its origins in Celtic Mythology. Taffy was derived from Amaethon, the God of Welsh Agriculture, well-known for stealing wild life from the God of the Otherworld. How did I handle this politically incorrect verse? Politically what? I just assumed Welshman was Taffy’s family name.
How did I handle the violent actions in the rhyme? I was somewhat of a shy child and I didn’t handle my frustrations by whacking others. Sometimes I saw my classmates do it but I never remember thinking that was funny. Reading about someone being hit on the head, with a bone, was very funny to me. Perhaps because I knew it was just a made up story. Maybe because table manners were important in our house and it struck me as hilarious that someone would take a meat bone, from their dinner plate, and sprint across the street with it. It really didn’t need explanation, for me. I knew that characters in books and poems often did things that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do.
I came away, from that class, with the opinion that educators/parents need to be aware of what their children are reading as well as paying attention to their interpretations and reactions. No person, with a conscience, purposely endorses violence or encourages prejudice so we need to make sure that we don’t do it inadvertently Once we’ve done that, we might be able to just sit back and enjoy the rhyming verses, the charming illustrations, and in many cases, the humor of it all.
Coming East said:
I had no idea about the origins of nursery rhymes, so I found your post informative as well as enjoyable.
I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve found conflicting stories about certain nursery rhymes (like Ring Around the Rosie) but it is always interesting information. As always, I appreciate that you stop by.
Sometimes we’re better off not knowing. I know this isn’t the case in nursery rhymes because we actually know the author’s intent, but I think at times we over analyze literature, making our students detest reading.
Reading literature is a very personal experience and I totally agree, with you, that it can be over analyzed.