The lines directly reference a specific statue, that of King Charles I in Charing Cross, London. This provides some information in regard to when it could’ve first been used but not everything one needs. Some scholars believe that the lines may be a satire on royalist reactions to the monarch’s execution. The statue was erected in 1660 after the Restoration and then moved in 1675 to Charing Cross, central London. The statue is dark, a tarnished bronze, giving it the “black” color described in ‘As I Was Going by Charing Cross’.
As I was going by Charing Cross, I saw a black man upon a black horse; They told me it was King Charles the First- Oh dear, my heart was ready to burst!
Explore As I Was Going by Charing Cross
‘As I Was Going by Charing Cross’ is a short rhyme that describes seeing a statue of King Charles I in Charing Cross.
The four lines of this rhyme depict the statue as “black” and include the speaker’s description of his heart bursting at the sight. The use of the word “black” twice might suggest that the speaker feels negatively about the statue. This would lead readers to the interpretation that the final line is a bit of sarcasm/satire that’s meant to make fun of those who actually feel heartbroken over the king’s death.
Structure and Form
‘As I Was Going by Charing Cross’ is a four-line nursery rhyme that was first collected and printed in the 1840s. It follows a simple rhyme scheme of AABB with perfect rhymes at the end of each line. There is no meter unifying the poem, but because of its brevity and rhyme, this doesn’t affect its musicality. There are also a few literary devices that help make the lines feel more poetic. These include repetition—for example, the use of “black” twice in line two.
Throughout this short poem, there are a few notable literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Allusion: can be seen when the poet refers to something in a text but doesn’t provide readers with all the details they need to fully understand it. Such is the case with the allusions to Charing Cross and King Charles the First. It requires some research into British history in order to understand who the monarch was and why the speaker’s heart might “burst” in the last line.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into a line. This could be towards the beginning, middle, or end. For example, “Oh dear, my heart was ready to burst!”
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “black” and “black” in line two and “burst” in line four.
Below is the modern version of this nursery rhyme. There are several other iterations that have been used since the 1840s.
As I was going by Charing Cross,
I saw a black man upon a black horse;
In the first lines of ‘As I Was Going by Charing Cross,’ the speaker begins with the line that was later used as the title of the song. This is often the case with these old, short nursery rhymes and songs. If there ever was a title to this short verse, it’s been lost to time. Instead, the first line is used.
The speaker describes going by Charing Cross, an area of London, and seeing a “black man upon a black horse.” It’s not until the following line that it becomes clear that this isn’t a real man but a statue. The use of the word “black” twice drives it into the reader’s mind. It might also make one consider whether or not the speaker was only thinking about the color. They might also have been tapping into their own opinion about this person and relating him to the color “black,” one that’s usually negatively applied.
They told me it was King Charles the First-
Oh dear, my heart was ready to burst!
The statue is of King Charles the First, a British monarch who reigned from March 1625 until his execution in 1649. He was convicted of treason and executed outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, an event that divided the British public.
Charles, I believed in the divine right of kings or their apparent God-given rights to rule as they see fit. This means he often butted heads with Parliament. After his execution, England became a commonwealth, ruled by Parliament and then by Oliver Cromwell as Protector. This is all information that readers might be aware of or might have to research in order to fully understand what’s going on in these short lines.
The final line is often interpreted as a sarcastic statement referencing the reaction of royalists, or those who sided with Charles I during his lifetime, to his death. Their hearts would burst when they saw the statue of their executed king.
There are a few other lines that are sometimes associated with this rhyme. They include
I cry my matches at Charing Cross,
Where sits a black man on a black horse.
I cry my matches by old Charing-Cross,
Where sitteth King Charles upon a black horse.
The meaning changes depending on one’s interpretation of the last line. Perhaps the speaker is honestly heartbroken at the loss of Charles I, or perhaps he’s satirizing the royalists who do express that emotion.
The speaker is someone who lives in London and has an emotional reaction/connection to the life and death of King Charles I. This could be anyone alive during his lifetime or after who has an opinion about his reign.
Readers who enjoyed ‘As I Was Going by Charing Cross’ should also consider reading some related nursery rhymes. For example:
- ‘Foxy’s Hole’ – a nursery rhyme that talks about putting a finger in the fox’s hole to find if it’s there or not.
- ‘Yankee Doodle’ – a short poem that describes a man, someone called Yankee Doodle, and his actions.
- ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a fly’ – a funny children’s rhyme. It describes an old lady who swallows everything from a fly to a cat to a horse.