The poem may or may not be describing a man suffering from STDs, contracted from a prostitute, wandering through his home and eventually giving the diseases to his wife. Or, in another very different understanding of the poem, he could be searching for a Catholic priest who he then tosses down the stairs, removing him from his priest’s hole. Either of these versions is possible, and it’s up to readers to decide which makes the most sense to them. But, it’s also possible to simply enjoy ‘Goosey goosey gander’ for its use of language and rhyme without delving too deeply into what it means.
Goosey goosey gander Nursery Rhyme Goosey goosey gander, Whither shall I wander? Upstairs and downstairs And in my lady's chamber. There I met an old man Who wouldn't say his prayers, So I took him by his left leg And threw him down the stairs.
Explore Goosey goosey gander
‘Goosey goosey gander’ is an entertaining nursery rhyme that details a man tossing another older man down a flight of stairs.
The poem is separated into two parts, the first in which the speaker wanders through his home as though he’s looking for something. He goes upstairs and downstairs and eventually makes his way into his lady’s chamber. Then, he finds an old man who “wouldn’t say his prayers” and throws him down the stairs. The poem ends abruptly without an explanation for these actions. This has led to several different interpretations, as discussed below.
Structure and Form
‘Goosey goosey gander’ is an eight-line nursery rhyme. The version analyzed below is the most common, but there are several other alternate versions and substituted lines that will also be discussed. For example, some other versions use four additional lines at the end of the poem. But, in this popular modern version, the lines rhyme ABCB DEFE. There is also a possible half-rhyme with “gander” and “wander,” depending on if readers are willing to slightly alter their pronunciation. The lines are also quite similar in length. Of the eight, six contain six syllables, while the others have five and eight.
Despite its brevity, there are several literary devices at work in ‘‘Goosey goosey gander.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the writer repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Goosey goose gander” in line one and “Wither” and “wander” in line two.
- Hyperbole: depending on a reader’s interpretation of the rhyme, the last lines may come across as hyperbolic. Is a man really being thrown down the stairs? Or was the action exaggerated in order to make a point?
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four as well as lines five and six.
- Allusion: occurs when the writer references something but does not provide all the details readers need for a full understanding of it. In this case, the nursery rhyme may be alluding to a serious interpretation. That the “old man” was a Catholic priest persecuted under the reign of Henry VIII.
Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
In the first lines of ‘Goosey goosey gander,’ the speaker uses the phrase that later came to be used as the title. Whether this poem had an alternate title is unknown, but it is far from uncommon to see these older rhymes named for their first lines. If not this, then some repeated element within the text may be used as the title.
The speaker addresses a goose, a strange listener for any poem. This is, in its most direct form, is an example of an apostrophe. But, it may be closer to a metaphor depending on one’s interpretation. Some believe that the “goose” was really a prostitute. The word “goose” was used at times during British history as a slang term for prostitutes. This has led to an interesting interpretation involving STDs in the following lines.
The speaker wanders through the house as though he’s looking for something. One might read this as the man spreading the STD he was given until he arrives at his “lady’s chambers,” bringing the disease home. Other interpretations don’t consider disease or prostitution at all. Instead, some scholars believe this poem was written with itinerant Catholic priests in mind, using the image of a priest hole and the way these men were treated during the reign of King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, and later Oliver Cromwell.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn’t say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs.
In the next lines, the latter interpretation gains some steam as an old man is found, who “wouldn’t say his prayers,” and is thrown down the stairs. This could be an allusion to the correct non-Latin prayers, as designated by the Church of England. The man could be being evicted from a priest’s hole and thrown out of the house. There is also some history of the term “left leg” being used as slang for Catholics during the reign of Edward VI.
No matter which interpretation one subscribes to, this nursery rhyme is quite interesting. It’s entertaining with a surface-level understanding as much as it is when considering what deeper meaning it might have.
Readers may also be interested in considering the following lines:
The stairs went crack,
He nearly broke his back.
And all the little ducks went,
‘Quack, quack, quack’.
These four lines are sometimes used as the end of versions of the poem. In other versions, readers might find these lines rather than those referencing the old man:
There you’ll find a cup of sack
And a race of ginger.
The tone is direct and fairly emotionless. The speaker describes his actions clearly without adding any additional emotion to them. He did this, and he did that, and this was the result. He doesn’t spend time interpreting his own actions or explaining what they mean.
The purpose is to entertain readers and listeners. But, it may be more complicated if one subscribes to the religious interpretation or the one dealing with prostitutes and STDs. It could serve as a warning in either of the other ways of understanding the piece.
This piece was likely written sometime during the 1600s, as many of these early nursery rhymes were. There is no information about who first came up with the lyrics or why and how they changed over the years.
The speaker is someone who, depending on one’s interpretation, may be seeing prostitutes or could be on a quest to find and expose Catholic priests. These two very different interpretations make the poem interesting to read and analyze.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Goosey goosey gander’ should also consider reading some related nursery rhymes. For example:
- ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’ – was first recorded in the mid-nineteenth century by James Orchard Halliwell. It was noted, as a great deal of nursery rhymes were, as a children’s game.
- ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’ – a traditional English folk song and nursery rhyme. It describes a speaker’s longing for her love, Bobby Shafto, who is out on a sea voyage.
- ‘Monday’s Child’ – is one of several well-loved fortune-telling poems. It was first recorded in A.E. Bray’s Traditions of Devonshire published in 1838.