Jack Sprat

‘Jack Sprat’ is a popular English nursery rhyme that was published in Samuel Arnold’s children’s songbook “Juvenile Amusement” published in 1797. This rhyme was an English proverb from the mid 17th century.

‘Jack Sprat,’ also known as ‘Jack Spratt’ that is now well-known as a children’s song, had a different meaning in the 16th century. At that time, the term “Jack Sprat” was used for referring to people of small stature. Later the rhyme appeared in John Clarke’s collection of sayings in 1639 in the following form:

Jack will eat not fat, and Jull doth love no leane.

Yet betwixt them both they lick the dishes cleane.

In the period between the 16th and 17th centuries, this rhyme was popular as an English proverb. The moral of this saying is it is better to go supperless than to rise in debt.

This saying was popularized later in the form of a nursery rhyme and the modern version of the rhyme is:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.

His wife could eat no lean.

But, together both,

They licked the platter clean.

Jack Sprat the Nursery Rhyme

 

Popularization

The term “Jack Sprat” was there in the list of English sayings. In the past, it was used for people of a specific character trait. Those who preferred greed over savings, lust over their need. Especially a person who thinks of enjoying life in debt, rather than thinking of curbing their needs, is a Jack Sprat.

Like several nursery rhymes, it may have originated as a satire on a public figure. According to historian Linda Alchin, Jack was King Charles I who was left “lean” as the parliament denied him taxation. With his queen Henrietta Maria, he “licked the platter clean” by dissolving the parliament. Apart from that, King Charles was short in height.

This saying also applies to the popular Robin Hood legend. In the legend, John can be compared with King John. While his greedy queen Isabella is comparable to Jack’s wife. In this way, the term was popularized for having a connection with a political figure and a king from a popular legend.

This saying was included in the canon of nursery rhymes in English when it was published in “Mother Goose’s Melody” around 1765. In 1797, it appeared in Samuel Arnold’s “Juvenile Amusement.”

 

Summary

The nursery rhyme ‘Jack Sprat’ talks about two characters and how they eat to keep their dishes clean.

In this rhyme, children come across two characters. One is the titular character Jack Sprat himself and another is his wife. In earlier versions, her wife, Jull is depicted as a plump woman who is fond of eating oily food. Therefore she is plump and often portrayed as eating more than his husband Jack. While Jack is a lean fellow who does not eat much. He prefers to eat lean foods such as vegetables. In this way, both of the characters eat their food. The interesting fact is they don’t waste food as they eat to their fill. That’s why their platter always remains clean after eating.

 

Structure

This nursery rhyme is only four lines long. The rhyme scheme is ABAB. While the older version has only two lines and they form a rhyming couplet. In the modern version, there is a slant rhyme in the first and third lines.

There are a total of six syllables in each line. A reader has to stress the second syllable of each foot. Therefore, each line consists of three iambic feet, except the third line. This line has two iambic feet and there is an occurrence of an acephalous foot at the beginning. The overall nursery rhyme is in iambic trimeter.

There are a few variations. One is mentioned before. The other one can be found in the first foot of this piece, “Jack Sprat.” It contains two stressed syllables. Thus it is an example of a spondee.

 

Literary Devices

As this nursery rhyme originated long before the popularization of it as a nursery rhyme, it contains some allusions. As it is mentioned earlier, Jack is a reference to King Charles I. While his wife is comparable to Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I.

There are some poetic devices in the first two lines. Firstly, collectively they form an antithesis. Secondly, the repetition of a similar phrase is an example of a palilogy. Lastly, the terms “fat” and “lean” are metonyms.

The last line, “They licked the platter clean” contains a metaphor and irony as well. In the overall poem, “food” is a metaphor for someone’s need. While the last line contains a metaphorical reference to money.

Another device used in this rhyme is an allegory. The two characters are allegorical representations of two vices.

 

Detailed Analysis

Oldest Version

Jack will eat not fat, and Jull doth love no leane.

Yet betwixt them both they lick the dishes cleane.

This version of ‘Jack Sprat’ appeared as a saying in John Clarke’s collection of sayings in 1639. In 16th century Britain, the quoted lines were used as a proverb. Jack and Jull are husband and wife. As the proverb goes, they have different tastes. The former does not eat fat. While the latter does not love lean food. In this way, the first line clarifies what Jack and Jull prefer to eat.

The next line ironically refers to another interesting idea. They do not have similar likings yet they lick their dishes until they are clean. It means they eat to their fill though having contrasting choices.

However, this proverb does not deal with their eating habit at all. It is a reference to the mindset of doing something beyond one’s limit. Here, they live happily with whatever they have. Therefore those who don’t know how to be satisfied with what they have, are going to end up in utter disappointment and dissatisfaction.

 

Modern Version

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.

His wife could eat no lean.

But, together both,

They licked the platter clean.

The modern version of ‘Jack Sprat’ was first appeared in Mother Goose’s Melody in 1765 and later in Samuel Arnold’s “Juvenile Amusement” in 1797 as a nursery rhyme. Unlike the proverb, it has four lines and a few archaic terms are replaced with modern words. The overall idea remains the same.

As mentioned earlier, Jack Sprat and his wife, though having dissimilar tastes, eat until they are satisfied. The alternative interpretation of this rhyme can be enlightening. It appears Jack is a symbolic reference to those who are of small stature. While Jack’s wife is a symbol of greed and gluttony.

Jack is the kind of person who is in debt and somehow denied monetary compensation. His wife remains gluttonous and satiates her hunger by creating pressure on her husband. In this way, they make others’ lives miserable to quench their monetary thirst.

The last line contains a metaphor for others’ wealth. So the line, “They licked the platter clean,” means they ate up the money of others for satiating their greed.

 

Historical Context

‘Jack Sprat’ probably originated as a satire on a public figure, King Charles I. The parliament denied his taxation policies. Therefore he was left “lean” for not having enough financial resources. But, when Charles dissolved the parliament, he imposed his taxation policies on the public without any hindrance at all. In this way, he “licked the platter clean.” So, the “platter” is a metaphorical reference to the commoner’s hard-earned money.

While some scholars say, the saying may have come from the Robin Hood legend. The infamous and disliked King John and his queen Isabella are the Jack and Jull of this nursery rhyme. Like Jull, Isabella was also a greedy lady.

 

Similar Nursery Rhymes

In Samuel Arnold’s “Juvenile Amusement,” there are several nursery rhymes that may have originated as a satire. The following list of rhymes was popularized just like the nursery rhyme ‘Jack Sprat’.

  • Humpty Dumpty – This rhyme became famous after the egg’s appearance in Lewis Caroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”
  • Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary – It was first published in “Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Songbook” in 1744 and speaks on Mary and her maids waiting in a row.
  • Baa, Baa, Black Sheep – This song dates back to Medieval times and is related to the “Great Custom.”
  • Hey, diddle diddle by Mother Goose – According to scholars, this rhyme is connected to constellations or describes the wives of King Henry VIII.
  • Sing a Song of Sixpence by Mother Goose – Though it has unclear origins, some believe it might have originated with George Stevens’s usage of this term as a pun. Explore more Mother Goose rhymes.

You can also read about the best nonsense poems and hilarious funny poems.

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About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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