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National Rhymes of the Nursery   By:

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[Illustration: "Ride a cock horse." Page 70. ]



[Illustration: INTRODUCTION]

It is a good many years since Peacock, in one of those curiously ill tempered and not particularly happy attacks on the Lake poets, with which he chose to diversify his earlier novels, conceived, as an ornament of "Mainchance Villa," a grand allegorical picture, depicting the most famous characters of English Nursery Tales, Rhymes, &c. Margery Daw, Jack and Jill, the other Jack who built the House, the chief figures of "that sublime strain of immortal genius" called Dickory Dock , and the third Jack, Horner, eating a symbolic Christmas pie. At the date of Melincourt , in which this occurs, its even then admirable author was apt to shoot his arrows rather at a venture; and it may be hoped, without too much rashness, that he did not mean to speak disrespectfully of the "sublime strain of immortal genius" itself, but only of what he thought Wordsworth's corrupt following of that and similar things.

Nevertheless, if he had lived a little longer, or if (for he lived quite long enough) he had been in the mind for such game, he might have found fresh varieties of it in certain more modern handlings of the same subject. Since the Brothers Grimm founded modern folklore, it has required considerable courage to approach nursery songs and nursery tales in any but a spirit of the severest "scientism," which I presume to be the proper form for the method of those who call themselves "scientists." We have not only had investigations some of them by no means unfruitful or uninteresting investigations into certain things which are, or may be, the originals of these artless compositions in history or in popular manners. We have not only had some of their queer verbal jingles twisted back again into what may have been an articulate and authentic meaning. I do not know that many of them have been made out to be sun myths; but that yesterday popular, to day rather discredited, system of exposition is very evidently as applicable to them as to anything else. The older variety of mystical and moral interpretation having gone out of fashion before they had emerged from the contempt of the learned, it has not been much applied to them, though the temptation is great, for, as King Charles observes in "Woodstock," most things in the world remind one of the tales of Mother Goose.

But the most special attentions that nursery rhymes have received have, perhaps, taken the form of the elaborate and ingenious divisions attempted by Halliwell and others. Indeed, something of the kind has been so common that the absence here of anything similar may excite some surprise, and look like disrespect to a scientific age. The omission, however, is designed, and a reason or two may be rendered for it. Halliwell (to take the most generally known instance) has no less than seventeen compartments in which he stows remorselessly these "things that are old and pretty," to apply to them a phrase that Lamb loved. There are, it seems, historical nursery rhymes, literal nursery rhymes; nursery rhymes narrative, proverbial, scholastic, lyrical, riddlesome; rhymes dealing with charms, with gaffers and gammers, with games, with paradoxes, with lullabies, with jingles, with love and matrimony, with natural (I wish he had called it unnatural) history, with accumulative stories, with localities, with relics. It may be permitted to cry "Mercy on us," when one thinks of the poor little wildings, so full of nature and, if not ignorant of art, of an art so cunningly concealed, being subjected to the trimmings and torturings of the Ars Topiaria after this fashion. The division is clearly arbitrary and non natural; it is often what logicians very properly object to as a "cross" division; it leads to the inclusion of many things which are not properly nursery rhymes at all; and it necessitates, or at least gives occasion to, a vast amount of idle talk... Continue reading book >>

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