April 30, 2020

Z is for Zany

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  It’s also not too late to check out the Master List of participating A-Z Blogs, and find more alphabetic fun.)

Z was a zany, a poor harmless fool.

        This is obviously not a full nursery rhyme.  It’s one line from an alphabet poem that is often included in nursery rhyme books, which is why I’m counting it.  It begins “A was an Archer, who shot at a frog,” and you can see one version in its entirety here.  Our single line for Z rhymes with “Y was a youth that did not love school.”  Yes, this is a very weak way to end the A-Z Challenge, but Z words just don’t seem to show up in the older nursery rhymes.  The only place we ever see a Z word is in an alphabet, and half the time even the alphabets lump X, Y, Z and & together at the end without words of their own.  Those alphabets that do give Z a proper treatment seem to have considered few options.  Many of the earlier primers, especially those from Puritan New England, use Zaccheus from the New Testament.  At least he gets  a pleasing little rhyme of his own: 
   Zaccheus he
   Did climb the tree
   His Lord to see.
One free-spirited alphabet from 1800 uses zebu, one from the 1850’s uses Zenobia “the queen of the east,” one of Walter Crane’s alphabets from 1874 uses zodiac, and a number of illustrated alphabets use the zebra you might expect.  But the most common, especially in those versions of the alphabet that include rhyming verses and thus can squeak themselves into the category of nursery rhymes, use zany.
        So what is a zany anyway?  Now that we really are at the last post of April, here’s some more Word-of-the-Month fun.
Zany as a noun, meaning a clown, comes from a Venetian dialect version of Gianni, which is a nickname for Giovanni, which is the Italian equivalent of John; thus Zany is really yet another Jack.  The character was a stock clown from the Commedia dell-arte, sometimes stupid and sometimes cunning.  Clearly by the nineteenth century in English there was no cunning left, only stupidity.  Nowadays the noun version is no longer in common use, but you’ll still encounter the word zany as an adjective meaning crazy, absurd, eccentric.  Although the adjectival form had entered English in the seventeenth century, it seems that these childrens’ alphabets still considered the noun to be in current use and a word suitable for basic nursery vocabulary.  Or at least no less suitable than zebu or Zenobia.
        Some of the letters of the alphabet, like the A shooting at, of all things, a frog, seem to hint at some sort of story, but Z gives us nothing.  There he is, just being a fool.  Perhaps he’s a friend of some of our other nursery rhyme fools, joining the wise men of Gotham in their bowl, or Simple Simon looking for plums.  I like to think that our Zany will be able to steer clear of the less pleasant letters in his alphabet, including the Drunkard, the Gamester, the Miser (of some versions), the Robber, and the Userer, and, like the crooked man, find some friends who understand him.  Which nursery rhyme character do you think would be the best friend for a Zany?
        A final note for impressionable children: Congratulations on making it to the end of the alphabet!  Learn to read, and the world can be yours.

[Pictures: Hand-colored woodcut from Pictured Alphabet published by Fisher & Brother, c 1857 (Image from University of Washington);
Hand-colored woodcut from The Ladder to Learning, Marks’ Edition, 1852 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Wood block print from The Silver Penny, printed by J. Kendrew, 1810 (Image from Internet Archive);
Wood block print from The Royal Primer, printed for J. Newbery, c 1776 (Image from Internet Archive);
Woodcut probably by Orlando Jewitt from The Picture Alphabet published by T. Richardson, c 1834 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book);
Hand-colored wood block print from The Funny Alphabet, published by McLoughlin Bro’s,  between 1850-1864 (Image from Internet Archive);
Hand-colored woodcut from The Hobby-Horse published by J. Harris, 1820 (Image from Opie, A Nursery Companion).]

April 29, 2020

Y is for York

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

The grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill, and he marched them down again.
Oh, when they’re up, they’re up, and when they’re down, they’re down,
And when they’re only halfway up, they’re neither up nor down.

