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A Witch in the Kursery.
one of those moods of philosophical pleasantry and erudite whimsicality in which the worthy Archbishop of Dublin sometimes relaxes from weighty affairs, he is reported to have made the following quotation and comment:-
"Old Father Long-legs wouldn't say his prayers:
Take him by the left leg
Take him fast by both legs-
"There!" said his Grace, 66 in that nursery verse you may see an epitome of the history of all religious persecution. Father Long-legs, refusing to say the prayers that were dictated and ordered by his little tyrants, is regarded as a heretic, and suffers martyrdom."
The cruel and unprincipled things sung or said to young children in so many of our popular nursery rhymes and tales, the wanton, reckless acts, no less than abominable reasons adduced for them, or consequences drawn from them, are something quite surprising. It looks as if the great majority of those compositions had been the work of one or more of the wickedest of old witches ever heard of, and with
a direct intention of perverting, if not destroying, the generosity, innocence, pure imagination, and tender feelings of childhood at as early a stage as possible. We say it looks like this; and yet, no doubt, nothing of the sort was intended; neither were these nursery poets and tale-writers influenced by any bad or unkindly feelings. The songs have probably orginated chiefly with certain old grandames among our ancestors, whose ears possessed a tolerably euphonious muse of doggerel versification, but whose heads were not overburdened with understanding, and whose sole object (such a thing as "infant education" never at this time having been dreamed of by any soul in the community) was to quiet or amuse the child, by arresting and holding its attention. To do this most suddenly and successfully, they endeavoured to produce an excitement of the child's imagination, or its desires, without for one instant considering whether the seeds they sowed of these excitements and desires, were of a kind to grow and put forth good or evil fruits with the progress of years. There are, no doubt, a good many delightful and harmless nursery songs and tales, and a few also which have the best moral tendency; but it must be ad. mitted that the majority are either very equivocal, or of the worst possible kind.
Take the song of "Little Jack Horner"-does it not inculcate selfishness, or greediness? or, at best, it causes those vices to be regarded with leniency and levity:
"Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner
Eating a Christmas pie!
He put in his thumb,
And he pull'd out a plum,
And cried, ‘What a good boy am I!'"
It may be said that the view he takes of his own good, ness (or bravery) in this exploit, is only meant to be humorous, and in a way that children understand; and we have also heard it suggested that Master Horner had, perhaps, really been a good boy, and that this pie, so renowned for its "plum," was the reward of merit. Admitting all this as possible, the fact of his sly and selfish greediness in getting up into a corner to enjoy his pie alone, is not to be controverted.
The act of stealing something seems to be one of the favourite points of humour and good fun with our Nursery Witch:
"Taffy was a Welshman-Taffy was a thief:
Here are two others
"Nanty, Panty, Jack-a-Dandy,
"Tom, Tom, the piper's son,
The following is nothing less than the footpad's "your money or your life," adapted to the nursery. A boy with a broom sings,—
This is graced with an illustration in Halliwell's "Nursery Rhymes of England."
In the following well-known song, theft is made a very pleasant joke, and inculcated by the example of the first gentleman and lady in England :
"When good King Arthur ruled this land,
He STOLE two pecks of barley-meal,
"A bag-pudding the King did make,
"The King and Queen did eat thereof,
And what they could not eat that night,
These songs are, beyond question, highly amusing to children. They admit of capital illustrations. In the example just quoted, the "goodly" King is represented, of course, in his state robes, and with the crown upon his head, running away, as fast as he can lay legs to the ground, with a couple of meal-bags, one under each arm. In the next illustration, His Majesty is represented with his cooking apron and sleeves, and without his coat, though still with his crown on," as he appeared" while engaged in the operation of making the bag pudding. The third illustration represents the Queen, who is the receiver of the stolen goods, together with the Nobles, who all come to share the spoil, seated at table," making a feast." In the concluding tableau, Her Gracious Majesty, with her crown on, is represented holding the handle of the frying-pan, being sedulously employed in frying slices. Not a word in apology or explana
tion of the King's theft. If the owner of the meal had appeared at one of the windows during the feast, one feels that he would only have been laughed at, and had a piece of pudding flung in his face; or perhaps His Majesty, in his own pleasant off-hand way, would have ordered the intruder to have his head cut off. No one can expect children to give up such things as these. They delight in them, crave for them, and they are abominably well supplied.
It may be thought too harsh a construction to say that murder is made a light and familiar subject of excitement and interest to the nursery; but that killing, by direct intention, is one of the favourite subjects of these songs and tales is but too evident. The principle of destructiveness is artificially developed by these means (and, sooth to confess, there is no need for this in human nature) from the earliest period. Even in assisting the infant to learn the alphabet by the help of signs and figures, we find that—
In the illustration, we, in most cases, see the effect of the shot, the Frog being transfixed with an arrow, having one hand clasped over his head, and turning up his large eyes. Some children of tender and affectionate nature, whose imagination also aids them to realise this as something painful, are affected by the sight; but it is to be feared that most of them laugh at the fun of the thing, and would like to do the same—and also, moreover, take the first opportunity of doing the same act, and other things of the sort. But in both cases, the attention of the child being arrested, its mind amused, and its feet and fingers kept out of mischief, the end in view is obtained. Mischief sown in the mind goes for nothing.