OURS WAS A STORY-LOVING FAMILY, a covey of yarners and listeners. We were out of North Carolina, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, and lived in towns with names like Blue Hill, Oak Creek, Red Cloud. Like a hill, a creek, a cloud, I think of us as being built of monosyllabic nouns from nature colored by spare traits—the hill was blue, oaks grew beside the creek, clouds were red during frequent droughts. Our men were taciturn and more often than not worked with their hands. They farmed and lost their farm, ranched and are buried on their ranch. Some did better than others. Grandfather Morrow was a country doctor, mayor of a tiny coal mining town, school superintendent. Grandfather Hoffman was a prison guard in Lincoln, a railroad worker, a kennel assistant in his penniless but brave final years. My father worked a jackhammer for the Public Service Company of Denver for a while, before moving into aeronautics, spending most of his time away from our family in Littleton, Colorado, recruiting for the Martin-Marietta corporation, hiring fresh-faced engineers to help design the Titan missiles that made man’s first forays into outer space, and also produce the weapons delivery systems that were used in Vietnam. Our women—Taffy, Jenny, Helen, Helen—were, on the other hand, talkative. They worked with their hands, as well. One as a nurse, another as church organist who later sold ladies underwear at the local J. C. Penney when her spouse—my father—was laid off, and others with their husbands as cattle and sheep ranchers and prairie farmers. They were, as I remember them, plainspoken women but quick enough of wit that any of them would have caught the quiet pun of plains-spoken.
My grandmother Jenny Hoffman, who lived a few farms over from Willa Cather’s uncle’s place, was a gifted raconteur—a teller of tales, the taller the better—and she never failed to mesmerize me and my sister with her dramatic oral narratives. She met Buffalo Bill on more than one occasion. She once saw a two-headed calf at a county fair. Towering tornados swept across the flatlands of my grandparents' farm, which they ultimately lost not to a twister but the Depression. There was always a rattlesnake that got to the chicken coop and so engorged itself on eggs that she found it in the morning–dead as often as not, suffocated by its ravenous greed—and was able to cut it open lengthwise and recover enough unbroken eggs for breakfast. There was the red-tail hawk who carried off a spring lamb in its talons (don’t believe this one). There were rows of planted corn which, on a quiet summer night, you could hear growing out in the fields. My interest in broad scapes and stories was nurtured by, perhaps derives from, my maternal grandmother's tales which arranged themselves contiguously in my imagination so that they became plausibly connected, interlocking, causal chronicles. She told her stories simply, and through the accretion of hearing more and more of them, they became epical as any written novel. Willa Cather would later become one of my most cherished writers for many reasons, but this high plains geography she shared with my grandmother undoubtedly resonated in some personal way. Jenny Hoffman never wrote down any of her stories on paper, nor did she own any books other than her Bible, and thus my introduction to narrative was anecdotal, humble-Homeric, oral.
My mother, for her part, was a singer of lullabies and of nursery rhymes and, being a musician—trained in classical music—was, I think, as enamored of (attuned to) the pure melodies and rhythms of these vocal artifacts as of any narrative, or moral, values inherent in them. Just as my grandmother introduced me to the storyteller’s art, these nursery rhymes served as overtures to poetic language, language in which words live within original sonorities, within onomatopoeia, and dance their iambic pentameters like ballet, or sometimes just jigs, where language carves shapes on the air, forming content even as content inscribes form. They were, then—combined with those spirited legends told me by my mother's mother—a first encounter with what I understood to be something dangerous, potent, and magical: literature. Words still seem vivid, durable, breathtaking, intractable, noble things, as quaint as this might seem. And nursery rhymes, which seemed dangerous and desirable when I was young, still have the capacity to chime a kind of deep reverence—the reverence of dread and wonder—in me.
How can this be possible?
"Wee Willie Winkie" is the earliest nursery rhyme I can remember. Hostage to its simple musicality, I would say or sing this over and over to myself:
Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town
Upstairs and downstairs in his night-gown,
Rapping at the window, crying through the lock,
Are the children all in bed, for now it's eight o'clock?
Palpable as nightfall, Wee Willie became as much a figure of mystery as Mr. Sandman, whose legend doesn't attach to a rhyme scheme that I can recall other than the one made popular over the radio in the late fifties, Mr. Sandman bring me a dream, Bring me a boy that I've never seen, or something along those lines. Willie Winkie and Mr. Sandman shared the exotic routine of slinking about under cover of darkness. They were stealthy beings with fixed agendas, inconceivably powerful, willful plebeian Ariels with no superintending Prospero. Three years old, four, five perhaps, I countered their authority with practical questions. Doesn't Willie Winkie ever get cold out there in the dark dressed only in a nightgown? Where does the Sandman get his sand? Does he carry it in a pail, or a burlap sack over his shoulder? When does Wee Willie Winkie sleep? How small is he? Smaller than I am? Where does he live?
