On a well-known children’s rhyme
We continue our short pieces about star-related poems today, following on from yesterday’s post about Emily Dickinson’s star-poem. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ is a well-known children’s poem, and yet, like many well-known things, how well do we actually know it? Who wrote it, for instance? And who can recite the second verse of the poem? Is it a poem, or a song? Clearly these matters require a little investigation and analysis to become fully clear. But first, a reminder of ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ – and we mean the full version, not just that famous first verse.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, through the night.
Then the traveller in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark;
He could not see where to go,
If you did not twinkle so.
In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye
Till the sun is in the sky.
As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveller in the dark,
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
So well-known is ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ that it’s tempting to assume that the lullaby is authorless, with its composition chalked up to that prolific and perennially popular writer, ‘Anonymous’. It was Virginia Woolf who observed that ‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman’, and in this case, she was certainly right. Except that the author of ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ is ‘anonymous’ only by virtue of having slipped from the popular imagination: we know full well who wrote the words, but the point is that the vast majority of people are utterly unaware of who she was.
‘She’ in this case was Jane Taylor (1783-1824), an English poet who published the lyrics to ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ under the title ‘The Star’ in Rhymes for the Nursery (1806), a collection of children’s rhymes Jane co-authored with her older sister Ann Taylor (1782–1866). As these dates indicate, Jane was only in her early twenties when she wrote the words to one of the most famous children’s rhymes in the world. The Taylors were clearly a precocious family: Jane’s sister Ann is now best-remembered as the author of the poem ‘My Mother’, which can be read here.
The music of ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ predated the lyrics: the tune is from the French melody ‘Ah! vous dirai-je, maman’, which was published in 1761. A number of composers have arranged the piece, including Mozart (indeed, Mozart’s arrangement of the melody is thought to have been one of his first compositions, while he was still a young child).
For more classic children’s rhymes, see our analysis of the Little Bo Peep rhyme, our commentary on ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, our pick of the best poems for babies, and our post about the origins of the ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ nursery rhyme.