Ring a Ring o’ Roses

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What is a Nursery Rhyme?

A nursery rhyme is a short rhyming song or poem that conveys a lesson or tells an amusing story. They are aimed at children.

A nursery rhyme, like ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses,’ is a traditional poem or song for children. Many originated in Britain, but many of the rhymes families sing today came from all over the world. Oftentimes, the name “Mother Goose rhymes” is used instead of simply, “nursery rhymes”. The first English collection was Tommy Thumb’s Song Book, followed by Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, both of which were published in 1744. At one point it was thought that the latter existed in only one print copy across the entire world. More often than not, the songs were sung with different tunes than those popular today. These have evolved over time, along with the lyrics. This is the case with ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses.’

Ring a Ring o' Roses
Nursery Rhyme

Ring-a-round the rosie,A pocket full of posies,Ashes! Ashes!We all fall down
Ring a Ring o' Roses nursery rhyme


Introduction to Ring a Ring o’ Roses

Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ is reported to have first been sung, with the tune known to modern lovers of nursery rhymes, around the 1790s. The first time it appeared in print was 1881. Aside from these few details, it is not clear what the earliest version of the song is, or where it actually began. 

Printings and Lyrical Differences

There is a reference to a game called “ring o’ roses” in an 1846 article. In this game, a group of children former ring and a boy in the ring chooses a girl to kiss. 

The first known printed version of ‘Ring a Ring o’Roses’ was in the 1855 book The Old Homestead by Ann S. Stephens. It makes use of alternative lyrics to those which are commonly used today.

A ring – a ring of roses,

Laps full of posies;

Awake – awake!

Now come and make

A ring – a ring of roses

Around the same time, another book prints a shorter three-line version: 

Ring around a rosy

Pocket full of posies.

One, two, three—squat!

A number of other iterations of the song and game appeared throughout the late 1880s. By some estimates, there are at least 12 different lyrical variations.

Analysis of Ring a Ring o’ Roses

The most common American version of the song is : 

Ring-a-round the rosie,

A pocket full of posies,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down

One of the most common British versions of the song is 

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,

A pocket full of posies,

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down

Both versions of ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ make use of some of the most common techniques seen in poetry and across popular nursery rhymes of the 1800s. In the first line of both versions, three of the five words begin with “r”. This is a technique is known as alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. 

The second line also makes use of this same technique this time repeating words beginning with “p”. 

Whether the line reads “A-tishoo!” Or “Ashes!” The repletion in the third line is characteristic of nursery rhymes. Take ‘Baa, Baa Black Sheep’ as another example. 

Finally, in the last line, the word all and fall rhyme. The use of an internal rhyme in this line contributes to the overall rhythm of the poem.

Interpretations of Ring a Ring o’ Roses

This nursery rhyme has been interpreted in a number of vastly different ways. Some speculate the origin comes from Paganism. And that it is a reference to Pagan myths to do with the goddess Freya. Another interpretation states that the song is meant much more literally. The children are supposed to be dancing in a ring around some roses, and all fall down into a curtsey. 

 One of the most popular interpretations is that the rhyme is associated with The Great Plague which started in England in 1665. It is also usually associated with the larger epidemic of the Black Death. Some people have speculated that the “ring around the rosie” as a reference to a red circular rash that occurs on the skins of some of those who contracted the plague. The “posie,” in this interpretation represents one of a variety of flowers carried by those who had yet to contract the disease.  People carried and wore these flowers to try to ward off the illness. The ending of the poem with the reference to “ashes “and “falling down” becomes quite dark. It speaks to death and the burning of plague-ridden bodies.

Today, scholars are uncertain about this interpretation. While there is some evidence to suggest that the rhyme was around during that time period, many believe the lyrics would’ve been quite different.

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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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