Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A history lesson for innocents

This morning I watered our freshly planted grass seedlings in an area that had harbored a lovely hedge of privet bushes. (Previously threatened as remarked upon in this blog, the privets met their demise by my husband’s hands, rather than those of my neighbor.) At any rate, my vegetable garden lies nearby in a state of discontent due to its inability to flourish this summer.

While noting its pitiful state, I started thinking about contrasting my success with that of Mary’s. Remember:

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

The best I could come up was Bonnie, Bonnie, you’re quite fonny, but that didn’t really work as it didn’t make sense, or Bonita, Bonita, quite the Lolita—too many syllables and not at all true.

To remind me about the original poem, I googled Mary, Mary quite contrary. To my surprise, I found that the nursery rhyme didn’t refer to a garden at all . . . but instead the bloody reign of Mary, the daughter of King Henry VIII. The garden apparently alluded to a graveyard in which the Protestant bodies were laid out in a tidy little row after having refused to switch from their faith; the silver bells were supposedly thumb screws used to smash thumbs and the cockleshells—well, I won’t go into that here. The maid, a guillotine shortened from its original name Maiden, was, no doubt, a welcome relief for the executioners who previously had to deliver quite a few blows after chasing down their victims (which, by the way, reminds me of my own experience as a farm girl and witnessing dead chickens run around like chickens with their heads cut off—because they were—but these were Protestants running around like chickens with their heads cut off with their necks still intact).

Finding out nursery rhymes like this have hidden meanings could shatter all sorts of allusions I’ve held. Was Little Jack Horner actually a bad little boy? Did Little Miss Muffet share her curds and whey after all? What about Jack Sprat? Were the tables reversed and his wife actually the skinny one?

I’ll just leave you with a nursery rhyme that means what it says: 

Herold, Herold, you’re no Fitzgerald,
How does your garden grow?
With rain too little and heat too hot
And dead plants all in a row.

No comments:

Post a Comment