The poem can be somewhat confusing for some readers who are unfamiliar with how the numbers and images relate to one another. Some of the allusions are easier to research than others. This is particularly true for the middle of the poem where some scholars believe there are corrupted lyrics. Meaning, the original lyrics of ‘Green Grow the Rushes, O’ have been lost and changed over time, perhaps losing meaning entirely.
Green Grow the Rushes, O I'll sing you twelve, O Green grow the rushes, O What are your twelve, O? Twelve for the twelve Apostles Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven, Ten for the ten commandments, Nine for the nine bright shiners, Eight for the April Rainers. Seven for the seven stars in the sky, Six for the six proud walkers, Five for the symbols at your door, Four for the Gospel makers, Three, three, the rivals, Two, two, the lily-white boys, Clothed all in green, O One is one and all alone And evermore shall be so.
Explore Green Grow the Rushes, O
‘Green Grow the Rushes, O’ is a complicated and interesting poem that uses counting to help young singers/readers understand information from the Bible and about astronomy.
The poem starts with twelve and counts down to one. The twelve apostles are the first part of the Bible referenced. Then, the poem goes on to talk about those who went to heaven, the ten commandments, and more. There are far more obscure references, perhaps to the planets and star clusters, midway through the poem. Finally, it concludes with an allusion to the “one,” which most readers take to mean God.
Structure and Form
‘Green Grow the Rushes, O’ is a seventeen-line nursery rhyme that’s usually structured within one stanza. The lines vary in length, ranging from five syllables up to around ten. The poem does not follow a specific rhyme scheme either, although there are several different end rhymes. For example, “O” which ends the first three lines, rhymes with “O” at the end of line fifteen, “alone” at the end of line sixteen, and “so” at the end of line seventeen.” “Shiners” and “Rainers” at the end of lines seven and eight also rhyme.
Throughout this piece, there are several different literary devices at work. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point and the reader has to go down to the next line to find the second half of it, it is enjambed. For example, the transition between lines sixteen and seventeen.
- Repetition: can be seen when the poet uses the same word or words. For example, “Twelve” appears twice in line four and “seven” appears twice in line nine.
- Allusion: occurs when the writer references something but doesn’t provide the reader with all the details they need to full understand it. There are allusions to Christianity, astrology, and more. It’s hard to determine exactly where they all came from.
- Imagery: can be seen when the writer uses particularly interesting descriptions. In this case, they are interesting and somewhat mysterious. For example, “Nine for the nine bright shiners,” “Five for the symbols at your door,” and “Two, two, the lily-white boys.”
I’ll sing you twelve, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your twelve, O?
Twelve for the twelve Apostles
Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
Ten for the ten commandments,
Nine for the nine bright shiners,
Eight for the April Rainers.
In the first lines of this nursery rhyme, the speaker begins with the number twelve and starts counting down to one. It is far from the only counting song in the history of English nursery rhymes. But, the interpretations are quite varied. There is a direct mention of the Apostles and the “ten commandments” in the first few lines which are obvious Christian allusions. The speaker talks about the twelve apostles and the “eleven” who went to heaven, subtracting Judas Iscariot.
The “ten commandments” are a clear reference to the commandments given to Moses. This is followed by “Nine for the nine bright shiners” and “Eight for the April Rainers.” It’s here that the words get slightly more confusing. The nine could be a reference to the sun, moon, and planets known at the time the song was penned (sometime in the 1600s or 1700s). The words “April Rainers” refer to a specific star cluster.
Seven for the seven stars in the sky,
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, the lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.
In the following lines, there are “seven stars in the sky,” perhaps a reference to the Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters. It takes a great deal of research and knowledge about these topics to know what the lyrics could be referring to. Even then, there are scholars who disagree with these connections.
“Six proud walkers” is one of the most difficult lines. Some believe this line was corrupted over time and that it should read “waters” as a reference to the jars of water that Jesus turned into wine. Continuing on, there are references to other religious images including symbols on doorways, the Magi of the Nativity, or perhaps Peter, James, and John, and “two white lily boys,” who some believe are Jesus and John the Baptist. Finally, the song ends with the “one” who is likely God.
This complex and confusing nursery rhyme has many other different interpretations. Some believe other lines have been corrupted and that the original could’ve been significantly different.
The tone is considerate and reverential. The speaker takes readers through a series of complicated and sometimes confusing images related to Christianity and astronomy. It’s clear these are meaningful but those which are harder to define make the entire poem more mysterious.
The purpose is to celebrate Christianity through a counting song, something common in nursery rhymes. Through the use of numbers, young readers and singers would have an easier time understanding the various parts of the Bible the song is referencing.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Green Grow the Rushes, O’ should also consider reading some other nursery rhymes. For example:
- ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ – has an interesting and unclear history, awash with alternative lyrics and foreign language adaptions.
- ‘Foxy’s Hole’ – originated in Tudor England. The reference to a fox as “foxy” makes a child more comfortable with this creature.
- ‘Hey, diddle diddle’ – may be connected to constellations, such as Taurus and Canis Minor or that it describes the wives of King Henry VIII.