There Was a Crooked Man by Mother Goose

‘There Was a Crooked Man’ was first published in print in 1842 by James Orchard Halliwell. It was not until the twentieth century that the rhyme first began to gain popularity. Its origins, as with most nursery rhymes, are unclear. Some scholars believe that the rhyme came from the village of Lavenham, northeast of London.

 

Summary of There Was a Crooked Man

‘There Was a Crooked Man’ by Mother Goose is a short, upbeat poem that uses repetition to speak on a series of “crooked” sights. 

The four-line poem begins by describing a “crooked man” who “walked a crooked mile”. While walking, he came upon a “sixpence” that was, as one might expect, also crooked. The next lines depict a “crooked cat” and mouse as well as a “little crooked house” in which they all end up. 

 

Meaning of There Was a Crooked Man

It is not entirely clear where this poem came from, what it is about, or if any of the possible interpretations are the truth. The first, and one of the most commonly cited, is that the song was inspired by the irregular houses and angles of the town of Lavenham.

Another interpretation says that the song comes from the period of King Charles I, between 1600 and 1649.  The crooked man may or may not be General Sir Alexander Leslie, a Scottish man who helped to secure religious and political freedom for Scotland. The word “stile” could be referring to the alliance between England and Scotland at the time. While the “crooked house” might refer to the shaky nature of the agreement.

 

Structure of There Was a Crooked Man

There Was a Crooked Man by Mother Goose is a four-line nursery rhyme that follows a simple rhyme scheme of AABB. These lines are also very similar in length, ranging from twelve to thirteen syllables each. 

The best nursery rhymes, those that persist for decades, or even centuries, are those which have compelling imagery, usually nonsensical in nature, and a sing-song-like rhyme scheme. The latter is useful for remembering the poem, but also for entertaining the young readers, listeners, or singers that will engage with it. 

Despite its brevity, there are several poetic techniques in ‘There Was a Crooked Man’ that are noteworthy. These include, but are not limited to, alliteration and repetition.

 

Analysis of There Was a Crooked Man

Lines 1-2 

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,

He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;

In the first lines of ‘There Was a Crooked Man,’ the nursery line begins with the line for which it is known. Th unknown speaker introduces a “crooked man”. This man might be crooked in shape or in thought. He could be corrupt or wicked in some fundamental way, but that is not cleared up in the next three lines. 

The man walked a “crooked mile” the speaker adds. This could be in reference to the way he walked, the sights he passed, or the way the road moved. This is one of the phrases that is cited as evidence that the poem originated from the wool merchant’s village of Lavenham. 

Next, the man came upon a sixpence coin. It was “against a crooked stile”. The coin was, of course, also crooked. These coins were quite thin back when this poem was supposedly written, meaning that they would’ve bent easily. The “stile” against which it was leaning could refer to an arrangement of steps, a doorpost, or the frame of a door. In some interpretations of the poem, the “stile” is said to be an agreement between the English and Scottish parliaments. 

 

Lines 3-4 

He bought a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse,

And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

In the second half of the poem, the word “crooked” is used three more times. There are further examples of alliteration as well with phrases like “crooked cat” and “caught a crooked”. The man, having found the sixpence coin, presumably used to buy “a cooked cat”. At this point, it is very clear that the pleasure of the words, the way they sound together, and the outlandish images they produce, is the main goal of the text. These are all attributes of nonsense verse, a genre of poetry to which most nursery rhymes belong. 

The cat caught a mouse, also “crooked”. And they all lived happily ever after “in a little crooked house”. The perfect rhymes that are used throughout this poem are satisfying to read. They are even more fun to say out loud. The ending is particularly well-rhymed giving the poem a solid feeling conclusion. 

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