        They paused halfway up in order to enjoy a picnic.
        No one knows which Duke of York we’re referring to here.  As usual there are various candidates, and no particular evidence to connect the song to any one of them.  The earliest variation of the rhyme attributes the going up and down again to the King of France, but doesn’t include the halfway up at all.  For most children the fun part is the actions that go along with the singing: standing at “up”s and sitting at “down”s.  It’s also fun to sing it with a lot of oomph and verve.
        Taking it as a story in its own right, one could consider it a meditation on the futility of war, but I prefer to think of it as more akin to the “truism” rhymes, telling us something so delightfully obvious that I can’t help feeling a certain affection for the poor, pompous fellow — he thought he was so dang important, but really it’s no different for him than for anyone else in the world.
        The first illustration has lots of dramatic movement in the composition, with the big diagonal of the commanding arm forming the slope of the hill, and the commander on horseback urging the men ahead.  The very rough printing with uneven ink adds to its impetuous feel.  The second illustration, by contrast, is much more staid.  These men are not charging vigorously, but trudging along, left-right left-right.  The end of the line is even
standing around waiting for the forward movement to reach them.  But at least they have a destination in the castle atop the hill.  (The first illustration makes me think that the men may all tumble lemming-like over the fingertip, like one of Monty Python’s animations.  The piece slightly predates Gilliam’s animations for the show, but it’s from the same general era.)
        The final illustration is from the early days of the United States of America.  You can see that the commander is holding an American flag.  The lyrics have been changed to replace the Duke of York, whom we don’t want to talk about right now, to a “Serjeant Hero.”  The illustration contains no hill, however, which makes it pretty weak.  They’re neither up nor down all the time.
        Why do you think the Duke of York and his men were marching up and down the hill, anyway?
        A final note for impressionable children: Running up and down hills is an excellent way
to get exercise and improve health and fitness.

[Pictures: Woodcut by Seymour Chwast, 1961 (Image from Seymour Chwast Archive);
Wood block print by Joan Hassall, c 1955 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book);
Wood block print from A Little Pretty Pocket-Book printed by Isaiah Thomas, 1787 (Image from Library of Congress).]

April 28, 2020

X is for Cross

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  Be sure to visit my fellow A-Z Bloggers, who can be found on the Master List.)

Hot X buns!  Hot X buns!
One-a-penny, two-a-penny,
Hot X buns!

        Okay, I had to cheat a bit, as one so often does for X.  They are really “hot cross buns,” of course, but what is the cross in question but an X across the top of each bun?
        This is one of the class of nursery rhymes that began as street cries: the songs or calls of street vendors or market stall owners trying to advertise their businesses.  Illustrated collections of street cries were quite popular nursery fare in the nineteenth century.  Hot cross buns are traditionally to be eaten on Good Friday at the end of Lent, but during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I there were
decrees to restrict the sale of hot cross buns to Good Friday, Christmas, and funerals.  The fact that the decrees were made of course betrays that people were selling them at other times.  Nowadays they are often available year round.
        All well and good, but there simply isn’t any story here.  It’s a pleasant, catchy little rhyme to sing, but there’s not much there to make for an interesting illustration.  And sure enough, the illustrations I have for you today aren’t very interesting.  Walter Crane tries to produce some drama by implying that while the boy eats his avidly, the girl is not so keen.  This may have been suggested by the occasionally-heard second verse:
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons.
One-a-penny, two-a-penny, Hot cross buns.
It’s still not much of a plot.
        My second illustration simply shows the vendor with her basket of hot cross buns on her head.  You can’t even see the buns under the cloth, although I do think it’s very attractively carved with nice shading, and interesting texture on the wall.  The third shows the boy reaching into his pocket for the penny that will buy him his bun, which is hardly thrilling action. Oh well, you can’t expect top-notch entertainment when you have to find an X.  (Insert joke here, if you’re so inclined, about X-rated entertainment.)
        What’s your favorite food associated with a holiday?
        A final note for impressionable children: Don’t spend all your pennies on snacks.

[Pictures: Color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Absurd A.B.C., engraved and printed by Edmund Evans, c 1874 (Image from Internet Archive);
Wood block print from The Cries of London published by J. Kendrew, 1820 (Image from Internet Archive);
Hand-colored wood block print from Sam Syntax’s Description of the Cries of London, published by J. Harris and Son, 1820 (Image from Opie, A Nursery Companion.]

