As Groucho Marx once said, ‘My favourite poem is the one that starts “Thirty Days Hath September”, because it actually means something.’ The meaning of ‘Thirty Days Hath September’ is self-evident and straightforward. But what are the origins of this famous rhyme? ‘Thirty Days Hath September’ runs, of course:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November;
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone.
Which only has but twenty-eight days clear
And twenty-nine in each leap year.
One early reference to ‘Thirty Days Hath September’, from William Harrison in 1577, actually begins, er … ‘Thirty days hath November’:
Thirty dayes hath Nouember,
Aprill, Iune and September;
Twentie and eyght hath February alone,
And all the rest thirty and one,
But in the leape you must adde one.
Numerous Elizabethan and Jacobean writers refer to this rhyme in some variant or other, including a few who refer, in Latin, to the ‘bissextus’ or Bissextile year (i.e. a leap year). Other variants are found in different languages: there’s a French version, De Computo, which dates from the thirteenth century and begins: ‘En avril, en juing, en septembre / A .xxx. jours et en novembre’:
En avril, en juing, en septembre
A .x. jours et en novembre:
Tout li autre ont .xj. jour,
Fors fevriers qi est li plus cour,
En soi que .xxviij. jors n’a,
Ne plus ne meins n’i avra ja
Fors en l’an qe bissextres vient,
Adont en a, einsi avient,
.xxix., de tant est creus,
L’an que bixestres est cheus.
So our English rhyme ‘Thirty Days Hath September’ appears to have been a loose translation and adaptation of this earlier French rhyme.
But it was as ‘Thirty Days Hath September’ that this mnemonic would become memorable – in the most literal sense – for countless generations of schoolchildren. Groucho Marx was right: ‘Thirty Days Hath September’ does mean something. For many of us, it means our childhoods, and our earliest encounters with ‘poetry’ and rhyme.