One For Sorrow

‘One For Sorrow’ it’s an old English nursery rhyme that playfully interprets magpies (a type of bird) as signs of the future. 

The song is straightforward, using short (mostly three-word) lines. These lines only contain a few rhymes, but the fact that they also use a similar structure makes them feel more rhythmic. It is also interesting to note that in some versions of this song, and in some references to it, other birds are mentioned (such as crows and jackdaws). 

One For Sorrow 
Nursery Rhyme

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
One for Sorrow Nursery Rhyme


Origins of One For Sorrow

The children’s nursery rhymeOne For Sorrow’ was first recorded in Observations on Popular Antiquities from 1780. There is another well-known version from 1846. It reads: 

One for sorrow,

Two for mirth

Three for a funeral,

Four for birth

Five for heaven

Six for hell

Seven for the devil, his own self

But, the best-known version of this rhyme that is commonly song to this day was made famous by a children’s television show, Magpie, that ran from 1968 to 1980 in the United Kingdom. Scholars believe that older versions of the song fell out of everyday use due to the widespread knowledge of these specific lyrics. Below, readers can consider an analysis of the best-known version of the nursery rhyme. 

Meaning of One For Sorrow

‘One For Sorrow’ is commonly interpreted as a superstitious nursery rhyme about magpies and what they mean.

In other iterations, this song has been utilized in regard to crows or other birds associated with bad or good luck. The “one” or “two for” refers to how many birds one sees at a time. For example, if one sees “six” magpies, then they are going to come by wealth or “gold.” But, if one sees only a single magpie, then “sorrow” is to follow.

Structure and Form 

The most popular form of this poem is seven lines long. These lines are quite short, mostly only three words, or forwards, long. The seventh line of the song is the longest, stretching to eight words. The lines rhyme: ABCBDEE. 

Alternative versions are sometimes longer. There is a thirteen-line version that adds an additional six lines to the analysis below. The additional six lines read:

Eight for a wish,

Nine for a kiss,

Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss,

Eleven for health,

Twelve for wealth,

Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.

The poem follows the same short and long line pattern, but these additional phrases make the poem more interesting overall. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, there are several literary devices at work. For example:

  • Allusion: occurs when the poet references something that is outside the scope of the poem, least literally. When a reader encounters this poem, they are unlikely to be aware that the piece refers to birds (unless they have prior knowledge). Through a bit of research, it’s possible to gain all the necessary contacts to interpret the nursery rhyme. 
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Four for” in line four and “seven” and “secret” in line seven. 
  • Repetition: occurs when the poet repeats a specific element of a poem. This could be a word, image, structure, or more. In this case, the poet repeats the same structure as the note how many magpies there are and what they mean.


Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-3

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

In the first three lines of this nursery rhyme, the speaker mentions what one, two, and three magpies mean. If a person sees one magpie, they should interpret that as meaning that sorrow is on the horizon. Something bad is soon to happen to them. Two mean that something joyful is about to happen to them. Then, three means that if someone in their life is about to give birth, it’s going to be a girl.

Despite the fact that these three lines, and those which follow, do not all rhyme, they still maintain a very song-like quality. This is due to their very similar lengths and structures.

Lines 4-6 

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

The fourth, fifth, and sixth lines follow the same pattern as the previous three. This time, the speaker notes that if you see four magpies, then someone close to you is going to give birth to a boy. Five mean that you’re going to come into some “silver,” and six means “gold.”

For the most part, the symbolic magpies suggest that only good things are going to happen. Whether silver or gold, the acquisition of wealth is not something that the average person is going to run away from. The first line, which alludes to oncoming sorrow, is the darkest in this version of the poem. In other longer versions of ‘One For Sorrow,’ the speaker mentions the devil, hell, and death darkening the overall tone of the song considerably. 

Line 7 

Seven for a secret never to be told

The seventh line is the hardest to interpret of the entire song. Here, the speaker says that if you see seven magpies, they mean a “secret never to be told.” This could be something good, a secret between two people that’s only going to bring joy, or it could be something terrible. Perhaps the person who sees the magpie is about to learn something horrible about someone they know, something too dark to ever speak of again. 

FAQs 

What is the purpose of ‘One For Sorrow?’

It is a children’s nursery rhyme, meaning that it is meant to entertain above all else. It is also easy to see how this poem could turn into a singing game or lighthearted entertainment when one is out on a walk and looking for birds.

What is the meaning of ‘One For Sorrow?’ 

The most popular interpretation of the meaning is that the numbers refer to the number of magpies (or sometimes crows or jackdaws) that one sees flying or sitting in a tree. One suggests sorrow, while six suggest gold, etc. 

What is the origin of ‘One For Sorrow?’

This poem dates back to at least the 1700s in England. It is unclear where exactly it came from, as is the case with most old English nursery rhymes. But, the version of the lyrics that are most commonly sung today were utilized in a children’s television show called Magpie. 


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.
  • Monday’s Child’ – one of several well-loved fortune-telling poems. It was first recorded in A.E. Bray’s Traditions of Devonshire published in 1838.
  • Pop Goes the Weasel’ – is a popular English rhyme that has transformed in meaning and context over the centuries since it first appeared as a dance.
  • 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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