The latest chapter of my thesis is about Sing-Song, Christina Rossetti’s book of nursery rhymes, and it has taken me into whole new worlds, of children’s literature and, slightly worryingly, of child psycho-analysis (having read Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott, I will never see a baby the same way again). Sing-Song was published in 1872, and was popularly used in nurseries until some time in the 1930s, when it fell out of favour due to its frequent “dead babies”, to quote a critic. There are quite a few “dead babies”, though perhaps this is less surprising when one considers that in the latter part of the 19th century, 153 in every 1000 babies died in infancy, so death of a sibling would be sadly familiar in many nurseries. And one critic writing in Household Words in 1851 on nursery rhymes, comments on “Hush-a-by Baby” : “Bravo! excellent fun – a smashed baby! – well done old Nursery Witch! In short, the grand staple commodity of the nursery songs and tales of England…is death, or the excitement of killing something.” In fact, Rossetti deals with child mortality in quite a gentle way; she makes the mother’s love appear unconditional, as though waiting for reunion with a dead child, and also proposes spiritual comfort, as in this poem (below).
There are a few dead mothers, too – well, I didn’t expect Victorian poetry for children to be cheerful, although there are many delightful nonsense poems (“If a pig wore a wig” etc), many of which poke fun at social conventions, and also many poems exploring nature, teaching the child about the world around it.
So my research into Sing-Song has not been particularly surprising to me. What did surprise me, however, is some of the other literature for children. Watts’ Divine Songs for children (1715), offers “A Meditation of Death”: “Horrid Darkness, sad and sore,/And an Eternal Night;/Groans and Shrieks;/ and Thousand more/In the want of glorious Light…/Every corner hath a Snake/In the accursed Lake…” Perhaps children, with their innate love of gruesome things, actually get a Gothic thrill from it, but I bet at least as many again are just plain terrified.
Another revelation was the poetry of Jane and Ann Taylor. Rhymes from the Nursery is mostly slightly preachy but not too scary, although I was hugely amused by a poem that tells the infant to behave, or else:
And when you saw me pale and thin,
By grieving for my baby’s sin,
I think you’d wish that you had been
A better baby.
The idea that a baby could wish to be anything, let alone to be “a better baby” is slightly hilarious, though not as uncomfortably so as “The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Poor Puss”, a miserable tale which is clearly meant to encourage children to be kind to animals, but instead tells a tale of woe of a cat who has been cut with knives, beaten, whipped, had her kittens drowned, and is now dying of wounds inflicted by an angry child. I can’t imagine that such tales would be seen as appropriate by parents now; but what people try to teach children through literature gives one an eye-opening sideways glance at history.