The four lines of the poem describe Lizzie killing her mother and father with forty and forty-one whacks of an ax. The murders are still debated to this day in regard to whether or not Lizzie was truly guilty of the crimes. The numbers used in this poem were chosen in order to have the greatest impact as well as create perfect rhymes. In reality, Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, was hit eleven times, and Abby Borden, Lizzie’s step-mother, was hit eighteen times.
Lizzie Borden Took an Ax Lizzie Borden took an ax And gave her mother forty whacks, And when she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.
Explore Lizzie Borden Took an Ax
‘Lizzie Borden Took an Ax’ is a chilling short nursery rhyme that details the deaths of the Bordens at the hands of their daughter.
The poem is only four lines long, but it captures a portion of the Lizzie Borden story (even if the details are inaccurate). In the first lines, the speaker describes Lizzie killing her mother. It uses a euphemism “gave her mother forty whacks” that also serves as an allusion to the weapon Lizzie is accused of having used, an ax. As if in a dissociative state when she killed her stepmother, Lizzie then kills her father after seeing what she’d done.
Structure and Form
‘Lizzie Borden Took an Ax’ is a four-line nursery rhyme. It follows a simple rhyme scheme of AABB. The four lines of the poem are quite short and all around the same length. They are written in iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. This helps create the sing-song-like rhythm of the rhyme. This is a common feature of children’s rhymes, one that makes them easy to remember and easy to recite.
Despite its brevity, there are several literary devices at work in ‘Lizzie Borden Took an Ax.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “when” and “what” in line three and “father” and “forty-one” in line four.
- Allusion: a reference in a literary work to something outside the scope of the writing. In this case, the poem alludes to the accusations against Lizzie Borden.
- Enjambment: seen through the transition between lines that are cut off before their natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two. Here, the poet also creates an example of a cliffhanger.
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks,
In the first lines of ‘Lizzie Borden Took an Ax,’ the speaker begins by using the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. The line is enjambed, meaning that readers have to move down to line two in order to find out what happens next. This works well in the transition between lines one and two, considering the content. Lizzie “took an ax” is a dramatic way to start a poem. Readers should be inspired to find out what happens next if they don’t already know.
The second line describes Lizzie killing her “mother.” In reality, she was accused of killing her stepmother, Abby Borden. But, “mother” works for the metrical pattern. The same can be said of the number “forty” and later “forty-one.” These help to create perfect rhymes but do not align with the true events of the case.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
The third line adds to the previous. Lizzie, as if initially unaware of the terrible thing she’d done, realizes that she’s killed her “mother.” This inspires her to go ahead and give her father “forty-one.” This is a call back to the previous lines. Readers have to mentally add the word “whacks,” acknowledging that he too has passed away at her hand.
Despite the fact that Lizzie was acquitted of the murders of her step-mother and father, she is to this day labeled as an ax murderer. This is seen through the lines of the poem, which are sung with an upbeat tone and an amused attitude by English-speaking children. This poem is a perfect example of how dark subject matter can be transformed into something entertaining. It’s far from the only nursery rhyme of its kind.
This song was made up by an anonymous writer, someone whose name has been lost to history. Some suggest it was always anonymous. The writer may have sold the song to a newspaper.
The tone of this poem is upbeat and informative despite its dark subject matter. The speaker is telling events as they believe they occurred without truly acknowledging the deaths or the horror.
Depending on how the reader receives the lines of this short poem, they may find themselves entertained or shocked. There are likely to be equal parts of both amusement and discomfort.
The speaker is someone who purports to know the facts of the Lizzie Borden case but gets them wrong. They address the deaths with levity and with the intention of entertaining and disturbing readers.
The purpose of this poem was, if some reports can be believed, to sell newspapers. The writer may have sold this piece to a publication seeking to make money off Lizzie Borden’s story, as many papers and writers did.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Lizzie Borden Took an Ax’ should also consider reading some related nursery rhymes. For example:
- ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’ – a rhyme and children’s circle game. It is said to have been inspired by Britain’s efforts to produce silk.
- ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ – could be about a Viking attack in 1014, the difficulties associated with building the bridge, or even the burial of children under the bridge.
- ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ – is usually interpreted as an allusion to the Black Death and the symptoms associated with the illness.