Appreciating the preposterous

Frontispiece by Philippe Jullian

Nursery Rhymes. An essay
by V Sackville-West.
Illustrated by Philippe Jullian.
Michael Joseph, 1950 (1947).

“Coleridge had a proper appreciation of the preposterous, astounding, yet entirely acceptable propositions which go to make up the thaumaturgy of the nursery. No one lacking that appreciation is advised to read any further in this essay.”

p 7

Well, I’m one of those who, like Coleridge, appreciate the preposterous thaumaturgy of nursery rhymes, so Vita Sackville-West’s enthusiastic paddling in the shoreless pool of childhood lore naturally appealed to me. That she does it with humour yet without condescension was a bonus, and that there were unexpected delights hiding under various rocks she turns over satisfied my abiding curiosity.

Surprisingly, for what now counts as a period piece, she’s prepared to be critical of antiquarian ‘explanations’ concerning the origins of these rhymes and what they supposedly signified, but her mockery is gentle and she’s even prepared to admit to her own mistakes, as first appeared in an earlier limited edition.

The whole is embellished by Philippe Jullian’s whimsical drawings all printed in plum-coloured ink, their style very much conforming to contemporary adult attitudes regarding nursery lore – genteel and aloof but maybe not absolutely reflecting their historical origins.

The Cat and the Fiddle

First impressions? Sackville-West exhibits a menagerie of animals, which she then proceeds to discourse on, drawing on the contents of her library. Here one might see Bo-peep’s sheep, the trio of truncated mice, the wooing frog, Mother Hubbard’s dog, the four and twenty blackbirds, the fiddle-playing feline and Dick Whittington’s cat, Miss Muffet’s spider, and the ladybird whose home is on fire, among others.

But she doesn’t neglect King Cole, various Old Women, Jack and Jill, and Jack Horner; and then there are the antiquarians and genuine figures from history – ancient and recent – such as the Rev Samuel Lysons or Hywel Dda, Henry VIII and Shakespeare and Monsieur Émile Cammaerts. There are special mentions too of the Opies, Iona (d 2017) and Peter (d 1983) who “for some years now have been assembling information” on nursery rhymes and “whose work will eventually take its place as the standard and last-word book on the subject.” And of course it came to pass: The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes was published in 1951 and its companion work The Oxford Nursery Rhymes Book in 1955.

She wears her erudition lightly on her sleeve but this essay nevertheless is underpinned by research, as when she gently criticises the doyen James Orchard Halliwell for occasionally being evasive about his sources, or when she enumerates the various claims about Old Mother Hubbard’s origins, each demolished by contradictory facts – as for example the assertion that she was the housekeeper of the delightfully named Mr Pollexfen Bastard, MP, of Kitley, Yealmpton, Devon, whose descendant Colonel Reginald Bastard contradicts crucial elements of the story.

A corner of the library at Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst Castle © C A Lovegrove

But the chief delight is in the way that  Sackville-West lays out and displays her subject with wit, the occasional archness, and the evident enjoyment she retains in the thaumaturgy wrought by all those anonymous poets. Though she avers (page 11) that this is “no serious essay,” that it’s “nothing more than a few jottings, […] far, very far, from being  exhaustive, and lays no claim to erudition or original research” it nevertheless forms an excellent introduction, touching on sources, audience, and Puritan moralists, by way of pies, medieval laws, clocks and “the inherent music of the nursery jingle.”

Let me conclude with just one example of the author’s gloriously irreverent approach. “Pity the pedagogue. It is indeed difficult to instruct the young,” she writes of those who have to cope with challenges from the serious child; and she imagines these brief dialogues on a visit to the countryside and during an acrobatic turn at the circus:

‘What is that, Mummy?’
‘A cow, darling.’
[. . .]
‘Isn’t that marvellous, Susan?’
‘No. Why?’

p 63

“It is precisely this discrepancy in the judgments of the immature mind,” she writes, “that explains the continued vogue of the nursery rhyme.” For, as she says elsewhere, if in nursery rhymes one odd thing may happen – a cat plays a fiddle, or a frog goes a-courting – then why not anything? Don’t look for logic in such verses, she suggests, exult in the marvellous, enjoy the jokes, savour the contradictions and revel in the poetry of nonsense.

In other words, appreciate the preposterous.


A short nonfiction read for #NovNov Novellas in November

15 thoughts on “Appreciating the preposterous

  1. Oh I like the sound of this one Chris. I really enjoyed revisiting Nursery Rhymes when I read to the twins when they were smaller. Appreciate the preposterous feels just right.


    1. Thanks, Cathy. VSW makes the interesting point that in theory animals and humans behaving badly in these rhymes (and in fairytales) ought to encourage nightmares in children, but that in fact they relish such outlandish images and characters. As thaumaturgy means wonder-working through magic her use of this term is so apt.

      It therefore saddened me that, even when I was teaching music in the latter part of last century, so many successive generations of students were unfamiliar with these rhymes and songs. Thank goodness there are parents like you who kept them alive!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. True, but I wonder if the outlandish SpongeBob SquarePants and his ilk count as the new ‘nursery rhyme’ equivalents and whether there’ll be learned essays on their formative influence? Probably there already are D Litt theses written on the denizens of Bikini Bottom!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: It’s Novellas in November time – add your links here! #NovNov22

  3. This sounds a delightful read, and besides origin stories and such, seems to capture both the whimsy of the rhymes and the openness of childrens’ imagination to all the wonders that unfold in that world. I hadn’t come across this essay before but must look it up. I seem to only have her nature/garden books and some fiction on my TBR so far.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought I’d read this properly, Mallika, having just read the fictionalised version of Vita in Orlando, and I’m glad I did! We’re so used to her as either a gardener or as a novelist who happened to be Virginia Woolf’s lover that it’s good to remember it’s as a historian writing the story of Knole House that she first became known. This nursery rhyme monograph is a rainbow reflection of her in this role!


    1. A treat indeed, Karen! I got my cheap as chips copy – coffee stained cover and no dust jacket – a while ago, but I see that sellers on Am*zon are quoting ridiculous prices just for the same trade copy (copies of the first limited edition go for a lot more). If you can find it (as I did) secondhand in a charity bookshop you’ll have got yourself a bargain, but best try library loans first… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you find a copy of this delightful essay to read, Liz, perhaps via your library? Online secondhand prices are exorbitant! (Or maybe see if Sissinghurst have a copy you can peruse? It’s a very quick read!)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great theme to consider at this time of year, when I get up to snow on the still-blooming begonias and geraniums, and when none of the candidates I voted for in the U.S. midterm elections have won their races. Life is preposterous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel your pain, Jeanne, life preposterous when we get madness when we were actually looking for truth, and justice, and compassion. This once popular nonsense rhyme kind of sums it up for me:
      If all the world were paper,
      And all the sea were ink,
      If all the trees were bread and cheese,
      What would we have to drink?

      Liked by 1 person

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