The origins of a classic nursery rhyme
‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’ is a well-known nursery rhyme. But this intriguing little quatrain has attracted some surprising speculation and its origins are often erroneously attributed. What does this short rhyme mean? And where did it come from? What is this ring o’ roses and what is it being used for? And why does everyone fall down? The questions multiply.
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
Although ‘Ring-a-ring o’ roses’ is probably familiar to most readers and has been a part of many childhoods for a number of generations, the words as we know them only became standardised surprisingly recently: Iona and Peter Opie, in their endlessly illuminating The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), record that as recently as 1898, when Lady Gomme collected various nursery rhymes, there were a staggering twelve versions in circulation, and only one of these bore any real resemblance to the four-line song cited above. Indeed, before 1881, the Opies surmise, the modern wording of the rhyme may have not been ‘found in children’s literature’ at all before this date. Yet ‘Ring a ring a rosie’ was in circulation, according to William Wells Newell in his Games and Songs of American Children (1883), nearly a century earlier, in 1790. The sneezing and falling down were added later. An illustrated edition of Mother Goose by Kate Greenaway, published in 1881, has ‘Hush! hush! hush! hush!’ in place of those a-tishoos, though her version of the rhyme ends with the children falling or being ‘tumbled’ down.
And clearly the song meant to accompany a dance, wherein children hold hands and dance round in a ‘ring’ or circle. But it may have been that the idea of falling down originated in a curtsey that was performed at the end of the dance – rather than actually collapsing on the ground, the children may have originally merely bowed.
But the most famous origin-story involving ‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’ is that the rhyme refers to the Great Plague, specifically the one of the seventeenth century that devastated London in 1665 and prompted the inhabitants of the infected Derbyshire village of Eyam to isolate themselves from the rest of the country, so as to minimise the spread of the disease. This interpretation of the rhyme sees the ‘ring-a-ring o’ roses’ representing the red marks or lesions – which, in this interpretation, show up like ‘rings’ on the skin – which are (again, supposedly) associated with the symptoms of bubonic plague. The posies in the pocket are the herbs and flowers people carried to ward off the disease (because until relatively recently people believed that disease was caused by smell). Similarly the ‘a-tishoo!’ is a symptom of plague, since victims supposedly sneezed when in the grip of the disease. Finally, of course, the falling down represents the death of the plague victim.
This interpretation doesn’t stand up to even the most perfunctory analysis. For one thing, this list of symptoms doesn’t match those which accompany bubonic plague (which is marked less by sneezing or red ring-like lesions as by black swellings underneath the armpit and groin – indeed, ‘bubonic’ is from bubo, meaning ‘groin’). For another, the earliest version of this rhyme, as we’ve already seen, doesn’t surface until the end of the eighteenth century, over a hundred years after the Great Plague (though it’s worth remembering that far less destructive outbreaks of plague did continue until surprisingly recently). The modern version which brings all of these supposed ‘markers’ of plague together is just over a century old. It seems highly unlikely that the ‘plague’ analysis of ‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’ contains the secret to the rhyme’s true origin. What does, then?
The Opies, again, prove helpful here. For there are numerous analogues for ‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’ both in English and in other European languages in the nineteenth century. Consider this Yorkshire rhyme recorded in 1882:
Here we go round by ring, by ring,
As ladies do in Yorkshire;
A curtsey here, a curtsey there,
A curtsey to the ground, sir.
A German children’s rhyme of 1848 begins ‘Ringel, Ringel Reihe!’ and roughly translates as:
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
We are three children,
Sitting under the elder bush,
All of us going hush, hush, hush!
Once again it’s hushing rather than sneezing going on, suggesting the outbreak of sternutation that figures in the modern English version of the rhyme is a new addition that is unlikely to be of the same vintage as the Great Plague. But what these rhymes all have in common is that they centre on children holding hands and dancing round in a circle or ring, something that is part of many ancient cultures (consider T. S. Eliot’s description of Tudor folk dancing round and round the bonfire in ‘East Coker’, or another famous rhyme, ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’). The dance ends with a curtsey or bow to the other participants, hence the falling down, while the sneezing may be linked to the flowers. Is the song more about hay fever than plague? Perhaps. But perhaps it won’t do to over-analyse the rhyme and look for universal or coherent meaning in nursery rhymes, any more than it does when analysing the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll. Perhaps the ring of roses is simply a poetic description of the physical act of dancing in a circle (the children are the roses), they form a little ‘pocket’ of flowers by dancing in a ring, and then when the dance stops they curtsey. This is less gripping, perhaps, than the interpretation which places the rhyme’s origins in the Great Plague, but most nursery rhymes elude such reductively simplistic explanations. But maybe that’s actually more satisfying. It’s better to retain a little mystery in these things.
Discover the stories behind more classic nursery rhymes with our analysis of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’, our commentary on the Little Bo Peep rhyme, our post delving into the history of the ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ nursery rhyme, and analysis of the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ rhyme.
Image: Ring a Ring a Roses by Myles Birket Foster (1825–1899), via Wikimedia Commons.