Your RDA of Irony

Mother Goose and Guano Pie

Nursery rhymes often are sly historical allegories.  For example, “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary”  recounts Mary Stuart’s arbitrary tastes in fashions and husbands.  (Her dour Presbyterian subjects thought a woman should be limited to one dress–Calvinist black, of course– and one equally colorless husband.)  

The other day, someone asked me the historical meaning of “Sing a Song of Sixpence.”  I hadn’t the least idea, but with my pedantic reputation at stake I was resolved to find the answer.    Well, after diligent research, I can  say that there is no satisfactory explanation of “Sing a Song of Sixpence.”  The nursery rhyme dates to the mid-18th century, so it is unlikely a parable on the life and autopsy of Charlie Parker. 

I did read one absurd interpretation.  It sought to identify the rhyme with Blackbeard the Pirate.  Blackbird the Pie?  Sing a song of sixpence…I think that a bucaneer would expect a better return for his efforts. 

The nursery rhyme does refers to a culinary practice of the Renaissance.  A lavish host, hoping to impress rather than feed his guests, would present a large pastry filled with live birds.  The pie was cut, and the birds would fly out.  If anyone then wanted some guano pie, they certainly were welcome. 

Of course, once you say Renaissance, it is irresistible to try to find some link with Henry VIII.  Indeed, some scholars view the nursery rhyme as an allegory about Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries in England.  The blackbirds might refer to the dispossessed monks–wandering the roads, left only with their dark robes.  However, then you would have to interpret the identity of the Queen (and Henry had a surplus of them) as well as the noseless maid.  It is a stretch, and I am not referring to some Jesuit on a rack.

However, I can offer you definitive interpretations of two nursery rhymes.

p.s.  And Happy Birthday to Charles V:

  1. Peggles says:

    Many years ago when I was in London, a tour guide spoke of the origins of “Ring Around the Roses.” He said that it was a reference to the time of the plague. The roses and pocket full of posies were the bunches of flowers that people held and sniffed to mask the horrible stench of illness and death, and “achoo, achoo, we all fall down” referred to the sneezing and subsequent collapse of those infected. I don’t know if any of that is true, but it was an interesting story.

  2. tsitrian says:

    Charles V is today’s birthday boy? Can’t imagine how it didn’t make my calendar. If only he’d fed Martin Luther a diet of wurst instead of worms, imagine how different things would be today.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      And Juan Carlos waited in vain for your birthday card. At least call up the nearest Spanish consulate and offer an apology. (And where is the nearest Spanish consulate to South Dakota?)


  3. tsitrian says:

    South Dakota withdrew recognition of Spain when Franco died.

  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply