Hush little baby, don’t say a word by Mother Goose

“Hush little baby, don’t say a word” by Mother Goose is a popular nursery rhyme that originated in the southern United States. It is addressed to a crying child and includes the many things that their father would do for them to make them happy.

Hush little baby, don't say a word by Mother Goose Visual Representation

Throughout this piece, readers will likely find themselves entertained by the array of items and creatures that “Papa” is going to fetch for a crying baby in order to make them happy. These range from a diamond ring to a dog and a horse and cart.

Hush little baby, don't say a word
Mother Goose

Hush little baby, don't say a word,
Papa's gonna buy you a mockingbird.

And if that mockingbird won't sing,
Papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring.

And if that diamond ring turns to brass,
Papa's gonna buy you a looking glass.

And if that looking glass gets broke,
Papa's gonna buy you a billy goat.

And if that billy goat won't pull,
Papa's gonna buy you a cart and bull.

And if that cart and bull turn over,
Papa's gonna buy you a dog named Rover.

And if that dog named Rover won't bark,
Papa's gonna buy you a horse and cart.

And if that horse and cart fall down,
You'll still be the sweetest little baby in town!
Hush little baby, don't say a word by Mother Goose


Hush little baby, don’t say a word Meaning

The poem was written with the intention of making a young child stop crying. The speaker says that the child has no reason to cry because their father is going to bring them everything they could ever want. And, if one of these things goes wrong, the father will find something else to take its place. The meaning is quite simple and only requires a surface-level reading to uncover. 

Origins of the Nursery Rhyme

Like most nursery rhymes, there is little known about the composition of this piece. But, scholars commonly attribute the lyrics to an unknown author in the southern United States. One of the earliest versions was noted in 1918 in Virginia by folklorist Cecil Sharp. Another was recorded around that same time in Micaville, North Carolina. Earlier versions of the song vary in the arrangement of their verses and even the content that they include.

Structure and Form 

Hush little baby, don’t say a word” by Mother Goose is a sixteen-line poem that is divided into sets of two lines, known as couplets. These couples follow a traditional pattern of AABBCCDD, and so on, changing end sounds between every set. 

Due to the way in which the couplets of this nursery rhyme are structured, it is possible to add on more verses to those which already exist. This means that various iterations of this poem do exist, and it allows readers and singers to be creative if they want to continue this song.

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of numerous literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting examples and descriptions. Imagery should trigger the readers senses, inspiring them to imagine the scene in great detail. For example, “[…] if that diamond ring turns to brass,  / Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass.”
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “baby” and “buy” in the first two lines of the poem and “brass” and “buy” in the fifth and sixth lines, or the third couplet. 
  • Repetition: occurs when a poet repeats elements of their composition, this could be a word, phrase, image, structure, or more. In this case, the author repeats the basic premise of the poem. If something goes wrong with the gift that “papa” bought the baby, then Papa will choose a new one. 


Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-4 

Hush little baby, don’t say a word,

Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.

And if that mockingbird won’t sing,

Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by using the line that later came to be used as the title of the nursery rhyme. This is a common practice when a poet or songwriter does not include a title with their verse. This speaker tells a crying baby to “hush” and not say a “word.” The following couplets outline why the baby should stop crying in the lengths their father will go to to ensure that they are happy.

First, the speaker says Papa is going to buy the baby “mockingbird.” If there is something wrong with that bird and it won’t sing the child a song, then the father is going to buy “a diamond ring.” These are two quite different subjects that the speaker thinks will soothe the baby’s crying. But, as readers will learn as they progress through the lines of the poem, the objects the speaker lists are more connected to the various worldly and emotional desires of adults than they are children. For example, a singing bird might bring aesthetic pleasure in a song, but a diamond ring is going to fill someone’s desire for expensive possessions.

Lines 5-8 

And if that diamond ring turns to brass,

Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass.

And if that looking glass gets broke,

Papa’s gonna buy you a billy goat.

The next two couplets mention a “looking glass” and a “billy goat.” If the diamond ring turns out to be fake and turns to “brass,” then the child is going to get a “looking glass” or a mirror. The use of the phrase “looking glass” helps to date this poem. “Looking glass” is not used today when someone is speaking about a mirror. 

Again, the looking glass is juxtaposed against a very different image – a billy goat.

Lines 9-12 

And if that billy goat won’t pull,

Papa’s gonna buy you a cart and bull.

And if that cart and bull turn over,

Papa’s gonna buy you a dog named Rover.

The billy goat would fill the role of a farmworker. It would work, helping someone complete their daily tasks. This is, of course, something at a young child has no use for. But, as mentioned above, it is a good example of how the various things the speaker mentions are actually things that fill needs in an adult’s life.

If the billy goat does not pull, then the father is going to buy a “cart and bull.” Or when they don’t work out, the father is going to get a dog “named Rover.” This last possibility is one of the only ones in the poem that might soothe a crying child. 

Lines 13-16 

And if that dog named Rover won’t bark,

Papa’s gonna buy you a horse and cart.

And if that horse and cart fall down,

You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town!

In the last two couplets, the singer brings the poem to a close. If the dog “won’t bark,” then the father is going to buy the child a “horse and cart.” But, if these fall down, like the “cart and bull” of the previous couplet, then the child will still be the “sweetest little baby in town.” 

It’s with this line that the song draws to a conclusion. It is easy to imagine various versions of the song in which couplets are excluded, or new couplets are included. No matter the organization of the other lines, this final set of two should appear at the end.

FAQs 

What is the purpose of ‘Hush little baby, don’t say a word?’ 

It is a children’s nursery rhyme that is meant to soothe the listener and stop them from crying. It is also meant, as all nursery rhymes are, to entertain. The song is written with the intention of finding ways to stop a baby from crying or make it happy. But, the subject matter is actually geared towards things that are going to make adults happy. 

What is the meaning of ‘Hush little baby, don’t say a word?’

The most popular interpretation is a surface level one. The song was written to soothe a crying child. Although not all the things in the song would actually calm a child down, it is easy to imagine how the sound of the words would. This song is still sung to this day as a way of entertaining and distracting an upset child. 

What is the origin of ‘Hush little baby, don’t say a word?’

It’s unclear exactly where this poem came from. But, scholars and folklorists believe that it originated in the southern United States. The earliest written record of the song dates to the early 1900s, but it is likely that it existed in some form in the previous century as well.


Similar Nursery Rhymes

Enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other popular nursery rhymes. For example:

  • My Bonnie lies over the ocean’ – a popular nursery rhyme. It may refer to Bonnie Prince Charlie, or Charles Edward Stuart. 
  • 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.

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Hush little baby, don't say a word by Mother Goose Visual Representation
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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