Gleaning the Meaning

 There is no doubt that many Mother Goose nursery rhymes were created for entertainment, perhaps with no greater purpose than to lull children to sleep.  However, scholars of folk culture also believe that there are certain rhymes which were meant to be interpreted as satirical social or political commentary.


One such example is found in the rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle.”   There are those who believe this jingle was inspired by the court of England’s ElizabethI.  Known to some as “The Cat” for the way she toyed withthe minds of her political courtiers and the hearts of her many suitors, Elizabethwas also known to be fond of dancing, particularly to fiddle music.  Similarly, the third line of the poem, “The little dog laughed to see such a sport” is said to be a reference to Robert Dudley, a suitor to whom Elizabethreferred by saying “He is like my little lap-dog…” And finally, interpreters have also suggested that the final line of the rhyme, “The dish ran away with the spoon,” is meant to depict the secret union of Lady Katherine Grey and Earl Edward of Hertford.  These two nobles were bestowed the nicknames the “dish” and “spoon” due to Edward’s role as a barer of golden flatware into the royal dining room and Lady Katherine’s role as the “taster of royal meals.”

Yet another interpretation centers on Egyptian mythology.  In this version, a goddess Hathor, often depicted as having a cow’s head, seen “jumping over the moon” as a constellation.  Here, the “little dog” is actually the constellation Canis Minor, and that together these help tell the story of Egyptians fleeing their lands due to the flooding of the Nile river banks.


 Mistress Mary, from the rhyme “Mary Quite Contrary” is rumored to potentially be about a number of famous Marys, including the Virgin Mary, Mary Queen of Scots, and Mary Tudor. 

Under the Virgin Mary interpretation, the “silver bells” in her garden are representative of the church bells, where the “cockle-shells” are insignia worn by those on religious pilgrimages, like those traveling to the temple of Santiago de Compostelain Spain. The Virgin’s “pretty maids” would include those nuns who devote their lives to her service.

Mary Queen of Scots, on the other hand, suggests a more superficial interpretation.  This noble lady was known for her expensive and decodent taste, in which case the “silver bells and cockle-shells” would represent her affinity for luxurious items.  As for the “pretty maids,” this Mary had a four ladies in waiting, interestingly enough known as the “Four Marys.”

If, however, the rhyme is referring to Mary Tudor, the fabled “Bloody Mary,” the poem takes on a much darker meaning.  This Catholic Queen waged a war against Protestantism, leaving an alleged “garden” of graves in her wake.  In this version, the “silver bells and cockle-shells” are meant to signify torture devices used to prosecute Protestants, and the “pretty maids” represent the countless widows that survived their husbands after Bloody Mary’s crusade.


“Little Boy Blue” also takes on a political connotation.  Here, the little boy is supposed to represent Cardinal Wosely, a religious leader under England’s Henry VIII.  This cardinal was neglectful of his duties and is held responsible for the religious turmoil that wracked England under Henry VIII’s reign.   As a religious figure, often portrayed as shepherds, Wosely had not been looking after his flock of “sheep,” or his congregants. 

Similarly, this poem could also decribe the riegn of King Charles II, who also left his “sheep,” this time his subjects, unattended. 


“Humpty Dumpty” is speculated to represent everything from unwanted pregnancy to the condition of England after the English Civil War.  Yet one prevailing interpretation is that Humpty Dumpty was the given to a canon used during the war that was captured by the Royalist army.  Perched atop a wall outside of St. Mary’s Church in Colchester, when the untrained army tried to use the confiscated artillery, it backfired, blowing to pieces.

 A few other rhymes that are thought to hold deeper meaning include “Jack Spratt,” “Ring-Around-the-Rosey,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “Rock-A-Bye Baby,” and “Jack Be Nimble.” 

 The many interpretations offered for each rhyme highlight just how ambiguous they are not only to modern day readers but our predecessors as well.  It is also interesting to note that, despite their acclaimed French origins, many of the surviving interpretations concern English royalty or issues.  Furthermore, there is also some debate over whether the tales and rhymes of Mother Goose actually originated in France or Germany — at the beginning of the 19th century, the Grimm Brothers collaborated a number of similar stories as Perrault, only with claims that they stemmed from German folklore. However, due to the earlier publication of Perrault’s collection, the stories are generally believed to be French in origin.  

Unfortunately, due to how detached literary scholars and historians have become from the true, orally transmitted origins of these rhymes, there is no evidence to tell whether any of these interpretations are true.  Still, some of the texts do heavily suggest that there may be a story or moral behind the rhyme.



Gloria T. Delamar, Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature (London and Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc., 1987), 131-132.


Chris Roberts, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme (New York: Gotham Books, 2005) 27, 33, 41,145-149.


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