The Great Conversation - Mother Goose

The Great Conversation - Mother Goose
Posted on 01/05/2024
The Great Conversation

Never mind all the silly theories and pseudohistorical guesswork about who she really was—the wife of Charlemagne? the Queen of Sheba? the ditty-singing wife of one Isaac Goose, of colonial Boston, Mass.? Let’s just agree that there is no historical personage of Mother Goose, and that the author of her nonsensical verses is in fact much bigger than any one person: namely, the great genius Anonymous, the brilliant mind of the folk tradition as it invents and reinvents itself wherever there are children to be found. Mother Goose, in other words, was “written” orally in alleyways, around the hearth, and at the bedside of numberless sleepyheads asking, down through centuries of the ever-changing English language, for just one more. The other collective genius at work here is the group of 18th-century publishers, John Newbery (of Newbery Medal fame) chief among them, who were smart enough simply to write them all down, and to whom we are all indebted for this gift.

            And it is a gift. Here in the lofty reaches of adulthood, we know how to drive cars and tie shoelaces, but we’ve lost the ability to be surprised and delighted by “Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old!” We hear it and can only wonder who would be so irresponsible not to throw out that smelly old porridge, and what, really, are pease? We’ve lost the quality that the poet John Keats called negative capability, which he defined as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” and which he saw as fundamental to the artist’s ability to make genuine art. For Keats, negative capability was what made Shakespeare Shakespeare—and the lack of it was what made so many others not-Shakespeare. As anyone who has bopped out the untimely fate of Humpty Dumpty with a group of kindergarteners can tell you, children possess negative capability in abundance. They are quite untroubled by the question of why Humpty got up on the wall in the first place, much less the fact that a horse is unlikely to add much to the reassembly effort. Instead, they are absorbed in the sounds: from the first word, the hilarity of Humpty Dumpty’s name instructs us in taking pleasure in the music of language. The story, such as it is, serves primarily to carry that galumphing rhythm along. But that rhythm, once it gets into you, becomes in turn something you carry with you all your life.

The checkerboard edition of The Real Mother Goose that I grew up with is an anthology of metrical patterns, melodies, and rhyme schemes that collectively constitute some of the greatest (and most underrated!) literature in the English language. Literature for children is literature yet, and the music of nonsense remains deeply musical. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare—himself one of the foremost practitioners of the beauty of language apart from sense—has Balthasar tell us in song to

     … sigh not so, but let them go,

   And be you blithe and bonny,

Converting all your sounds of woe

   Into hey nonny nonny.

Mother Goose keeps singing that hey-nonny-nonny to us and to our children. We should listen.

Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2024 SchoolMessenger Corporation. All rights reserved.