My question, Why doesn't Wee Willie Winkie ever come to visit me? prompted my father to rummage around in the garage for an old lantern which one bone-cold and snowy night, perched on a wooden ladder outside the window of my small bedroom, he embodied this dark figure, swinging the lantern back and forth, chanting, "It's Wee Willie Winkie. Eight o'clock. Are you in bed?"
Too frightened to speak, my mind went as smoothly blank as the fresh sheet of snow in the alley behind our modest faux Tudor house on Cove Way. The neighbor, Mrs. McCollum, came out on to her back porch to complain and, as a result, my father's affectionate charade was betrayed. I heard her shouting she was going to call the police. My mother was no less supportive of his travesty, and came into the bedroom, went to the window, and told him to get down off that ladder before he broke his neck. His assay, so to speak, into the ruly world of shamanism, where metaphor is concretized and inexplicables are provisionally articulated through some human medium, was a small catastrophe. Though Wille's name is diminutive, and thus probably meant to inspire a sense of safe affinity in children's minds, we all learned in our different ways that he operated best in the imagination, as a conte merveilleux, where he exercised his magical powers without secular interference. My poor bumbling mortal father was no wizard, and try as he might would never make a passable Winkie. The shadow prefers its own darkness.
Mine were the same nursery rhymes as anyone's. My mother knew quite a few of them, and was generous about repeating them to a child whose interest in hearing them persisted ad nauseam. Over time, in the best tradition of obsessive compulsive behavior, I became a collector of these word games. Where I and my friends collected toy cars and spaceships and plastic action heroes and other cultural flotsam, I also collected rhymes in my head. They were cheap, easy to carry, hard to lose. Preliterate encoding of cultural artifacts supplemented kites and a tire swing. Risking appearing foolish, I even asked friends what sort of stories, yarns, spells their parents told them. This enquiry came to an abrupt end when one of the kids—the parish rationalist—told me, "That stuff's kid junk, grow up." I didn't contradict him. He probably had a point.
Now that I have been plucked by time into adulthood, I return to this kid junk with fresh appreciation. Examining my favorites with the adult penchant for discovering nuanced meanings, shared themes and their variations, needling the fundamentally inexplicable with whys and wherefores, I find myself marvelously perplexed as to what makes these rhymes so poignant. Despite having read through The Thousand and One Nights (my set was published by the Richard Burton Society in, of all places, Denver, Colorado) and through John Barth's revisionings from it; despite the broadening understanding that comes from reading the classic Freudian study of Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment; despite having read my copy of The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes half out of its binding; and regardless of my esteem for Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, not to mention others' perceptive reworkings of tales collected in the fourteenth century in the Gesta Romanorum, or in the sixteenth by Giovanni Straparola, or later by Giambattista Basile in The Pentameron, or by the brothers Grimm; my incunable experiences with fairy tale themes through the quick medium of the nursery rhyme remain for me both mysterious and even tyrannical in their power to evoke. But evoke what?
Saying them aloud once more to myself, I realize what doggerel they really are as they were presented to me. And yet how dark, how inscrutable and robust. As a child to whom words began to reveal themselves as meaningful, I could not discount the nature of the world as promised to us in these seductively euphonious verses. Their music obviously cloaked some of their inanities (paradoxically the music now constitutes the inanity), and yet another element—a deeper component—is "at play." Wee Willie Winkie is an ambiguous, subtle figure. On the one hand, his very name, alliterative and harmonious, is reassuring. Dressed in a nightgown, childlike himself, he is therefore trustworthy. Yet he was to be feared and respected, as well. Authoritarian, nocturnal, expeditious, and reiterative, he was a supervisor, and surely embodied through those singsong words of his little quatrain what our parents, the authorities behind the authority, the laws we were to obey. And what of that barbituate-dispensing Sandman; that crowd controller? Although I could not and did not know it at the time, their lessons were my introduction to what might be termed political verse, a genre of the efficacious, where simple rhythms and rhymes serve the pleasure of jurisdiction, management, and command. Rather on the same plane as, if substantially more benign, the nationalist balderdash of Tennyson's:
Their's is not to reason why,
Their's is but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
The nursery rhyme, the lullaby, often devises a strange, ghastly place populated by concomitantly strange and ghastly persons or creatures—a nexus where plain mortality encounters the hard authority of death. The characters who populate this literary world are fragile, and quite commonly suffer, and like the fated in Tennyson's brigade have neither the right to reason, nor the opportunity to resist. Origin theories trace them back to historical, often political, events, or explain their origins in myth, the literature of collective unconscious, and thus folkloric, religious, political esprit of various cultures. Yet still, as children, we hear these lullabies "straight no chaser," to borrow a phrase from the world of the adults who sang them to us. They are offered straightforwardly and it is we who are chased, by their dialogues of certain mortality, genuine betrayal, guaranteed injury.
