So, what is their relationship with today’s writers?
Despite the weird and sometimes gruesome content matter, Walter de la Mare said nursery rhymes: ‘charm the tongue and ear, delight the inward eye, and many of them are tiny masterpieces of word craftsmanship’ he added, ‘they are not only crammed with vivid little scenes and objects and living creatures, but, however fantastic and nonsensical they may be, they are a direct shortcut into poetry itself’.
Traditional rhymes, repeated over and over again, are certainly one of any child’s earliest encounters with the English language. They provide an introduction to the poetic richness of spoken English long before the commencement of formal education.
I remember singing to my son:
Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top!
When the wind blows the cradle will rock…
And though I sang this verse many times, I cannot remember where or when I first learned it.
They all succeeded, but not one of them could tell me when or where they had first heard these verses.
So, what is so special about nursery rhymes?
Why are they able to deliver a powerful and memorable message?
What makes the effect more lasting than that of a regular story?
Sing a Song of Sixpence a bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty naughty boys bak’d in a Pye.
(Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book c.1744).
Also the words relate to everyday events, (albeit centuries ago), and through ‘Alphabet Rhymes’ children are introduced to letters – the first step in learning to read.
‘A was an apple-pie, B bit it, C cut it, D dealt it, E eat it…’
These lines were used in the reign of Charles 11.
In the early rhymes, sentences were enriched with figures of speech, such as tongue twisters (How much wood could a woodchuck chuck) and alliteration, (Sing a Song of Sixpence). They were recited by children from the 1600s.
In the 18th century children’s books proved very popular, e.g. The famous Tommy Thumb’s Little Story-Book and The Top Book of All, For Little Masters and Misses(c.1760), published by Benjamin Collins – a ‘most eminent bookseller’.
For hundreds of years, the child’s appreciation and demand for books has provided poorly paid writers with an outlet for their work, and subsequently a modest income. The constant demand for books also kept publishers, like Benjamin Collins in business from the late 1700s.
Modern English of the 20th and 21st centuries has been modified with changes in culture and society. For millennia there have been wars, plagues and revolutions and today, space exploration and DNA cloning are things of the past.
Yet, despite this, nursery rhymes have survived and many of the writers and philosophers of tomorrow will be men and women who cut their teeth on Baa Baa Black Sheep and Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.