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Nursery Rhyme

A nursery rhyme is a short rhyming song or poem that conveys a lesson or tells an amusing story. They are aimed at children.

Most well-known nursery rhymes originated in the late 18th or 19th century. The English collections Tommy Thumb’s Song Book and Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book were published in 1744 by Mary Cooper. The oldest rhymes are lullabies, sung in an effort to get a child to go to sleep. They can be found all over the world but are generally calming and peaceful. Often, the origins of a specific nursery rhyme are unknown. The lyrics also usually go through a period of transformation before they reach the well-known contemporary version.

Nursery rhyme pronunciation: Ner-sir-ee RIm

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View all nursery rhymes on Poem Analysis, analyzed and recalled by our team of poetry experts.
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Nursery Rhyme - Definition and Popular Nursery Rhymes


Definition and Explanation of Nursery Rhyme

Nursery rhymes come from a number of different sources, from traditional songs, drinking songs, plays, historical events, riddles, proverbs, and more. Often, nursery rhymes were collected in the 19th century by folk song collectors. One of the best was The Nursery Rhymes of England, published in 1842 by James Orchard Halliwell. It sorted the rhymes by origin and inspiration, as well as by topic or use. For example, one could rhyme riddles, nature-rhymes, and fireside stories as headings. 


Why Do Writers Write Nursery Rhymes? 

Although most of the best-known nursery rhymes were written in the 1800s, writers do still attempt this kind of writing today. This is mostly done in order to entertain or bring pleasure to a child. The rhymes might be meant as lullabies as they were in the past. Or alternatively, they might be meant to entertain and make the young listeners laugh. Some rhymes are also based around life experiences and are meant to teach a young person a lesson. For example, learning how to treat friends, listen to one’s parents, or the importance of going to school. 


Examples of Nursery Rhymes

Hey, Diddle, Diddle

Hey, Diddle, Diddle is an amusing poem that can be traced back to the 1700s. It’s often connected to a play by Thomas Preston that printed a few lines of the text. It may or may not be a reference to the nursery rhyme. Some have suggested that the song is connected to constellations or the wives of King Henry VIII. It is also a great example of a nursery rhyme that uses repetition. 


Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is a variation of a French nursery rhyme. The song is sung to the tune of ‘Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman.’ It is also one of the oldest rhymes, dating back to 1731. This poem is a good example of how songs change over time, lyrics as well as melody. 


Its Bitsy Spider

‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ is one of the best-known nursery rhymes and one that is still sung quite commonly today. It first appeared in the 1900s with alternative lyrics in Camp and Camino in Lower California. It was initially called ‘Spider Song.’ Like some children’s songs and many stories, the lyrics were less kid-friendly than they are today. 


London Bridge is Falling Down

‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ is an English nursery rhyme that has numerous different variations. The “fair lady” in the poem has also been the source of much speculation. Some have suggested that she was Matilda of Scotland, a consort to Henry I, or Eleanor Provence, a consort of Henry II. 


Monday’s Child

‘Monday’s Child’ is less popular in America than many of the other best-known nursery rhymes. It was first published in Traditions of Devonshire in 1838. It goes through each day of the week, suggesting that a child born on a particular day will be one type of person or another. 


Nursery Rhymes and Mother Goose 

Often, nursery rhymes are noted as authored by “Mother Goose.” But in reality, the name is nothing more than a fiction used for a collection of French fairy tales and English nursery rhymes. The name ate back to the early 18th century with the collection Contes de ma Mère l’Oye or Tales of My Mother Goose. A later collection, Mother Goose’s Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle, carried the name on and brought it to an English-speaking audience. Most of the songs and stories identified with Mother Goose’s name date back to the 17th century. Some suggest that the name dates back to ancient legends of the wife of King Robert II of France, who was sometimes called “Goose-Footed Bertha.” She is thought to have been a skilled storyteller. Other suggestions mention the biblical Queen of Sheba or a Boston woman, wife of Isaac Goose. 


Hidden Meaning in Nursery Rhymes

Some of the best-known, and even simplest, nursery rhymes have alternative meanings. Some of these are more scandalous than others. One song might be about a historical figure, according to some sources, even if that person’s name isn’t mentioned in the song. For example, some believe that Humpty Dumpty is about Cardinal Wolsey or Richard III of England. Another good example is Jack and Jill, which some believe is about Charles I of England, King John of England, or even King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Some other interesting examples are Baa, Baa, Black Sheep which might be about the slave trade or medieval wool tax, and Ring a Ring o’ Roses which is thought to be about the Black Death.


Nursery Rhyme Synonyms 

Mother Goose rhymes, children’s rhymes, children’s songs, Mother Goose songs. 


Related Literary Terms

  • Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
  • Folklore: stories that people tell. These include folk stores, fairy tales, urban legends, and more.
  • Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.
  • Poem Subject: the main idea, goal, or thing about which the poem is concerned.
  • Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.


Other Resources 

View Our List of Nursery Rhymes

View all nursery rhymes on Poem Analysis, analyzed and recalled by our team of poetry experts.
Explore More Nursery Rhymes

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