April 27, 2020

W is for Whey

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider, and sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

        Normally she made a special point of carrying spiders outside in a glass.
        We start with another of my own illustrations (and the last one for this year’s challenge).  I didn’t want to portray senseless arachnophobia, so I tried to imagine a scenario in which even the most tolerant child might find herself running away from a spider.  I pictured her reading scary books in the attic when the spider suddenly startled her.  I show the moment just before Miss Muffet notices the spider.  Miss Muffet also
remains oblivious in the second illustration, but with the third she has become aware of her neighbor and is looking marvelously apprehensive.  And so she should, with a spider nearly as big as a cat!  Many illustrations make the spider truly monstrous, enough to frighten even the most stalwart arachnologist.  And our final illustrations complete the story as Miss Muffet runs away screaming.
        We’re not quite at the end of the month, but nevertheless I give you a Word of the Month today, and it is tuffet.  What is a tuffet, anyway?  In the 1550s tuffet was a diminutive variant of tuft (by way of Old French touffe).  As such it meant “a small grassy mound or clump of grass.”  The illustrations that place Miss Muffet outdoors are thus more etymologically accurate.  However, over the years the word tuffet disappeared from common usage, remaining nowhere in the language except in the nursery rhyme, where it was anchored by the necessity of rhyming with Muffet.  But no one really remembered what it meant.  In 1902 the essayist Samuel M. Crothers wrote, “Perhaps some of you would like to know what a tuffet is. I have thought of that myself, and have taken the trouble to ask several learned persons. They assure me that the most complete and satisfactory definition is,—a tuffet is the kind of thing that Miss Muffet sat on.”  Clearly it’s something you sit on, and perhaps because of the sound, lots of people interpret it as 
some sort of low stool or pouffe.  Some dictionaries now include this definition - after all, if that’s what people mean when they say it, then that’s what it means.  (See Humpty Dumpty.  You can also compare with the very parallel history of the word weird.)  Although I am usually the complete pedant about this sort of thing, I went with the footstool definition in my illustration because I wanted to place Miss Muffet in a dark and cobwebby attic, and not on a sunshiney meadow knoll.
        Given the current state of the word tuffet, there actually is a good definition, though.  A tuffet is a hassock.  This works because hassock, too, can mean both an upholstered footstool or ottoman, and a clump or tussock of grass or vegetation (although usually hassock refers to tufts of grass in marshy areas, where possibly Miss Muffet was unlikely to be sitting).  Hassock, too, began as a clump of grass or sedge, but by the early 1500s had acquired the meaning of “thick cushion for kneeling, or sitting, or feet.”  So I really don’t see any problem with letting a tuffet be a stool!
        On a final linguistic note, curds and whey is basically cottage cheese.  The primary difference is that cottage cheese tends to be more drained (more curds and less whey) and more salted than Miss Muffet’s snack probably was.
        So, what do you think Miss Muffet was sitting on?  And how do you feel about spiders?  Or cottage cheese?
        A final note for impressionable children: Be kind to spiders and they will eat the mosquitos that want to eat you.

[Pictures: Little Miss Muffet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002 (Image from my book);
Illustration from The Book of Nursery Rhymes, Tales, and Fables edited by Lawrence Lovechild, 1858 (Image from Internet Archive);
Wood block print from Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, published by Allen Brothers, 1869 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Detail from Nursery Rhymes, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1970 (Image from Kevis House);
Color woodcut on cotton fabric by the Federal Art Project (Wisconsin), 1937-8 (Image from National Gallery of Art).]

April 25, 2020

V is for Victuals

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

There was an old woman, and what do you think?
She lived upon nothing but victuals and drink!
Victuals and drink were the chief of her diet,
And yet this old woman could never be quiet.