I think of another, heard early and often, and easily remembered:
Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down,
And broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
Whether or not we accept the theory put forth by an early theorist, Reverend Baring-Gould, in his Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, that "Jack and Jill" refers to the Eddaic Hjuki and Bil, and ultimately derives from a Scandinavian myth that accounts for the markings on the moon, the anecdote itself remains distressing to those for whom waking and drowning by human voices is plausible. Most of us have forgotten the third verse of this nursery rhyme, where grave matters get graver. What are we to make of our female lead when, after Old Dame Gill (many of these fictitious youth seem to have mothers whose tempers are short, whose cupboards are bare, and whose maternal instincts are limited) has plastered Jack's nob with vinegar—ouch!—and brown paper, she reacts to her friend's situation.
Then Jill came in
And she did grin,
To see Jack's paper plaster;
Her mother whipt her,
Across her knee,
For laughing at Jack's disaster.
Sadistic mite, Jill. But in the realm of nursery rhymes Jill keeps company among many fellow sadists. I first heard of the little man with the little gun sometime before we moved from that house on Cove Way to a then-rural suburb on the southern outskirts of Denver, a place of rolling wheat fields littered with Arapahoe tribe arrowheads and potsherds and where I inherited a rifle and learned how to shoot tin cans off the tops of fence posts. The little man with the little gun was, it would seem, fashioned from the same preliterate cultural mold as Jack's sister.
There was a little man, and he had a little gun,
And his bullets were made of lead, lead, lead;
He went to the brook, and shot a little duck,
Right through the middle of the head, head, head.
Lead, lead, lead in the head, head, head—repetition emphasizing the mechanized nature of the extermination. And little, little, little—a little duck killed by a little gun in the hands of a little man there, yes, to fulfill the requirements of the poetic schema, but coercing from the fantasy an unmistakable aura of innocence, or even merriment. The gothic rendezvousing with slapstick to make an unexpected amalgam that terrorizes us even as it provokes our laughter. Not an uncomplicated effect, as literary effects go.
And what are we to make of another rhyme learned early and not forgotten? Surely, in my callow boyhood, I must have understood that misogyny and violence reigned supreme here, though of course I had no way of articulating what might have passed, however vaguely, through my mind. This one is all rejection and attempted murder, recounted in trimeters with one critical line adding an extra iamb, using interior rhyme and off-rhymes with great adroitness:
Little Dickey Dilver
Had a wife of silver;
He took a stick and broke her back,
And sent her to the miller;
The miller wouldn't have her
So he threw her in the river.
Even when, years later, I discovered that Dickey Dilver was a wheat farmer, his wife not a woman but a bundle of harvested wheat, and that this is a story about the fortunes of a grain of wheat, personified as Dickey's hapless spouse, I remain dumbstruck by the voluptuous malice of its exterior fantasy. Not to mention the linguistic cleverness, which reaches to awesomely smirking heights, in its low burlesque.
Consider what must be the best-known lullaby in the English language, first published around 1765 in Mother Goose's Melody, with a footnote for parents proposing that it may serve as counteractive of pride and overweening ambition in the children to whom it's recited:
Hush-a-bye, baby, in the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
Down will come baby, cradle and all.
Falling and breakage are stock themes in the nursery rhyme, as I have come to notice while collecting together these memorabilia from my childhood. Think of amiable old egg Humpty Dumpty.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses,
And all the king's men,
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
Think of the frill-free verse:
There was a monkey climbed a tree,
When he fell down, then down fell he.
Think of the bland and sorry one about the clumsy meat man:
There was a butcher cut his thumb,
When it did bleed, then blood did come.
Think of the beautifully evocative one, sung by all of us kids up and down old Cove Way as we joined hands in a circle, dancing round and round, not knowing what we were saying, but knowing precisely when to collapse together in a laughing heap on the grass:
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Did we find it chastening and educational as we sang our way through the various verses, noting verse by verse that nothing on earth was going to make that bridge stand strong? "Build it up with wood and clay, wood and clay, wood and clay...wood and clay will wash away, my fair lady." Bricks and mortar will not stay, iron and steel will bend and bow, silver and gold will be stolen—here is a bridge fated forever not to serve its original purpose. Here is a bridge we can never cross with confidence.
When my heroes and heroines—eggs, children, bridges—were not breaking their crowns or collapsing, what were they doing?
Some of them were starving.
Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To fetch her poor dog a bone;
But when she came there
The cupboard was bare
And so the poor dog had none.
She went to the baker's
To buy him some bread;
But when she came back
The poor dog was dead.
