One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading Mother Goose books to me. I know that even as a little tot I had a large repertoire of rhymes that I could recite by heart. In kindergarten we learned lots of songs that were essential nursery rhymes set to music: Jack and Jill, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Old King Cole, London Bridge is Falling Down, and many others. Mother Goose nursery rhymes were a passage of childhood for my generation, as they had been for hundreds of years.
When our children were young, we continued the tradition, buying different collections of rhymes and reading them to the kids over and over so that they soon knew them by heart. There’s something about rhyme and meter that imbed themselves in the unconscious, and even more so if they’re combined with a tune. I think you could sing the first line of a Mother Goose rhyme to an Alzheimer’s patient, and he’d be able to finish it for you.
To my sorrow, I found during my second teaching career (2006-2014) that most of my elementary school students weren’t familiar with nursery rhymes. In elementary general music, many activities start with a well-known rhyme. Since my students didn’t have a shared knowledge base of rhymes, I had to teach them a rhyme first before we could use it as the basis of a music experience. Sigh.
Back in the day, memorization of poems was a popular classroom activity. Few teachers today are able to spend time on this pursuit, because it’s usually not measured on standardized tests.
However, I still partially remember four poems I learned from Mrs. Susan Westerfield when I was in second grade, more than fifty years ago. Since they are in the public domain, I will share them with you. (Please forgive the improper formatting. I am a dunce when it comes to code.)
By Robert Louis Stevenson
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—
Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!
By Robert Louis Stevenson
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me when I jump into my bed.
The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow-
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.
He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!
One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an errant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.
By Eugene Field
The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
’Twas half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)
The gingham dog went “bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I’m only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)
The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, “Oh, dear! what shall we do!”
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don’t fancy I exaggerate!
I got my views from the Chinese plate!)
Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of the dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole the pair away!
But the truth about the cat and the pup
Is this: They ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.)
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod
By Eugene Field
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,”
The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—
Never afeard are we!”
So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam,—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home:
’Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ’twas a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea;
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock on the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three,—
I even remember drawing illustrations for Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.
What about you–did you learn nursery rhymes as a child? Did you memorize poems in elementary school? What are some of your favorites? Share with us in the comments below.