        I feel that this old woman and I have a lot in common.  I, too, count victuals and drink as the chief of my diet.  This verse belongs to a class of nursery rhymes that state truisms, although this one goes on with the further information that the old woman never shuts up.  It definitely sounds like it’s putting a negative spin on her, which seems a little harsh.
        I am mildly amused by the truism, as intended, but it does seem a little difficult to illustrate in an interesting way.  What can you really do except show an old woman eating?  This first illustration also tries to get at her constant chattering, not only with the open mouth (which could also be for eating, of course), but also with the parrot.  She seems to be conversing with the cat, as well.  (If that is even a cat.  It almost looks more like a huge rat.)  The second illustration gives the woman a delightfully enthusiastic expression as she tucks in, a servant bringing on the next course.  The third illustration shows the woman surrounded by vast quantities of meat.  These
all seem to want to emphasize the amount of victuals the woman is feasting on, as though she’s unusually gluttonous.  This again seems to be an unfair negative spin, as she may be unusually garrulous, but as far as I can tell her diet is no different from any other mortal’s.
        Do you think there’s some intrinsic connection between eating food and talking a lot?  (There’s certainly a strong correlation between eating no food and not talking.)
        A final note for impressionable children: Make sure your victuals include a much higher ratio of vegetables to meat than these pictures show.

[Pictures: Wood engraving from Mother Goose’s Melodies, published by C.S. Francis and Company, 1833 (Image from Internet Archive);
Color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Absurd A.B.C., engraved and printed by Edmund Evans, c 1874 (Image from Internet Archive);
Illustration by J.F. Goodridge from The Original Mother Goose Melodies with Silhouette Illustrations, 1878 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library).]

April 24, 2020

U is for Unicorn

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown.
The lion beat the unicorn, all around the town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown,
And some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.

        Unfortunately, giving them cake only served to reinforce negative behavior.
        Okay, this one really does have a historical origin: the lion is England while the unicorn is Scotland.  They are the two heraldic supporters of the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, but there has been rivalry and enmity between the two that particularly came to a head during the reigns of Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots in the sixteenth century, as well as the Acts of Union in 1707 that made England and Scotland one kingdom.
As a political statement this rhyme seems to indicate an attitude of being tired of the whole squabble.  I know of no particular explanation for the bread and cake, however.
        Most of the older illustrations are pretty straightforward and show the two animals rampant on their hind legs fighting, with a crown on the ground between them.  The first one here is obviously of that type.  So is the second, which I included because it’s a particularly handsome example.  (It’s another copper engraving printed intaglio, but oh well.  I forgive it because of the lovely textures and shading.)  Not until later, after the era of common wood block prints had passed, do we tend to get views of the two troublemakers being drummed out of town, or illustrations in which there are any visible injuries as a result of the fighting.
        The third illustration sticks with the same iconography, but with a more modern carving style.  Instead of trying to reproduce the look of an ink drawing, as earlier wood block prints usually do, this 20th century artist is having a little more fun with some of the unique properties of wood block printing.  She’s got more white lines on black, more interesting textures (such as the ground), and more look of carviness.
        The final illustration is interesting because it shows the unicorn employing a more horse-like fighting style.  I’m not sure what your best strategy might be when you have the ability to kick like a horse behind, or stab with a horn in front, but it’s reasonable to suppose that you might do some of both.  I appreciate that this artist is treating the unicorn and lion as if they are real animals, not just heraldic symbols.
        Do you think one of them will eventually win the fight, or do you think they’re really just rough-housing, with no intention of ever actually ending it?
        A final note for impressionable children: Constant bickering may well get you drummed out of the company of others.

[Pictures: Wood block print from Vocal Harmony, or No Song, No Supper, c 18o0 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book);
Copper engraving from Songs for the Nursery, printed for Tabart & Co, c 1808 (Image from Internet Archive);
The Lion and the Unicorn, wood engraving by Enid Marx, 1939 (Image from The JC);
Wood block print from Mother Goose’s Quarto of Nursery Rhymes published by McLoughlin Bros., nineteenth century (Image from International Children’s Digital Library).]

April 23, 2020

T is for Tub

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  Be sure to check out the Master List of my fellow A-Z bloggers.)

Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker.
Turn them out, rogues all three!

