What are the origins of Little Boy Blue? Dr Oliver Tearle analyses this children’s rhyme
‘Little Boy Blue’ is a popular children’s rhyme, but as is the case with so many nursery rhymes (as we’ve been discovering in the course of researching these posts), the meaning of ‘Little Boy Blue’ is far from apparent. What does this curious little nursery rhyme mean, or is it an example of that genre of perennial appeal, nonsense verse?
Little Boy Blue,
Come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow,
The cow’s in the corn.
But where is the boy
Who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack,
As we’ve remarked before, only half in jest, all research into the origins of nursery rhymes leads to the English Reformation. Not because any classic children’s rhyme is necessarily based on events from that period of British history (although there’s a reasonably compelling link between ‘Little Jack Horner’ and the Dissolution of the Monasteries), but because scholars of nursery rhymes seem to like linking some of our most beloved pieces of children’s verse back to the 1530s for some reason.
In the case of ‘Little Boy Blue’, the link is Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey’s humble origins as a butcher’s son (used against him as he climbed the greasy pole to become King Henry VIII’s Chancellor in the 1520s) mean that he almost certainly looked after his father’s livestock, so ‘Who looks after the sheep?’ may be in reference to Wolsey’s childhood responsibilities.
Iona and Peter Opie in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes) point out that many people have asserted that the second half of the Little Boy Blue rhyme is quoted in The Tragedy of Cardinal Wolsey, a 1587 play by the gloriously named Thomas Churchyard.
Unfortunately, as the Opies point out, this clinching piece of evidence falls down on a technicality, which is that the rhyme doesn’t actually appear in Churchyard’s text anywhere. (The closest we get is a couplet about lambs, wolves, and a shepherd fast asleep.)
But the Opies point out that lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear are more likely to refer to Little Boy Blue, namely Edgar’s reference (when he’s talking as mad Tom) to a ‘jolly shepheard’ who may be asleep while the ‘sheepe’ are ‘in the corne’, while ‘one blast of thy minikin mouth’ would save the sheep from harm.
In the last analysis, then, the true origin and meaning of ‘Little Boy Blue’ remain a mystery, but there isn’t conclusive evidence linking the boy in the rhyme to Cardinal Wolsey. But then this doesn’t necessarily mean the verses are nothing but nonsense: they may be designed as a cautionary tale against falling asleep or snoozing on the job, i.e. keeping vigilant and doing one’s duty. Perhaps. Or perhaps they were part of a counting game, as is the case with some other children’s rhymes. We’ll probably never know.
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.
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