By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ is one of the best-known nursery rhymes in English literature, but its words are so baffling and odd that it almost qualifies as nonsense literature. Whilst not quite up there with ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ in the nonsense stakes, ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ is nevertheless an odd little children’s rhyme. What does it mean, and what are its origins?
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing—
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?
The king was in the counting-house
Counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlor
Eating bread and honey,
The maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes,
There came a little blackbird
And snapped off her nose.
(Variants of the rhyme give ‘snipped’ for ‘snapped’ in that final line; some give ‘pecked’; while the penultimate line is sometimes rendered as ‘Along came a blackbird’. The above version is taken from Iona and Peter Opie’s The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes).)
‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ has attracted some fanciful theories concerning its lyrics, many of which are improbable. One of the leading theories is that the twenty-four blackbirds represent the hours in the day, with the king representing the sun and the queen the moon. (Why the moon is eating bread and honey remains unexplained.)
Another places the rhyme in the time of King Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, with the blackbirds symbolising the choirs of the monasteries, baking a pie in order to try to curry favour with Henry.
But these are just the two leading theories (neither of which really has a shred of real evidence, we should add). Other interpretations of ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ that have been put forward include the idea that (sticking with the King Henry VIII theme) the queen is Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, and the maid is Anne Boleyn, whom Henry wants to replace Katherine with (perhaps the maid’s nose being pecked off is a reference to the French swordsman’s beheading of her?).
People have even suggested that the blackbirds refer to movable type, and are being ‘baked in a pie’ when the printer sets them up ready to print the English Bible. (For some reason, most of these theories insist on placing ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ during the English Reformation.)
However, the Opies provide details of a recipe for a pie in which live birds would be placed, only for them to fly out when the pie was cut. An Italian cookbook from 1549, which was translated into English in 1598 under the title Epulario, or, the Italian Banquet, contains such a recipe, and pies of this kind were popular at banquets during the period. So perhaps the song was composed to be sung on such occasions.
‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ was alluded to in one of the greatest eighteenth-century poetic putdowns: Henry James Pye, who was appointed Poet Laureate to King George III in 1790, wrote a very bad ode in honour of the king’s birthday, which featured references to a ‘feathered choir’. George Steevens quipped that ‘and when the Pye was opened the birds began to sing; Was not that a dainty dish to set before a king?’ As poetic pie-based puns go, that was pretty good, and Steevens apparently came up with it on the spot.
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.