        Clearly, the midnight snacks of meat pies and chocolate cake were going to have to stop.
        What are these men doing in the tub?  Why are they rogues?  This is a puzzling one indeed.  I imagine parties that got out of hand: the candlestick-maker brings candles for nighttime light, of course, the butcher brings meat pies, and the baker brings chocolate cake… but it all got a little messy and now they find themselves scrambling to clean up before they all have to get back to work in the morning.
        Most other illustrations show our men sitting in the tub, and often the tub is even afloat, as this one by Reed.  The candlestick-maker trying to use his candlestick for a telescope is a clever touch, but otherwise these wise men could just as well hail from Gotham!  Gwenda Morgan’s interpretation below is of the same school, but I like the way her three men are each distinctly recognizable by their outfits and accoutrements.  Still, why does boating in a tub get them labelled as rogues?
        As it happens, there are versions that explicitly state that the three men were out to sea, so presumably that explains where the illustrators are coming from, even though Reed, for example, doesn’t include the nautical lyrics in the version of the rhyme that’s printed with his nautical illustration.  (Even more baffling, of course, is the version in which they all jump out of a rotten potato!  I can’t even begin to explain that one.  It’s enough to make a man stare, for sure.)
        The earliest printed versions of the rhyme had three maids in a tub, and some scholars suggest that the rhyme is about the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker ogling the maids at a peep show.  “Rub-a-dub-dub,” it is alleged, was “a phonetic association of social disapprobation, analogous to tsk-tsk.”  Well, that may or may not have been so historically, but to me “rub-a-dub-dub” most definitely suggests washing up with plenty of bubbles, so that’s what I’ve illustrated.  (By the way, even when we’re alleging soft porn, no one seems to suggest that the three men were naked together in a hot tub.)
        What reasons can you suggest for being in a tub?  And I don’t need to say “keep it clean,” because it’s a tub full of suds, so of course it’s clean!
        A final note for impressionable children:  Never leave a piece of chocolate cake unattended.

[Pictures: Rub-a-dub-dub, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002 (Image from my book);
Color wood engraving by Philip Reed from Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes, 1963;
Detail from Nursery Rhymes, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1970 (Image from Kevis House).]

April 22, 2020

S is for Simple Simon

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Simple Simon met a pieman,
Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Let me taste your ware.”

Says the pieman to Simple Simon,
“Show me first your penny;”
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Indeed I have not any.”

Simple Simon went a-fishing,
For to catch a whale;
All the water he had got
Was in his mother’s pail.

     Simple Simon went to look
     If plums grew on a thistle;
     He pricked his fingers very much,
     Which made poor Simon whistle.

He went for water in a sieve
But soon it all fell through;
And now poor Simple Simon
Bids you all adieu.

        But we still don’t technically know whether he found any plums, or caught a whale.
        This is one of those nursery rhymes with lots of verses, which appear in various number and combination in various versions of the rhyme.  It is the nature of these things that people add and subtract as the spirit moves.  The verses are intended to illustrate Simon’s foolishness as he attempts all manner of activities that range from merely silly to physically impossible.  I find it interesting, however, that the tone of the rhyme tends to be fairly sympathetic to Simon.    No, he’s not too smart, but we seem to view him fondly anyway.
        I’ve chosen an illustration for each of the episodes included above.  First is Simon’s conversation with the pieman.  Maybe it’s foolish to expect to be given a pie - after all, the pieman has to make a living - but really, it never hurts to ask.  The only indication we have in this illustration that Simon is simple is that he’s holding a twig, something properly wise and sophisticated adults don’t seem to do very often.  This print is made with a separate block for each color of ink, and it looks like that makes 6 blocks.  Additional colors can be built up where blocks overlap.
        Next up, Simon is fishing in his mother’s pail.  The color here is watercolor applied after the book was printed.  This comes from an 8-page pamphlet, which was an extremely common and popular format for all sorts of books, but especially books for children in the nineteenth century.  They were often available either colored or uncolored, priced accordingly.  (This is a far nicer production than yesterday's.)  I like Simon’s eagerness in this illustration.  He’s leaning forward, eyes wide with anticipation.  He’s also dressed to the nines.
        The illustrations for the last two verses both come from another short chapbook.  Once again Simon looks quite eager, with a little smile as he reaches for the thistle.  One gets the impression that he’s very cheerful and doesn’t let his constant disappointments get him down.  I especially like the way this anonymous artist has carved the texture of the thistle and the water falling from the sieve.  It proves that simple doesn’t have to be ineffective in art, even if it is in Simon.
        True confessions: what’s one of the more amusingly foolish things you’ve ever done?
        A final note for impressionable children:  Don’t go fishing for whales in any body of 
water; they’re severely endangered and should be left in peace.

