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).]


Lisa said...

I always knew it as "Rock-a-Bye" as well. It's a very strange one to recite to children!

Frédérique said...

I don't know this one, thanks for the illustrations too!

Deborah Weber said...

I confess I was totally freaked out by the rhyme when I was young. I clearly had safety issues. But I definitely like your alternative version, and now I'm adopting it as the "official right-fit" version I'm tucking away in my brain cabinet. Thanks!

Jade Li said...

They're all nice illustrations but yes, such a messy job on the coloring of the one. It really is sad when such moralizing gets tacked into children's books, as the message is meant for the parents and the parents are having a good time reading to their children.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I once read somewhere that in the middle ages people would put cradles in high places to see if the baby would cry, and to make them braver. That would explain the rhyme...

The Multicolored Diary

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I had heard the political version as well. Amazing what backgrounds these rhymes often had, like Ring A Ring of Roses and Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, etc.

I love the Walter Crane picture and yes, you would feel safe with those cherubs!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Deborah, it's interesting to hear that this one scared you as a child. I guess people are right to be concerned about it!

Jade, we have little patience for such moralizing today, but at the time that book was published, parents wanted and expected that their children would be taught moral lessons in everything. My complaint is less that there are morals, and more that the morals so often seem to be arbitrary and not logically connected to the story!

Zalka, I hadn't heard that. Do you think it worked? My understanding of child psychology is that children are braver when they have had a background of safety than when they've been insecure their whole lives... but I am certainly no expert.

Kathe W. said...

I always thought this poem was a bit odd with the baby falling down!
The illustrations are so different from today's childrens books!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Kathe, it's true: the older the illustration, the more likely it is to show scary stuff. The newer illustrations are just about all safe and secure. Probably for the best, but it's interesting to see how our attitudes have changed.

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

I prefer the scary stuff :-)

An A-Z of Faerie: Red Caps

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Ronel, that's funny. But can you remember, did you prefer scary stuff when you were 2 years old, or not until you were older? I'm especially curious because I actually do not like scary stuff, so it seems strange and fascinating to me that some people do!