Falling Down in Mother Goose


After another week of reading Mother Goose to my son, it’s become obvious that he has a clear preference for a certain kind of nursery rhyme. Namely, one in which people (or in one case, an egg) fall down.

And there’s a lot of falling down in Mother Goose.

We all know about Jack and Jill, and the hush-a-bye baby whose cradle fell down, and of course there’s Humpty Dumpty. But what about Blue Bell Boy (“in coal scuttle fell he / up to his little chin”)? And the poor two gray kittens (“the bridge broke down / they all fell in”)? And the Man with bandy legs (“I met a man with bandy legs / bandy legs and crooked toes / I tripped up on his heels and he fell on his nose”)?

And then there’s the metaphorical falls. Jenny Wren fell sick. Molly, my sister and I fell out. Little Bo-Peep fell fast asleep.

So what’s with all this falling down in Mother Goose? There’s the audience of course, little children, who love the fact that gravity works, and works well.

I think there’s also the hint of the peril in the everyday, the 18th century equivalent of danger in the suburbs: downed power lines, fatal swing sets, strangers with candy.

Consider “Three Children on the Ice”:

Three children sliding on the ice
Upon a summer’s day,
As it fell out, they all fell in,
The rest they ran away.

Oh, had these children been at school,
Or sliding on dry ground,
Ten thousand pounds to one penny
They had not then been drowned.

Ye parents who have children dear,
And ye, too, who have none,
If you would keep them safe abroad
Pray keep them safe at home.

This tragic nursery rhyme offers a stern warning to parents: keep your children “safe at home.”

I can imagine a modern PSA with essentially the same message, just replace “ice” with “local gravel pit.” Or even better for my small town, “infill construction lot.”