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A Short Analysis of the ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ Nursery Rhyme

‘London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down’: this line appears towards the end of one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Of course, the nursery rhyme or children’s song from which Eliot borrowed this line is much older. But what’s the story behind ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’? First, here’s a recap of the nursery rhyme itself:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair Lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair Lady.

Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair Lady.

Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with silver and gold,
Silver and gold, silver and gold,
Build it up with silver and gold,
My fair Lady.

Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Stolen away, stolen away,
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
My fair Lady.

Set a man to watch all nigh,
Watch all night, watch all night,
Set a man to watch all night,
My fair Lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,
Fall asleep, fall asleep,
Suppose the man should fall asleep?
My fair Lady.

Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
Smoke all night, smoke all night,
Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
My fair Lady.

Or at least, that’s the most familiar version of this classic nursery rhyme. But what’s the opening line? ‘London Bridge is falling down’, right? Well, it depends. As we’ll see in this analysis of this classic rhyme, early references to the poem often cite the first line as ‘London Bridge is broken down’, and Iona and Peter Opie, in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), give the first line as this, rather than ‘London Bridge is falling down’. Anyway…

We seem to love attributing dark origin-stories – usually without a shred of real evidence – to children’s nursery rhymes. There seems to be something appealing about the resultant mismatch between the rhyme’s ‘true’ meaning or origin and the way it’s sung, joyfully and jauntily, by young children as part of a game. But ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ needs no such dark history inventing for it, since the words themselves evoke collapse and disaster in lines which are already rich in poignancy and menace, qualities which T. S. Eliot clearly identified in them when he was writing The Waste Land. As the Opies observe of this nursery rhyme, ‘It is one of the few, perhaps the only one, in which there is justification for suggesting that it preserves the memory of a dark and terrible rite of past times; and the literary history of the song does not frustrate the idea of its antiquity.’

But how old is this London Bridge nursery rhyme? Well, it was certainly well-known as a children’s rhyme in 1725 when Henry Carey, in his poem ‘Namby Pamby’, wrote: ‘Namby Pamby is no Clown, / London-Bridge is broken down’. (This poem, by the way, is the origin of the phrase ‘namby-pamby’ for something feckless and infantile: Carey came up with the term in order to lampoon his contemporary Ambrose Philips, a poet much derided for his babyish verses.) In the 1740s the first known printing of the full text appeared (again, giving the words as ‘London Bridge is broken down’).

But children’s games involving fallen bridges appear to have been popular from at least the seventeenth century, in not just London but Paris and, doubtless, many other cities on both sides of the English Channel. So this would go against the likelihood that the rhyme was directly inspired by a planned demolition of London Bridge, instead suggesting that ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ was an adaptation of a continental game involving a falling bridge. There’s an Italian game, ‘Le porte’, which is effectively the same thing, and may have been played as early as 1328.

The last line of each verse gave its name, of course, to My Fair Lady, the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on September 18, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I note that Namby Pamby appears to be a lampoon not just of Ambrose Philips the person, but of him name as well.

  1. Pingback: A Short Analysis of the 'London Bridge Is Falling Down' Nursery Rhyme | collect magazine

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