Tuesday 23 May 2023

Children's Rhymes


Some time ago I was sitting in a pub garden watching a little boy of about three trying to play Aunt Sally - a game rather like skittles which is popular in our bit of Oxfordshire. He was having difficulty, but eventually succeeded in hurling the heavy wooden baton (which is used instead of a ball) down the alley at the Sally, which is a single white skittle, and knocked her down. In great delight he went running back to his family chanting, ‘Easy peazy lemon squeezy, easy peazy lemon squeezy!’ I was smiling and thinking to myself how much young children love rhyme and rhythm and word-play. Many of them, in junior school, are natural poets; you’d think it would be dead easy to make readers out of them. What happens to the simple joys of having fun with words?

Here’s a skipping or clapping rhyme my children used to chant at school. I'll show the stresses in the first few lines, but it would be a bit much to do the whole thing. Come down heavily on the italicized words and you'll get it:

My mother, your mother, lives across the street.
Eighteen, nineteen, Mulberry Street –
Every night they have a fight and this is what it sounded like:
Girls are sexy, made out of Pepsi
Boys are rotten, made out of cotton
Girls go to college to get more knowledge
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider
Criss, cross, apple sauce,

Chanted rapidly aloud, you can feel how infectious it is. Another one, also a clapping game, runs:          

I went to the Chinese chip-shop
To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread,
They wrapped it up in a five pound note
And this is what they said, said, said:
My… name… is…
Elvis Presley
Girls are sexy
Sitting on the back seat
Drinking Pepsi
Had a baby
Named it Daisy
Had a twin
Put it in the bin
Wrapped it in -
Do me a favour and –

I suppose every junior school in the country is home to a similar rhyme: chanted rapidly and punctuated with a flying, staccato pattern of handclaps, it’s extremely satisfying. I've heard teachers in schools get children to clap out the rhythms of poems 'so that they can hear it' , but never anything as complicated as these handclapping games children make up for themselves. No adults are involved. What unsung, anonymous geniuses between 8 and 12 invented these rhymes and sent them spinning around the world? Nobody analyses them, construes them, sets them as text, or makes children learn them. Some of them go back centuries, constantly evolving and updating. They’re for fun. Nothing but fun.

From such ordinary backgrounds sprang the great poet without whom we would have no ballads, no fairy tales, no myths, no legends, no Bible – all of which were made up and told aloud by Anon long before they were written down and published in big thick books. It's unimaginable. We’d have no proverbs, no skipping rhymes, no riddles, no jokes. People are naturals at using colourful speech: you really and truly do not have to learn to read or write in order to express yourself. And this reminds me of a section about ‘Children’s Folklore and Game Rhymes’ in a lovely book called ‘Folklore on The American Land’ by Duncan Emrich (Little, Brown & Company, 1972). Here are some examples. A counting-out rhyme – 

            Intery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn

            Apple seed and apple thorn,

            Wire, briar, limber-lock

            Three geese in a flock,

            One flew east and one flew west,

            And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest,

            O – U – T spells out!

So that’s where the Jack Nicholson film took its name from! I'd never realised. How about this exuberant skipping rhyme from a school in Washington? 

Salome was a dancer

She danced before the king

And every time she danced

She wiggled everything.

‘Stop,’ said the king,

‘You can’t do that in here.’

‘Baloney,’ said Salome,

And kicked the chandelier. 

And another:


Grandma Moses sick in bed

Called the doctor and the doctor said

‘Grandma Moses, you ain’t sick,

All you need is a licorice stick.’


I gotta pain in my side, Oh Ah!

I gotta pain in my stomach, Oh Ah!

I gotta pain in my head,

Coz the baby said,

Roll-a-roll-a-peep! Roll-a-roll-a-peep!

Bump-te-wa-wa, bump-te-wa-wa,



Downtown baby on a roller coaster

Sweet, sweet baby on a roller coaster

Shimmy shimmy coco pop

Shimmy shimmy POP!

Shimmy shimmy coco pop

Shimmy shimmy POP!


A clapping rhyme I remember from my own schooldays went:


Have you ever ever ever in your long-legged life

Seen a long-legged sailor with a long-legged wife?

No, I’ve never never never in my long-legged life

Seen a long-legged sailor with a long-legged wife. 

The second verse figured a knock-kneed sailor and a knock-kneed wife, and the third a bow-legged sailor with a bow-legged wife, and, as Iona and Peter Opie recorded a child explaining (in ‘The Singing Game’, OUP 1985): ‘Every time you start a new bit you put your hands on your knees and then clap your hands together – that’s for “Have you” and “No I’ve”, because they are slow. Then you go quicker and clap against the other person’s right hand and your own hands again and the other person’s left hand and your own hands again, and when you say “long-legged life” you separate your arms out sideways. And when you come to “knock-kneed” and “bow-legged” you imitate those as well.’ Playing this game was a lot of fun. 

Here’s a last one, comically relevant perhaps, given the recent news that the prolific Boris is to become a father again for the 8th (or 9th?) time.


The Johnsons had a baby,

They called him Tiny Tim,

They put him in a bathtub

To see if he could swim.

He drank up all the water,

He ate up all the soap,

He tried to eat the bathtub

But it wouldn’t go down his throat.

Mummy Mummy I feel ill,

Call the doctor down the hill.

In came the doctor, in came the nurse,

In came the lady with the alligator purse,

Measles said the doctor,

Mumps said the nurse,

Toothache said the lady with the alligator purse.

Out went the doctor, out went the nurse,

Out went the lady with the alligator purse.




 Picture credits:

Child Skipping: https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/nostalgia/look-fun-games-streets-birmingham-11184178

Children playing a clapping game: Le Nomade du 21éme Siécle,Wikimedia Commons

'In came the lady with the alligator purse': from Janet and Allen Ahlberg's 'The Jolly Christmas Postman' (Heinemann, 1991)

Friday 12 May 2023

"The Enchanted People": a poem by Lord Dunsany




It came, it came again to the scented garden,

The call that they would not heed,

A clear wild note far up on the hills above them,

Blown on an elfin reed.


From the heath in the hidden dells of a moorland people

            It came so crystal clear

That they could not help a moment’s pause on their pathways,

            They could not choose but hear.


The very blackbird, perched on the wall by cherries,

            Ripe at the end of June,

Made never a stir through all of his glossy body,

            Learning that unknown tune.


They needs must hear as they walked in their valley garden,

            Surely they needs must heed

That it came from a folk as magical and enchanted

As ever blew upon reed.


Surely they must arise in the heavy valley,

            Sleepy with years of night,

And go to the old immortal things out of fable,

            That danced young on the height.


But the moss was black and old on the paths about them,

            And the weeds were old and deep,

And they could not remember who were high on the uplands;

            And they needed sleep.

And they thought that a day might come when someone would call them

            With a song more loud and plain.

And the call rang past like birds going over a desert,

            And it never came again.


Dunsany wrote of this poem: ‘One night in June, after I had gone to bed, there came to me the scene of a poem more vividly than one had ever come before. It is hard to say what it is about; indeed I do not entirely know. I only know that I saw the scene very vividly, and [...] the feeling that I ought to get up and write it there and then was as strong as the vision itself. So for the first time in my life I got out of bed and and went downstairs to write a poem, and it came without any difficulty, and I feel sure that I should never have been able to write it had I left it till morning. ... Most of my poems are simple and very clear, but sometimes a vision may come as if from a far country.’


Picture credits:

The Horns of Elfland Faintly Blowing - by Bernard Sleigh 

Faun at the Gates of Horn - by Bernard Sleigh