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).]

11 comments:

Lisa said...

This one always reminds me of this old riddle!

"Thirty white horses on a red hill,
first champ, then stamp, and then stand still"

Not a riddle like we in the US think of them, I guess these are either older, or British sorts. I run across them in novels.

The first illustration looks like a Blue Meanie.

Kathe W. said...

The first drawing really shows how war is fought....the General points his finger up the hill and the soldiers go toward the enemy while the General sits down and doesn't budge. At least that is how I see it and I think this artist did also.

Frédérique said...

Oh I love so much your "A final note for impressionable children" ;))
Y is for Young

Deborah Weber said...

I really do like that first illustration. Although I'd like to see the fingers in a peace sign and then the men would be marching towards that. Your final notes always crack me up. And seeing how I'm obviously on a let's add something mode, I'd add the admonishment "don't go fetching any pails."

Rob Z Tobor said...

It is a funny little nursery rhyme and has never really made any sense to me. Probably because I'm just an old grumpy chap which I suspect may also be true of The grand old Duke of York.

Almost at Z, just a few more hours and we can all cheer and lie down and rest much like the ten thousand men on that hill.

Kristin said...

I think they were on maneuvers. No particular rhyme or reason to it. Their Captain just wants to keep them fit. So up and down the hill they go.

Jade Li said...

This is a new one on me. It has a sing-song to it that I like.

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Sounds like someone was bored...

An A-Z of Faerie: Krampus

Sue Bursztynski said...

You’re right, Anne, that first one is very Monty Python in style!

Lisa, the answer to that riddle is “teeth.” It is an old style riddle of the kind the Saxons used to enjoy. And Tolkien used it in The Hobbit, in the chapter “Riddles In The Dark.”

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Lisa, this one predates the Blue Meanies slightly, but is definitely of the same era, with that same 60's style.

Kathe, very true. I think you're also right that the artist was definitely going for that view.

Deborah, that would make an interesting twist with a peace sign. And you're right, fetching pails on hills can be dangerous! ;)

Rob, have you not learned by now not to go looking for sense in these rhymes? Perhaps you're right and the Grand Old Duke was just looking forward to getting it all over with.

Kristin and Ronel, this seems likely. Just up and down and up and down as busy-work.

Narayana Rao K.V.S.S. said...

I shall read all rhymes one by one.