[Pictures: Color wood engraving by Philip Reed from Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes, 1963;
Hand-colored wood block print from The History of Simple Simon, early 19th century (Image from Hathi Trust);
Wood block prints from The History of Simple Simon printed by J. Kendrew, c 1820 (Images from Internet Archive).]

April 21, 2020

R is for Rock-a-bye

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  You can find all this year’s A to Z Bloggers at the Master List.)

Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come cradle, baby and all.

        Perhaps you know this one by the major variant that begins “Hush-a-bye,” but that’s not how I learned it, so I have assigned it to R.  (Also, rock-a-bye seems to be the older version.)
        Some people worry that this is frightening to children.  I don’t know about that.  I can picture it being used as a game, where you pretend to drop the child (while really holding her securely the whole time, of course), which induces squeals of laughter rather than fear.  However, I did make up another rhyme that I could sing to the same tune, while holding one of my own children in my lap.  (You have to rock in the different directions as you sing.  Also,
I sang my child’s name instead of the word “baby.”  It helped that my children have two-syllable names.)

Rock-a-bye baby, rock back and forth,
Rock to the south and rock to the north.
Rock to the east and rock to the west,
I’m rocking the baby I love the best.

        The main question for illustrators is whether to show a secure cradle with a peacefully sleeping baby, or a baby coming down, cradle and all.  I’ve included a couple of each type for you.  First a nice wood engraving, (which is actually a copy from an earlier intaglio copper engraving).  It’s got a lot of beautifully carved detail of leaves and bark, and the woven wicker cradle.  It is certainly horrifying, though, as the baby plummets head-first with no one around to catch it.
        I’ll relieve your anxiety with the next illustration in which all is serene.  Admittedly those twigs look far too slender to support the weight of a cradle, but we have four little cherubs to watch over the baby, so I’m sure it will be fine.  The third piece shows the cradle much more securely wedged into a nice fork in the tree-trunk, but I don’t think this baby is asleep.  It seems to be peering out of its snug wrappings, and I imagine it has an enchanting view of leaves and sky and birds.
        I end with a rather hideously hand-colored print of the cradle once again falling.  (Hand-colored versions of books were often sold for twice the price of plain.  Personally, I’d pay twice as much for the uncolored version of this one!)  This doesn’t look like a baby to me, however, and I reconstruct the accident thus: the baby had such a lovely nest in the treetop (see illustration above), that some time when the baby was in the house being fed, the older sister climbed into the cradle to try it out.  Alas, she was too heavy for it, and thus the bough broke.  At least she’s falling feet-first, and the cradle can’t have been too high, so do you think she will be all right?
        Our moralizing nursery rhyme book (c. 1760) adds to this lullaby, “This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last.”  It hardly seems fair to blame an infant whose cradle has fallen for Pride and Ambition, so this serves as at least a slight corroboration for those who hypothesize a political origin for this rhyme, such as the overthrow of King James II in 1688.  On the other hand, our moralizers continue with “Maxim: Content turns all it touches into Gold,” which seems less likely to apply to the deposition of kings.  So really, who knows what they were thinking!
        A final note for impressionable children: When climbing trees, always be careful not to put your weight on dead branches, or on any branches thinner than your wrist.

[Pictures: Wood engraving from Mother Goose’s Melodies, published by C.S. Francis and Company, 1833 (Image from Internet Archive);
Color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Opera, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1877 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Detail from Nursery Rhymes, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1970 (Image from Kevis House);
Hand-colored wood block print from Walker’s Nursery Rhymes, 1813 (Image from Internet Archive).]

April 17, 2020

Q is for Queen

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day.
The Knave of Hearts
He stole those tarts,
And took them clean away.
The King of Hearts
Called for the tarts,
And beat the knave full sore.
The Knave of Hearts
Brought back the tarts,
And vowed he’d steal no more.

