‘Little Boy Blue’ was first published in Tommy Thumb’s Little Song Book in the year 1744 but scholars assume that the song is much older than that. One of the oldest references to the rhyme, some believe, can be found in Shakespeare’s play King Lear. In the text the following lines appear:
Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm.
Here, a close reader can find a few similarities between the rhyme as we know it today and that which appears within Shakespeare’s much more complex verse. In both versions, there is a speaker addressing someone who is supposed to be taking care of their sheep. In the nursery rhyme, that person is a young boy and in this version, there is only a vague reference to a shepherd. Just as the Little Boy Blue is neglecting his job while sleeping, so too is this character in Shakespeare’s rhyme. The speaker of this text alludes to a need for the shepherd to call out and keep his sheep from taking harm. He refers to the shepherd’s “minikin,” or insignificant/small “mouth” and how “one blast,” or sounding of his horn, will keep the sheep from taking harm.
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Interpretation of Little Boy Blue
‘Little Boy Blue’ by Mother Goose has been interpreted in several different ways. The most commonly cited is in reference to Cardinal Wolsey of King Henry VIII’s court. He became the king’s chancellor in the 1520s and this poem was used, perhaps, to point out the cardinal’s less luxurious beginnings.
Structure of Little Boy Blue
‘Little Boy Blue’ is an eight-line English nursery rhyme that follows a simple rhyme scheme of ABCBADED. The lines are all similar in length as one would expect with a simple children’s rhyme, and the rhyme scheme itself falls in line with other similar children’s songs/poems.
Children’s poetry, 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 “cow” and “corn” in line four. This same vowel sound is found in other lines of the text as well, such as in “boy” and “blow”. There’s also the “a” in “haystack” and “fast” in lines seven and eight.
Poetic Techniques in Little Boy Blue
In ‘Little Boy Blue’ there are several poetic techniques that have helped to make the rhyme as popular as it is today. These include alliteration, anaphora, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “boy” and “blue” in line one and “cow” and “corn” in line four.
The poem also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This can be seen in the use of “The” at the beginnings of lines three and four.
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 five and six as well as seven and eight.
Analysis of Little Boy Blue
Little boy blue,
Come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow,
The cow’s in the corn.
In the first four lines of ‘Little Boy Blue’ the speaker, who is addressing a young boy, calls him by a nickname. He’s referred to by the assonance and alliteration heavy name “boy blue”. There could be any number of reasons why this young boy is being called “blue”. Perhaps it has something to do with what he wears or how he feels.
The “b” sound is continued into the next lines when the speaker asks this young boy to come and do his job, “blow” his horn and gather up all his animals. This will also serve to scare off any creatures that might be thinking about preying on the livestock he’s meant to be taking care of.
Using anaphora, the next two lines both begin with “The”. This helps create a list of issues the boy should be dealing with but isn’t. His sheep are in the meadow and the “cow’s in the corn”. The fourth line uses alliteration again with the words “cow” and “corn”. The similar structures and syllable numbers of these two lines, both starting with “The” and using “in the,” create a real rhythm to this moment of the poem.
But where is the boy
Who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack,
The second half of ‘Little Boy Blue’ addresses, very clearly, the fact that the boy isn’t where he’s supposed to be and is not doing his jobs. Between lines five and six the speaker asks where the boy is “Who looks after the sheep”.
The speaker answers their own question in the last two lines of the poem. The boy is definitely not where he’s supposed to be. He’s sleeping under a haystack.