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!
A lovely old quatrain, filled with the promise of blood and gore (or at the very least, massive quantities of ill-fated yolk!). Or how about:
Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.
And down will come Baby, cradle and all!
The doomful melodrama spanning from the cradle to the grave was never more succinctly played out than in the above poem. Or then:
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!
Another rhyme, another disquieting tragedy at the heart of which are the children – always the children, as its main characters. The more of these nursery rhymes you recall, the more you’ll be reminded of the copiously sinister top note in almost all of them. Ranging from racism to bigotry to plain old sadism, these rhymes from our childhood embodied them all. Try reciting a few others like, Eenie meenie miny mo”, “London bridge is falling down”, “Sing a song of sixpence”, “Little Miss Muffet”, “Old Mother Hubbard” and “Goosey goosey gander” – all straight up threatening or woeful or just plain evil! Some of them are actually pithy, blackhearted little odes to actual personages and their peculiar quirks, like Mary the 1st’s religious malevolence – (Three Blind Mice), King Edward the 1st’s cruel avarice – (Baa Baa Black Sheep), the wonton love affairs of the royal European courts and its many colorful denizens; and also a myriad plagues, witches and famines. These rhymes were akin to recording history for quick, unprejudiced recall. And so, what better way than as a child’s beloved refrain, repeated ad nauseam, passed on from generation to generation; the rhyme and meter keeping it true to its original foreboding self.
Indeed, for many of us, nursery rhymes were probably the first few words we ever uttered with any pleasure after the general familial ID allocations of Mama and Papa. I still remember the infinite pleasure, comfort and toddler-centredness (there has to be such a thing!) I derived from repeating these much-loved childhood rhymes. And once the novelty of “she already knows all her nursery rhymes” or “tell aunty what happened to Humpty Dumpty” wore off, the adults also became innocently, resignedly tangled in our whole love affair with these refrains. The slightly disturbing thing is, had they known of the morbid origins of the rhymes we were so lovingly taught, how many would have still thought, let well enough alone; if it makes the kids happy, let them sing of old men being thrown down rickety stairs and babies falling out of their tree top cradles. And they wouldn’t be entirely to blame. Generations of painting the malignant with the brush of hunkydoriness quite entirely dilutes outage and indeed, skews the moral compass itself: Atrocity takes on a happy vagueness; racism becomes invisible; patriarchy adroitly sits atop any semblance of gender equality, and so on. And so now we are all quite happily complicit in perpetuating the crazed ramblings of 400 years ago, cloaked as they are in the rhythm of rhyme and meter. The nursery rhymes of our childhood, thus made eternal, are now forever rolling and roiling in the ether.
The attached link details some of the social madness that inspired many of the most beloved nursery rhymes that we grew up with: https://www.vagabomb.com/10-Dark-and-Disturbing-Origins-of-Popular-Nursery-Rhymes/
Now that we know, seems like it may be time to change the lyrics at least, while keeping the nostalgia-laden tunes/ meter alive. That too requires a break from the inertia of tradition. I’ll begin the Great Re-hash with the below rendering of a favourite. Any other shakers of the status quo, give your favourite a go.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great thought:
What if all the kings horses
And all the kings men,
Danced a nice foxtrot
Across Goblin’s Glen!