        Scandal at court!
        Unlike some nursery rhymes, this one has a full plot and plenty of scope for a variety of different illustrations of various points in the story.  Some illustrators have fun showing the Queen, dressed all in her royal finery complete with crown, working in the kitchen - an idea that probably struck people as particularly funny in the days of more extreme social distinctions.  Today’s second illustration, by Walter Crane, is of that type.
        Some illustrators focus on the Knave’s theft, including the first illustration above, and the third.  I particularly like how the third one models the knave so closely on the playing card.  That’s another area in which illustrators have a decision to make: whether to imagine these characters as playing cards or not.  Lewis Carroll and his illustrator Tenniel most famously did, but others go with other designs.  It is true that this rhyme actually was originally inspired by cards, as the poem was first published with a verse for each of the other suits, as well, although those verses never became popular and haven’t stuck around.
        And finally, we have an illustrator who has chosen to depict the King threatening to beat the Knave (with a sword!  Yikes!), and the Knave returning the tarts.  The Queen looks on from the background with an expression that says “Serves him right!”
        Do you ever bake pastry?  What’s your favorite kind to make?  Or to eat?
        A final note for impressionable children: Don’t steal tarts!

[Pictures: Detail from Nursery Rhymes, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1970 (Image from Kevis House);
Color wood block print by Walter Crane from Baby’s Own Alphabet, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1874 (Image from Internet Archive);
Wood block print from Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, published by Allen Brothers, 1869 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Wood block print from Songs for the Nursery, published by Darton & Co, 1851 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book).]

April 16, 2020

P is for Puddle

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Doctor Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain.
He stepped in a puddle up to his middle and never went there again.

        He spent the whole evening huddled in blankets, and in the morning his shoes were still soggy.
        A puddle three or four feet deep certainly seems excessive.  It could have been an epic pothole in the middle of the road, but I suspect that Dr Foster was traipsing cross-country, trying to take a short-cut in the rain.  He must have encountered something that shouldn’t even  properly be called a puddle; perhaps it was really more of a small pool or an ornamental fishpond or even a shallow well.  He didn’t like to admit that he was actually trespassing in someone’s garden when he fell into their goldfish pool, so he just told everyone it was a puddle.  What we don’t know, in that case, is whether the final line means that he never went to Gloucester again, or whether it means he learned his lesson about shortcuts and never went into that family’s garden again.
        There would be three obvious points in the story to illustrate: before stepping into the puddle, mid-action of the plunge, or standing in water up to his middle.  A number of the older ones simply show a man walking in the rain, and I wonder whether in a few cases at least that was so that the publishers could reuse some previous wood block of a man in the rain that they already had in stock.  Today’s third example may be one of that type, but I like it anyway because of its interesting texture: the straight lines of the rain, contrasted with the mottled pattern on the man’s clothes where he’s getting wet.  On the whole, though, more interesting are those illustrations that make a bigger deal of the puddle.  In the first one here he’s only up to his ankle, so perhaps the next step will suddenly get deeper.
        The second illustration makes more fun of the poor doctor, with his hat and wig blowing off, and his umbrella turned inside-out.  On the other hand, perhaps that really shows him in a better light because it offers an excuse for his distraction, giving a plausible reason for him to step straight into the puddle.  Most illustrations depict a fairly small puddle and one has to wonder why Dr Foster couldn’t have just walked around instead of through.  (This piece, by the way, is not a relief print.  It’s just done with pen and ink, but it does have a bit of a block-printy vibe with its large areas of black on white and white on black.)
        Many American editions spell the place Glo’ster to make sure that people pronounce it correctly for the rhyme.  (And we also have to pronounce a-gane to rhyme with rain.)  As for history, as usual people have tried to come up with explanations for the rhyme’s origins, and as usual there’s no evidence for any of the theories (and evidence against some).  However, the idea I find most entertaining is that it refers to Doctor Faustus, who (in Christopher Marlowe’s play of around 1590) plays a magical trick on another character causing him to be dehorsed in the middle of a river.  No, this is hardly a direct parallel to the “plot” of the nursery rhyme, so most likely it’s another baseless theory, but it would be fun if there actually were magic involved in this very mundane scene!
        What’s your most inconvenient experience while traveling?
        A final note for impressionable children: Put on your boots and go ahead and enjoy stomping in puddles.

[Pictures: Detail from Nursery Rhymes, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1970 (Image from Kevis House);
Illustration by J.F. Goodridge from Mother Goose Rhymes with Silhouette Illustrations, 1879 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Wood block print from Rhymes for the Nursery, published by Kiggins & Kellogg, 1848 (Image from Internet Archive).]