‘Hey, diddle diddle,’ like most nursery rhymes, has unclear beginnings. It is believed to date back to the 1700s, if not earlier to medieval times. Commonly, the poem is connected to Thomas Preston’s play A lamentable tragedy mixed ful of pleasant mirth, conteyning the life of Cambises King of Percia. This work was printed in 1569 and contains a few lines, (see below) that may be in reference to the rhyme.
They be at hand Sir with stick and fiddle;
They can play a new dance called hey-diddle-diddle.
This is not the only example though. Around the same period of time, in the late 1500s, another possible reference comes from Alexander Montgomerie’s The Cherry and the Slae. The lines from this work read:
But since you think’t an easy thing
To mount above the moon,
Of your own fiddle take a spring
And dance when you have done.
This reference is cited less commonly, and only abstractly refers to a few of the elements we can recognize as part of the song today.
Explore Hey, diddle diddle
Interpretations of Hey, diddle diddle
As with many nursery rhymes, there are a series of possible interpretations connected with ‘Hey, diddle diddle’. Some have suggested that it’s connected to constellations, such as Taurus and Canis Minor or that it describes the wives of King Henry VIII.
Structure of Hey, diddle diddle
‘Hey, diddle diddle’ is a six-line nursery rhyme that follows a rhyme scheme of AABCDB. The lines are mostly similar in length as one would expect with a simple children’s rhyme, and the rhyme scheme itself falls in line with other similar lyrics.
Children’s poetry, such as what Spike Milligan poetry is aimed at, more often than not leans heavily on rhyme, sound, and rhythm in order to embellish the text. These songs are usually read out loud and therefore the assonance, consonance, internal and end rhymes are incredibly important. They make the lines all the more engaging for a young audience.
Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example the “o” sound in “sport and “spoon” in lines five and six.
Poetic Techniques in Hey, diddle diddle
In ‘Hey, diddle diddle’ there are several poetic techniques that have helped to make the rhyme as popular as it is today. These include alliteration, personification, repetition, anaphora, and enjambment.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. This can be seen in the use of “cat” and “cow” in lines two and three. There are also examples of personification. It occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. It is due to personification that this lyric is as charming and memorable as it is. The dog can laugh and silverware and dishware can run away together.
The poem also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, lines two, three, and four all begin with the word “The”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines four and five.
Analysis of Hey, diddle diddle
Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
In the first lines of ‘Hey, diddle diddle’ the title is utilized. The repetition in the word “diddle” helps create a pleasing rhythm, even more so when it rhymes with “fiddle” in the next line. This lyric is perhaps the best-known example of nonsense poetry in the English language. The imagery is comical, otherworldly, and meant to bring joy to those who read it. The lines depend heavily on sound and benefit from being read out loud.
As the poem goes on, the speaker introduces a “cat and the fiddle”. Although it is not stated explicitly in the text, this line is commonly taken to mean that the cat was playing fiddle, a charming and compelling use of personification. This is followed by the “cow jump[ing] over the moon”.
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
In the second set of three lines, the reader gets the reaction to what happens in the first part of the poem. A dog laughs, (note the alliteration in this line), and the “dish ran away with the spoon”. The imagery doesn’t make sense and technically doesn’t quite fit together. But, that is part of the joy of nonsense literature. A reader can hear these lines, or read them aloud, and take pleasure in the sounds the words make together and the humorous arrangement of images they’re confronted with.