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.
thank you for busting the myth….i am reading the whole poem for the first time
Superb! Good to have it properly credited and I too had no idea there was more than just one verse. Thanks for this :)
Thanks, Ken – glad to know I wasn’t the only one who thought ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ was a single verse! The Opies’ book of nursery rhymes is on my desk so I’ll have to see what other curious origin stories I can uncover for other famous rhymes.
I used to think this poem was kind of oral tradition lullaby but it has poet, that’s great information thank you!
I know – I was surprised to find it had such a definite origin, and author! More posts about classic nursery rhymes will doubtless follow, as I think there will be other stories to uncover here…
Yes, I thought there was only one verse.
Thanks for the twinkling light through my curtains of ignorance.
Oh my goodness! And I knew NOTHING about it…:)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b7q9k1PCYQ As any fan of Mel Bay’s guitar lessons knows, its musical version is called “Sparkling Stella”.
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Thank you. It’s lovely to give credit where credit is due, and to learn there is so much more than a few simple lines.
Thanks :) I was surrprised to learn there was more to it than the first verse, and it was lovely to discover that Jane Taylor’s sister wrote that famous ‘my mother’ poem.