Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

The oldest printed version of ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ was published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Songbook in 1744. It is considered to be the first anthology of English nursery rhymes ever published. The oldest versions of the most well-known, and well-loved, rhymes are found within this publication. There are also a number of songs that would be unfamiliar to a contemporary reader. 

For a period of time, it was thought that there was only one copy of the book in existence. But, a second was found in 2001. And, and 2013 a facsimile was published containing all the songs of the original text. 

Some of the nursery rhymes which appear within Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Songbook at ‘Baa, Baa Black Sheep,’ ‘Little Tommy Tucker,’ London Bridge is Falling Down,’There Was an Old Woman Who Lived Under a Hill,’ and of course, ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’. The lyrics which appear in the book quite similar to those we know today.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary


Analysis of Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

The first published version of the song made use of the following lyrics: 

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells, and cockle shells,

And pretty maids all in a row

In other versions of ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ the last line is slightly different. Variations include,  “Cowslips all in a row” or “With lady bells all in a row.” Lady bells and cowslips are both types of plants. The lady bell is a bell-shaped flower, which is usually blue to purple in color. Cowslips are part of the primrose family and can be found throughout Europe and western Asia. They produce deep yellow flowers in the spring. 

Another variation uses the final line “Sing cuckolds all in a row”.  This ending takes the poem to a darker place, a cuckold is a derogatory term used to refer to a husband whose wife is cheating on him. It is also sometimes used to refer to men who don’t know they are taking care of children who are not their own. 

The most common version of the song and the one which is most prevalent today is the first example with the ending “And pretty maids all in a row.” 

Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ is fairly straightforward. In the first line, the speaker makes use of repetition. This was done in order to complete the metrical patterning of the line, and in order to emphasize the importance of the statement. The speaker is directing their words to someone named Mary, and begins by telling her that she is “quite contrary.” She has a lot of conflicting opinions which are always shifting. 

There are also examples of internal rhyme with “bells” and “shells”. Alliteration is present as well with “garden” and “grow” appearing next to one another. 


Alternative Interpretations

If one simply reads the text, and does not look into the history of ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary,’  it is an upbeat depiction of a beautiful woman in the garden. She is surrounded by blooming flowers and “pretty maids”.  But, other interpretations have taken on greater importance and more prominent place within the mind of the public. 


Interpretation One

The first interpretation that a reader might like to consider is the one which relates Mary to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In this Catholic reading of the text “the bells” are the “Sanctus” bells.  This is a kind of small handheld bell which is used to give thanks to the Lord. The “cockle shells” could be badges worn by pilgrims to a particular shrine. The “pretty maids,” in striking contradiction to the other interpretations are thought in this case to be nuns.


Interpretation Two

Another possible interpretation connects the rhyme to Mary, Queen of Scots who ruled Scotland from 1542 until 1567. Some have suggested that the second line, “how does your garden grow, is in reference to the lands she reigned over. The “silver bells” could be connected to cathedral bells, and the “cockle shells” to her unfaithful husband. Last, the “pretty maids all in a row” might be speaking about her ladies in waiting.


Interpretation Three

Another historical interpretation identifies Mary as Mary I of England who ruled from 1553 until 1558. In this case, the garden is said to refer to her heirs or lack thereof. Other phrases such as “quite contrary” could speak to her attempts to affect change unsuccessfully. The “pretty maids “could refer to her miscarriages.  Alternatively, the “silver bells” and “cockle shells” could refer to torture devices. It is important to remember that Mary I was named by history as “Bloody Mary”. 

While these are engaging interpretations, something important stands in the way of their verification. The fact that there is no proof that the poem was in circulation before the 18th century. As is the case with most of these 18th-century poems, a single interpretation of Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ will likely never be proven true.

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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.
  • Mary, Queen of Scots didn’t ‘rule’ over England. As the name suggests, she ruled over Scotland, while her cousin Elizabeth the First ruled in England. Elizabeth eventually executed Mary at Fotheringhay for her pretensions to the throne of England.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      How right you are! This has been amended. Thank you for pointing it out.

  • >

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