(We learn later that the dog was pretending, possumlike, to have died, and, at that, only after the wretched Mother Hubbard had already invested in a coffin.) In another rhyme, meant for the nursery but worthy of a darker chamber, a young lady who seemed for all the world to be minding her own business is rousted from her meal by a benign, yet rousing creature, in a scene whose only inherent evil is in the cleverness of proving subtly that positives don't attract:
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
Which makes me realize that this must have been my model when writing my only attempt at a nursery rhyme:
Baby Bluet sat in his chair,
Eating suet, unaware
A flock of starlings crowded the shady limb,
And planned to take Bluet's suet
Away from him.
Others, less pestered by spiders and awful birds (Mozart was fond of starlings; I am fond of Mozart but not of starlings), were—are—seen suffering or wreaking havoc in one manner or another. Some are the victims of theft.
I had a little moppet
I kept it in my pocket
And fed it on corn and hay;
Then came a proud beggar
And said he would wed her,
And stole my moppet away.
Some are the mortal victims of happenstance.
Little General Monk
Sat upon a trunk,
Eating a crust of bread;
There fell a hot coal
And burnt in his clothes a hole,
Now little General Monk is dead.
Some are given to shady business practices.
There was an old woman
Who lived in Dundee,
And in her back garden
There grew a plum tree;
The plums they grew rotten
Before they grew ripe,
And she sold them three farthings a pint.
Others are simply plagued by loneliness, stark and truthful.
Here am I, little
When nobody's with me,
I'm always alone.
The saddest verse I know.
This catalogue of examples could run on, with more accumulative verses by far than those in the exponential, perpetual "The House that Jack Built"—itself a carpenter's gothic structure—built from the outside in, working from blueprints that made no architectural sense, whose denizens include a crumpled horn cow that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat, and so forth. But what is one to conclude, not that conclusions need be drawn from texts as elusive yet brutally real as those in nursery rhymes, having contemplated all this mayhem served up in the pretty versified package of the nursery rhyme? Antiquity and tradition are on their side, and children—as well as adults—will continue to recite them, continue to love them, continue to pass them down from generation to generation to their children no matter what.
So many of them conjure eminently harsh visions of what the world promises to be like, is, and finally will be like. But their open-eyed gaze at those aspects of human nature which don't dance in Goodie two-shoes is for all its grotesquerie and violence, cautionary, truthful, and thus healthy. Or am I trying too hard to justify my preadolescent penchant to memorize these things, my attentiveness to their rhymes and vices? Have I become my father standing atop an unstable ladder on a cold December night, waving a lantern to and fro, trying to reawaken myself somehow as a finer, or at least purer part of myself sleeps within the windowed room?
Back to that boyhood evening embraced by pristine snow and ceiling of sparkling stars chattering silently on their infinite black tract of space behind each of which (both stars and black space) hovered some possible god. Some sparrow's ghost, some entity, some dream dictionary or candy or wolf or road, or just another self. And back to that time after my well-meaning but ill-fated dear old dad was uncloaked, or disenchanted, or called down, or unmade, or remade—removed from his ladder by the neighbor and my embarrassed mother. I remember I worked hard to resuscitate Wee Willie Winkie, but failed, just as my father had failed to bring him to life when he needed neither help, nor actual life, as such. My enthusiastic attempts to bring about his resurrection and the restoring of his mysterious power never felt like the explicit result of any "imaginative" work. That is to say, Wee Willie Winkie possessed the strength—was, in other words, substantive enough—to survive both my father's amicable fraud and my reverent, yet unnecessary inducements. His is a more undying play than ours, because Wee Willie is made of words, and words, when witnessed by adults in the presence of children, and vice versa, endure. And when they are made to build promises of a dark world which lo and behold turns out to be dark, they endure, like the very prayers that are meant to enlighten that same world. We are marvelously exploited, to vital ends, by the music that carries Wee Willie along through the night, by those (his) mellifluous tonalities of a heralding tune, and by their intoxicating rhythms and their solid rhymes that insinuate them to memory long after the days when I (or you) sat in a room and repeated them again, and once more. But now that I have come to understand, as best I can, what Wee Willie Winkie's and Jumping Joan's and the others' stories meant, I feel anything but hostile toward those little verbal tricksters who proposed in music to be friendly, but who were in content as nasty as anything I would ever encounter in the whole of literature.
And so I still embrace them, melodious demons that they are. I consider my copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes to be one of the most forbidding, frightening, ineffable books I possess. Life has provided me with many assurances that what was depicted in those nursery rhymes has a rich basis in reality. They are in themselves much like one of their own characters, the wondrous, odd, elusive, dangerous figure of Hitty Pitty—who lives within the wall and without, within consciousness and just beyond it at the same time—a character whom I admire and keep by me as an adult just as I kept her by me as a child with affection and not a little warranted terror:
Hitty Pitty within the wall,
Hitty Pitty without the wall;
If you touch Hitty Pitty
Hitty Pitty will bite you!