Historical Figures and Political Subversion in English Nursery Rhymes (a Mere Bagatelle)
The contrast between French and English songs and rhymes for children has always intrigued and amused me. The French have songs about famous figures from history and their positive achievements, which are meant to instil patriotic pride in the young. And what do we have?
Oh, the grand old Duke of York He had ten thousand men He marched them up to the top of a hill And he marched them down again And when they were up they were up And when they were down they were down And when they were only half-way up They were neither up nor down (Ooh! --optional)
Let us analyse this. While the first half was no doubt initially a political satire, in whatever the murky circumstances were that inspired it, the song's swaggering military tune has turned it into a celebration of the futile grand gesture, one of many such commemorations in English culture (which usually centre on military debacles, such as the Charge of the Light Brigade). As such, the song is an expression of the English love of quixotic failures (which is connected to the cheering-for-the-underdog syndrome, though no doubt the Duke of York's soldiers felt that theirs was the underdog role, in this case). The second half shows pragmatic empiricism at work: a thing is what it is, neither more nor less, and there's an end on't.
Other historical or pseudo-historical figures don't come off very well either. Even if we know nothing else about King Alfred, nursery tradition has ensured that we are aware of the cake-burning episode. King Arthur is remembered in children's song, not as a knight in shining armour, but as someone who ungraciously "threw three servants out of his house because they wouldn't sing." (I dimly recall, from the recesses of childhood, another song which justifies the contention that "he was a goodly king" by narrating his theft of "three pecks of barley-meal to make a bag-pudding." He and Guinevere then gorge themselves shamelessly on the pudding). Another song ("Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie", etc --puddings figure often in English nursery rhymes) contains scornful references to the amorous adventures and cowardliness of either a Hanoverian George, or George Villiers, the chief minister of the early Stuart kings.
However undermining of any trust in political leadership such nursery rhymes and songs might be, we have at least won out over the French in one respect, by turning the song Marlborough S'en Va-t-en Guerre ("Marlborough [the great English commander] is going to the war [with France]: God knows when we he will return") into For He's A Jolly Good Fellow.--Isabel Taylor