A Short Analysis of the ‘Little Bo-Peep’ Nursery Rhyme

By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Little Bo-Peep’ is a classic nursery rhyme, probably one of the most famous in the English language. But what are the origins of ‘Little Bo-Peep, and what does it mean? Before we attempt an analysis of this children’s rhyme, here’s a reminder of the words:

Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep,
And can’t tell where to find them;
Leave them alone, and they’ll come home,
Bringing their tails behind them.

Little Bo-Peep fell fast asleep,
And dreamt she heard them bleating;
But when she awoke, she found it a joke,
For they were still all fleeting.

Then up she took her little crook,
Determined for to find them;
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they’d left their tails behind them.

It happened one day, as Bo-Peep did stray
Into a meadow hard by,
There she espied their tails, side by side,
All hung on a tree to dry.

She heaved a sigh and wiped her eye,
And over the hillocks went rambling,
And tried what she could, as a shepherdess should,
To tack again each to its lambkin.

That final verse is sometimes rendered as:

She heaved a sigh and wiped her eye,
And over the hillocks she raced;
And tried what she could, as a shepherdess should,
That each tail be properly placed.

‘Little Bo-Peep’ is unusually melancholy for a nursery rhyme: unlike ‘Ring-a-ring o’ Roses’ or ‘London Bridge is falling down’, it’s hard to imagine children dancing around and clapping to its words about a poor shepherdess who loses her flock of sheep, only to discover their tails hanging somewhat gruesomely from a tree.

However, there is a possible game-link, which Little Bo-Peep’s name takes us to: the children’s game ‘Bo-Peep’, a game played with babies in which a handkerchief is thrown over the child’s head, with the adult calling out boldly, ‘Bo,’ then lifting up a corner or pulling it off altogether, and saying, ‘Peep!’ (This game is also known as peekaboo.) The idea of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t is certainly relevant to Little Bo-Peep’s lost sheep, making her perhaps one of the best examples of nominative determinism in all English nursery rhymes.

‘Little Bo-Peep’ first turns up in print in the nineteenth century, although who the author of the rhyme was, and whether it existed in oral culture for a long time before it was first published, nobody knows for sure.

A bit of Bo-Peep-related trivia: in the early years of his career, Henry Irving, later to become the first English actor to be knighted, played the part of the wolf in a pantomime production of ‘Little Bo-Peep’ at Edinburgh.

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.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Pingback: The Best Nursery Rhymes Everyone Should Know | Interesting Literature

  2. The peekaboo idea is reminiscent of Blind Man’s Buff where the object is still place the tail back on the donkey.

    Speaking of inappropriately gruesome nursery rhymes, what was that rock-a-bye baby doing on the tree-top in the first place. Accident waiting to happen.