How Many Miles to Babylon?

‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ is a children’s nursery rhyme and singing game that was first recorded in the 19th-century. 

A literal interpretation suggests that the nursery rhyme is about the distance between one point and Babylon and if it is possible to get there by candlelight or during the night. Since it became popular, the opening line has been used in numerous other literary works, some of which are noted below. 

How Many Miles to Babylon? 

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again ...
If your heels are nimble and your toes are light,
You may get there by candle-light
How Many Miles to Babylon?


Meaning of How Many Miles to Babylon?

Although the poem has been interpreted in different ways, the most common reading suggests that it is fairly literal. The speaker is asking how far away Babylon is, receiving an answer from another speaker, and then asking if it’s possible to get there during the night. (Through the use of candlelight.) The second speaker then adds that getting there by candlelight as possible if one moves quickly. It is also possible to include biblical meaning in the poem and interpret it differently.

Origins of How Many Miles to Babylon?

This is well-loved nursery rhyme was first recorded in the 19th-century. But there are references to earlier versions dating back to the 17th and 16th centuries. For example, the phrase “can I get there by candlelight?” was a popular phrase in the 16th-century. It refers to the onset of night and when it becomes necessary to have a separate light to see by.

This nursery rhyme and similar iterations are found in other literary works, such as ‘Envoys’ by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carrol’s Forever Amber. The opening line has also been used in film and television. 

Structure and Form

How Many Miles to Babylon? Is a short nursery rhyme that is made up of three couplets, or sets of two lines. The six lines of this poem follow a rhyme scheme of ABCBCC. This can change depending on the version of the song that readers have in front of them. For example, another version that has Scottish origins reads: 

King and Queen of Cantelon,

How many miles to Babylon?

Eight and eight, and other eight

Will I get there by candle-light?

If your horse be good and your spurs be bright

How mony men have ye?

Mae nor ye daur come and see

Here, the rhyme scheme is AABBBCC. The use of perfect rhymes is a common feature in children’s verse. Poetry that is aimed at young readers often has more rhymes than that which is written for adults. This makes the poems or songs more entertaining, easier to remember, and more interesting for children.

Literary Devices 

Throughout this nursery rhyme, the writer makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example: “many miles” in line one. 
  • Epistrophe: occurs when a poet repeats the same word or phrase at the end of multiple lines. For example: “light” which ends three lines of the poem. (Two of these examples of “candle-light.” 
  • Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions these should engage the reader senses and make it easy for them to envision a certain scene. For example: “If your heels are nimble and your toes are light.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-2 

How many miles to Babylon?

Three score miles and ten.

The opening line of this nursery rhyme is by far the best-known part of the poem. One speaker, someone who is inquiring about traveling, asks another person “How many miles to Babylon?” Babylon was the capital center of the ancient Babylonian empire and an important biblical city. In the Bible, the city was a symbol of sin. It is referenced over 250 times between Genesis and Revelation.

This may lead readers to interpret the poem in a different way. Perhaps, the speaker is inquiring about the nature of sin and how it occurs under the cover of darkness.

It should also be noted that there are variations of this nursery rhyme that replace “Babylon” with other names. These include “Barberry” and “London town.” 

Lines 3-4 

Can I get there by candle-light?

Yes, and back again …

The speaker then asks another question, if it is possible to get to Babylon by candlelight. Scholars have noted that this phrase was popular in the 16th-century. The comment suggests that the speaker is wondering if they can get there once it gets dark. If it is possible to navigate to the city with candlelight only. The answer is yes, from the person they are asking. This person also adds it as possible to get “back again” by candlelight.

Babylon, it appears, is not that far away. Or the area between where the speaker is now and where Babylon is not hard to navigate. Continuing on with the themes of sin found in the Bible, this may suggest that it is easy to be led into sin, but it is also easy to come back to God again.

Lines 5-6 

If your heels are nimble and your toes are light,

You may get there by candle-light

The final lines of the poem contain the second speaker’s words. They tell the person traveling to Babylon that it is possible to get there by candlelight if they move quickly. If their heels are “nimble” and their “toes are light,” they can get there by “candle-light.” 


This lighthearted ending to the nursery rhyme does not lend itself to any Biblical interpretations of the song. But, it does provide young readers with upbeat rhymes that are fun to sing and easy to remember. 

FAQs 

What is the purpose of ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ 

It is a children’s nursery rhyme that has been sung since the 19th-century (at least). Its primary purpose is to entertain young readers old enough to comprehend the poem or even younger children who hear the poem read aloud.

What is the meaning of ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ 

The most popular interpretation of the meaning is a literal one. A speaker is inquiring about the distance between where they are now in the city of Babylon as well as if it’s possible to travel there after the sun goes down.

What is the origin of ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ 

It is unclear where exactly this nursery rhyme originated. The first written record of the poem comes from Great Britain in the early 1800s. But, scholars have suggested that it is far older, with some lines dating back to the 17th or even the 16th centuries.


Similar Nursery Rhymes 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other popular nursery rhymes. For example:

  • A Wise Old Owl’ – is an English nursery rhyme. It depicts the qualities an owl has that make him wise and worthy of admiration.
  • As I Was Going by Charing Cross’ – was first recorded in the 1840s. But, it likely dates to an early decade. It’s thought that this nursery rhyme was likely shared through street cries or chants.
  • My Bonnie lies over the ocean’ – a popular nursery rhyme. It may refer to Bonnie Prince Charlie, or Charles Edward Stuart. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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