Education is a journey, and, as with any journey, there must be some initial idea or inkling of the destination before there can be any reasonable means to arrive there. The end of education is, of course, the truth, and there exist few truthful awakenings like Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes. As a wondrous introduction to the paths of wisdom, grown-ups in playroom and classroom know well why Mother Goose matters.
Mother Goose nursery rhymes introduce children to the world through the medium of images and words. They are musical and imitative vignettes of reality, constantly shifting their gaze, page by page, from one subject to another. What focus there is, is on the household, the countryside, and everyday life—the sorts of things that happen when people wake up, eat meals, do chores, play games, and go to bed. Mother Goose is not so concerned with the deeper mysteries since the surface of things is wonderful enough to any child who is seeing it for the first time. Mother Goose rhymes portray plain, honest, and playful quips in plain, honest, and playful fashion, with a profundity and simplicity that most have forgotten through custom.
While Mother Goose rhymes play with the parts of reality, diving one at a time into the many worlds that make up the world, she always keeps an eye on the end of action, as her jingles jangle along with something that smacks of completion or perfection.
Take “Little Boy Blue,” for instance.
Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn,
What, is this the way you mind your sheep,
Under the haycock fast asleep?
Now there may be those who object, saying, “The world is a serious place and if you bring up a child on all this kind of nonsense, the child is going to be lazy and prone to sleeping at the wrong time.” This way of thinking is what spurred the Puritans to put out a censored edition of Mother Goose that had, “Little Boy Blue come blow your horn, there’s a lot of work to be done and it’s early morn.” They rewrote the whole thing and made Little Boy Blue into a good, hardworking fellow who brushed his teeth and put the garbage out and was nice to his mother and did all the chores and so forth. But no child ever cared for the Puritan version of Little Boy Blue because he isn’t true.
Somehow, there is something about “Little Boy Blue” that is about the whole end of human life. It may even be about heavenly life. We can’t prove that, and neither should we try. Nobody should make an analysis of that poem or translate it and explain that since it says “blow your horn” it’s about the trumpet on the last day of the world. Mother Goose would throw up her apron in horror if anyone started on that kind of stuff. Do not analyze these poems or interpret these poems. The mere experience of them, on the other hand, is something like perfection. As you move into another place with Mother Goose, which is made up of all the familiar things of this place, it’s seen from the point of view of rest—it’s seen not from the point of view of achieving something, but from the point of view of already having achieved it. And that’s the motive of Mother Goose and why her nursery rhymes matter.
Is it so strange to say, then, that “Little Boy Blue” is one of the greatest poems ever written in the whole history of the world? You don’t have to look down on this literature. You don’t have to patronize it. And Mother Goose knows it. There’s a famous preface that she wrote to her rhymes where she asserts herself and justifies her existence once and for all:
“My dear little Blossoms, there are now in this world, and always will be, a great many grannies besides myself, both in petticoats and pantaloons, some a deal younger to be sure; but all monstrous wise, and of my own family name. These old women, who never had chick nor child of their own, but who always know how to bring up other people’s children, will tell you with very long faces, that my enchanting, quieting, soothing volume, my all-sufficient anodyne for cross, peevish, won’t-be-comforted little bairns, ought to be laid aside for more learned books, such as they could select and publish. Fudge! I tell you that all their batterings can’t deface my beauties, nor their wise pratings equal my wiser prattlings; and all imitators of my refreshing songs might as well write a new Billy Shakespeare as another Mother Goose—we two great poets were born together, and we shall go out of the world together.
No, no, my Melodies will never die,
While nurses sing, or babies cry.”
Besides the large truths about life peering and beaming from these little poems, they are first and foremost delightful. These delights are an introduction—nothing more; but introductions are often the most important part of any endeavor, especially education. The genius of these rhymes as introductions to the way things are is that they are rhymes. They settle themselves comfortably into the hearts and minds and mouths of children, becoming part of their language and a ready measure for experience.
For children, these rhymes are not simply satisfying. They are soul-stirring. To them, dogs are as exciting as dragons and puddles as infinite as oceans. Mother Goose parades a whole host of such ordinary wonders before her little blossoms, and in this they are given a taste of reality—and a taste for it, as well, which is precisely why she is educational. These little introductions celebrate the wide world. Mother Goose well knows that the good things grown dull for so many are more than sufficient to please the innocent.
The benefit of Mother Goose, however, is not that she provides children with patterns or preparations on how to be moral, or well-behaved, or good readers, or any other practical thing. Her wise prattlings are good for their own sake, giving children the all-important experience of resting in an end, even if it is a simple or a silly end. Any utilitarian good that proceeds as a result of their having these rhymes written in their heart is purely accidental.
The most significant obstacle to providing today’s children with the education of Mother Goose is that Mother Goose has not educated many of today’s teachers and parents. No teacher or parent can give a child what they themselves do not have. The solution to this difficulty is simply that teachers and parents who have no experience of Mother Goose should read Mother Goose. Poetic knowledge is good for grown-ups too.
Mother Goose serves as a principal awakener to the everyday wonders of the world for young children. Without Mother Goose, children run the risk of being forever babes in the woods, deprived of the touchstones that help to form the habit of knowledge. Without these indispensable nursery rhymes, a child may never acquire the appropriate appetite or aptitude for works that plumb the depths of reality. Without the poetry of the nursery, every other poetic mode and philosophic instinct can be left undeveloped, and education a crippled thing. Mother Goose prepares the way for other educational journeys. In the end, Mother Goose matters because she is a beginning.
Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.