10 of the most classic children’s rhymes – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
For most of us, nursery rhymes are the first poems we ever encounter in life. They can teach us about rhythm, and about constructing a story in verse, and, occasionally, they impart important moral lessons to us. More often than not, though, they make no sense at all. In this post, we’ve picked ten of the very best nursery rhymes, though this list isn’t designed to be comprehensive, of course. Which ten classic nursery rhymes would you pick to teach to children?
‘Jack and Jill’. If you read one of these old chapbook versions, you encounter a ‘Jack and Jill’ rhyme that is a whopping fifteen stanzas long, but the most familiar version for modern readers is the two-stanza rendering which details a boy and girl going up a hill to fill their bucket with water (why the well is at the top of a hill is difficult to say), their subsequent accident, and Jack’s ensuing treatment for his injuries.
‘Humpty-Dumpty’. Humpty Dumpty was originally a drink, then he became an egg in a nursery rhyme. Quite how this happened, nobody seems to know, but it did. The name ‘Humpty-dumpty’ was given to a drink of boiled ale and brandy in 1698; by 1785, the rhyming term had been applied to people, and was used specifically to describe a ‘short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person’ and, by extension, a clumsy person. Then the term was applied to an egg in the famous nursery rhyme which begins, ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’.
‘Little Bo-Peep’. This rhyme is first recorded in a manuscript dating from the early nineteenth century, although references to a children’s game called ‘Bo-Peep’ date from as early as the sixteenth century (it’s even mentioned in Shakespeare’s King Lear). Before that, the phrase ‘to play bo peep’ was in use from at least the fourteenth century, to refer to the punishment of being stood in the pillory. But quite who the ‘Little Bo Peep’ of this famous nursery rhyme was – if she was modelled on anyone in particular – and why she lost her sheep has been lost in the mists of time.
‘Little Jack Horner’. According to one theory, this classic nursery rhyme is about Thomas Horner, the steward to the last abbot of Glastonbury before the abbey was dissolved by King Henry VIII. Why ‘Thomas’ was changed to ‘Jack’ we couldn’t say, but then hardly anyone believes this origin-story for ‘Little Jack Horner’. However, the earliest known reference to this boy who pulled a plum out of his pie is the 1725 poem ‘Namby Pamby’ by Henry Carey, which is also the source of the phrase ‘namby pamby’ to denote someone or something that is wet and a bit babyish. Carey came up with ‘namby pamby’ as a nickname for the poet Ambrose Philips, who was known – and ridiculed – for writing such childish verses.
‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’. How old is the rhyme of Cock Robin and the chain of murderous carnage that ensues following his death? Quite old, it appears. A 15th-century stained glass window at Buckland Rectory in Gloucestershire depicts a robin being killed by an arrow, while the nursery rhyme also shares some basic narrative elements with Phyllyp Sparowe, John Skelton’s satirical poem from the time of King Henry VIII (Henry looms large in the history of English nursery rhymes, it would seem). Quite when the modern rhyme surfaced is difficult to say, but an early version was printed in the mid-eighteenth century.
‘Old Mother Hubbard’. Supposedly inspired by a real woman living in Devon in the early nineteenth century, ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ was written by a woman named Sarah Martin, after her brother-in-law, a Tory MP named John Bastard, told her to stop chattering and go and write one of her ‘silly rhymes’. The result was a bestselling chapbook detailing the extraordinary and frankly far-fetched activities of the title character’s dog, whom the Old Mother thinks it’s appropriate to buy wine for. The RSPCA will be round in the morning.
‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’. This curious rhyme is probably of a considerable vintage: Beaumont and Fletcher’s 1614 play Bonduca contains a reference to ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, which may indicate that the rhyme was already in existence then. It was the fashion for a time to place live birds in a pie, and this nursery rhyme may have been inspired by this practice, with its reference to ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds / Baked in a pie’.
‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’. Although it’s often stated that this nursery rhyme is about the Great Plague, its origins may instead lie in a dancing game performed by children who would dance in a circle holding hands, before curtseying or falling down at the end. Quite what the sneezing means, nobody is sure, but there are analogues for this rhyme in other languages, including German.
‘Little Miss Muffet’. It’s often been said that this nursery rhyme was written about Dr Thomas Muffet (1553-1604), who conducted experiments on insects and other arthropods, such as spiders. There is speculation that the ‘Little Miss Muffet’ who is frightened away by a spider in this rhyme was Dr Muffet’s daughter or stepdaughter. The name and spidery subject certainly fit, although the rhyme is only first recorded in the early nineteenth century.
‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. Famously the first words ever recorded on a phonograph by Thomas Edison were the words to this classic nursery rhyme. And it was an apt choice, since this nursery rhyme is American in origin and surprisingly recent, first published in 1830. Its author was the writer and editor Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788-1879), who also campaigned to get Thanksgiving recognised as an official holiday in the United States. The nursery rhyme may have been inspired by a real little girl named Mary (Mary Sawyer) and a real lamb, which Mary took to school one day; however, there remain a few questions surrounding the precise circumstances of the composition of the rhyme. What we can say with certainty, however, is that this is one of the best-loved nursery rhymes and has entered the canon.
For the definitive collection of classic nursery rhymes, complete with fascinating introductions to their history and origins, we recommend The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.