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The Real Mother Goose
IT IS A RARE YEAR in the publishing business that does not yield a new edition of Mother Goose verses, but here is one edition that has survived with fifty years of popularity to its credit. Now Blanche Fisher Wright's THE REAL MOTHER GOOSE is reissued in a special anniversary number for the delight of young children of this and forthcoming generations. That this particular collection of Mother Goose verses has endured is the more surprising considering the amazing variety of editions confronting a prospective buyer. Mother Goose appears with pictures in wild primary colors or pale pastels or blacks and whites. They may be realistic in style or modernistic or old fashioned, or even reproductions of ancient woodcuts. Mother Goose comes fat or thin, tall or small, with a large collection of verses or only a meager few. Why then, with such a variety of books to choose from, should this particular edition have persisted for fifty years? And why, for that matter, has an anonymous collection of ancient rhymes, familiarly known as Mother Goose, continued to delight generations of small fry from the eighteenth century to the present day? First, let's look at the history of the book.Origins of Mother Goose
Although the verses are as British as plum pudding, the name, Mother Goose, actually made its way into England from France. Perrault's collection of eight famous; folk tales in 1697 was called "Contes de ma mère l'Oye" or "Tales of Mother Goose," in short, tall tales or tales of make-believe. These stories were translated into English in 1729. But long after that, when John Newbery and his firm had discovered that such publications for children as their Little Pretty Pocket-Book were profitable, they decided to publish a collection of traditional verses and jingles. They gave it the appropriate nonsense name of Mother Goose's Melody. This 1791 Newbery edition is one of the rarest of rare books. It contained fifty-two verses, each with an amusing but irrelevant moral added, and each illustrated with a tiny woodcut. This small book concluded with the astonishing addition of sixteen songs from Shakespeare.
In the United States there were pirated editions of the Newbery Mother Goose, one with the picture of a sharp-nosed old crone addressing two children at her knees. After this Mother Goose has denounced all the critics of her ditties she concludes:
Fudge! I tell you that all their batterings can't deface my beauties, nor their wise pratings my wiser prattlings; and all imitators of my refreshing songs might as well try to write a new Billy Shakespeare as another Mother Goose--we two great poets were born together, and we shall go out of the world together.
No, no, my Melodies will never die,
While nurses sing, or babies cry.
A happy and truthful prophecy! An interesting outcome of the Newbery choice of "Mother Goose" as a title for these verses is that it was gradually lost to the famous folk tales which included such immortals as "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty" and other favorites, to become more or less permanently attached to this anonymous collection of nursery jingles, identified forevermore as Mother Goose.
Historical Significance of the Verses
There have been books and innumerable articles attaching historical significance to these verses. For example, they say that the "lady upon a white horse" was no less than the first Queen Elizabeth, and Miss Muffet was Mary Queen of Scots frightened by the spider, John Knox. Well, maybe so, but recent research gives small credence to these nebulous guesses. Occasionally, the name of a real person does appear, as Robin Hood or Jack Horner, but history is to be found chiefly in such English place names as Exeter, Gloucester, London Bridge, or in the street cries, old customs, songs, lullabies, games, and the like. These reflect the times and places in which these old jingles developed. Their language also reflects their ancient origin. Children accept "doth" and "thee" and "thou" without a question, but the candle riddle "Little Nancy Etticoat" may need explanation and so will those "Bell horses, bell horses, what time of day?" That is mere sound until the child sees a picture or learns about the huge town clocks where iron horses come prancing out on the stroke of the hour. Barring a few such hurdles, children accept the language and situations of these ancient ditties with placid enjoyment and few questions. Why?
The Ageless Charm of the Verses
The compelling music of these jingles is so ear-catching, children from eighteen months to six years and more will listen to them entranced when they are read aloud. Then, they begin to say them with the reader, and next, they are chanting them when they are alone, never missing a beat or a rhyme. The melodies of these verses may begin crudely with a tumpity-tump sort of beat, but there are also some charming lyrics in Mother Goose collections such as "Daffy-down-dilly," "I saw a ship a-sailing," and others.
The melody and movement of the verses also enhance the action. Everything and everyone seems to be in motion. Jack jumps over the candlestick, the dish runs away with the spoon, a cat comes fiddling out of the barn, and there is a fearless old woman tosscd up in a basket "seventeen times high as the moon." No wonder children like these verses. Here is life on the move.
Next to their ear-catching tunes, skipping, hopping, galloping rhythms, and lively action these verses have an inexhaustible variety. There is a crowded gallery of people everyone will remember for the rest of his life--Old King Cole, Jack and Jill, Tommy Tucker, the Queen of Hearts, Jack Horner, and all the rest. The story poems, games, verses about animals make an immediate appeal, and children of five and six enjoy the alphabet and the counting rhymes. Few books offer such diverse entertainment.
Also it is the sheer high spirits of these old jingles, their fun and nonsense that lift the spirits. Children laugh at the cow jumping over the moon, at Peter's wife sitting cozily in a pumpkin shell, at the funny sounds of higgledy, piggledy, sing a song of sixpence, or Peter's peck of pickled peppers. In short they laugh at absurd situations, the grotesque, the funny sounds and the bouncy rhymes and rhythms of the verses.
Finally, it is certainly the illustrations which have always accompanied these old verses that help to spellbind each new generation of children. This brings us to this happy celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of a favorite American edition, illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright.
The Real Mother Goose
This is a large book, not too large, just good lap size, which means baby and book held comfortably on the lap. Large, clear type and large, clear pictures make it an admirable edition for classroom use. All the illustrations are in color and there are thirty-one full-page pictures, with no distracting details. The sheer drama of "The old woman tossed up in a basket," or the astonished King when "four and twenty blackbirds" come chirping out of his pie, these and many others are going to be remembered. On pages where there are several verses, there may also be as many as three or four bright pictures. There is some humor in these illustrations, but for the most part, they are sober interpretations of the verses. This is a boon to the young child, because the pictures actually furnish him with clues to the meanings of the words. Incidentally, this is a large collection with over three hundred verses. These are some of the reasons why, for the youngest children, THE- REAL MOTHER GOOSE is a fine introduction to this collection of wise and witty traditional verses.
So take this handsome book home or to school with you and have fun with it. Read and reread these ditties to your children. Encourage them to speak them with you or alone, savoring their rhymes and rhythms to the full. As a result, children will know more words and speak them more crisply and clearly than they would have without Mother Goose. Above all, they will carry with them some feeling for the fun, freshness and sheer delight of poetry. All this because of Mother Goose.
MAY HILL ARBUTHNOT
WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY
Author of Children and Books;
Time for Poetry; The Arbuthnot Anthology
May 12, 1965
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