Sing a Song of Sixpence

Mother Goose

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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.

Sing a Song of Sixpence’ is a popular, well-loved nursery rhyme that originated in the 18th century like most English nursery rhymes. There are a few different variations of the poem. Some add stanzas, while others change words. For example, “snipped off” is sometimes replaced with “pecked off” or “nipped off.” Some verses are also added in order to change the song’s ending. One is: 

They sent for the king’s doctor,

who sewed it on again;

He sewed it on so neatly,

the seam was never seen

These alternate endings and changes to the text are quite common with nursery rhymes. They are often changed in order to make them more palatable for the time in which they were written and the purpose for which they’re being sung. 

Sing a Song of Sixpence
Mother Goose

Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye, Four and twenty blackbirds Baked in a pie. 

When the pie was opened The birds began to sing— Wasn't that a dainty dish To set before the king?

The king was in the counting-house Counting out his money, The queen was in the parlor Eating bread and honey, 

The maid was in the garden Hanging out the clothes. Along came a blackbird And snipped off her nose.
Sing a Song of Sixpence by Mother Goose

Meaning of Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a Song of Sixpence’ by Mother Goose has several different possible meanings. There is historical evidence that suggests the act of putting a live bird in a pie was something that really happened.

There are records of a recipe calling for that very thing from 1549. It was also referred to in another cookbook by John Nott in 1725. The bird was meant to remain alive and fly out when the pie was cut. Iona and Peter Opie’s The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes from 1951 acknowledges a variety of historical events that could be tied to the rhyme. The moon and sun could represent a queen and king, they say, the blackbirds the hours of the day or an allusion to monks. 

Unsurprisingly, the rhyme has also been connected to Henry VIII and his marriages Anne Boleyn is suggested to be the maid and Catherine of Aragon, the queen. There is no hard evidence for this theory. 

Origins of Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a Song of Sixpence’ has unclear origins. This is far from unusual for this kind of children’s song. Many nursery rhymes have somewhat mysterious beginnings, leading to all kinds of speculation in regards to what they’re about and who wrote them. These are only emphasized as the song undergoes lyrical changes over decades and centuries. 

Some believe the rhyme originated with George Steevens, who used it as a Punic 1790 while talking about Henry James Pye, the poet laureate at that time. But, as entertaining as this suggestion is, it had already been documented in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744. At that time, the song read: 

Sing a Song of Sixpence,

A bag full of Rye,

Four and twenty Naughty Boys,

Baked in a Pye

It underwent a few more changes over the following years, with the two boys replaced by birds. A version in 1784 has a magpie attaching the maid at the end. 

Structure, Form, and Literary Devices in Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a Song of Sixpence’ by Mother Goose is a four, five, or six stanza nursery rhyme that is made up of four-line stanzas, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB that is common within nursery rhymes. More often than not, children’s songs and poetry use a consistent rhyme scheme. This is more entertaining for the youthful listeners and singers while also making the poem/song easier to remember. 

This nursery rhyme uses several literary devices that also make it appealing. These include but are not limited to imagery, enjambment, and alliteration. The latter is a kind of repetition that’s concerned with the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, in stanza two, “dainty dish” and “blackbirds / Baked” in stanza one. This technique is only one way that a writer can increase the feeling of rhyme and rhythm in a poem. 

Enjambment is a formal device that is less important when a poem is memorized and sung out loud than when it is read off the page. It is concerned with the transition between lines and whether the line break occurs before concluding a sentence or phrase. For example, the transition between lines three and four of stanza one as well as lines one and two of stanza four. Imagery is one of the most important literary devices in songs and poems. Without it, readers would quickly become uninterested in what the speaker and poet have to say. The pie’s birds are the most memorable image in ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence,’ along with the king, queen, and the nose at the end. 

Analysis of Sing a Song of Sixpence

Stanzas One and Two

Sing a song of sixpence, 

A pocket full of rye, 

Four and twenty blackbirds 

Baked in a pie. 

When the pie was opened 

The birds began to sing— 

Wasn’t that a dainty dish 

To set before the king? 

In the first stanza of ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence,’ the speaker begins by using the line that is used as the title of the poem. It references sixpence, or a coin worth six pence that went out of public circulation in 1980 in England. The “pocket full of rye” in the second line leads into the “pie” in the fourth. In the third line, the speaker says “four and twenty blackbirds,” a slightly old fashioned way to say the number twenty-four. The first stanza informs the youthful reader or listener that someone baked twenty-four blackbirds into a pie, an outrageous and amusing image that should grab anyone’s attention. 

The second stanza desires the birds singing when the pie is cut open in front of a king. It was quite likely made for a special occasion, one suited for a king. Alliteration is used in this stanza to describe the dish as “dainty.” This suggests that it was just what the king wanted. 

Stanzas Three and Four

The king was in the counting-house 

Counting out his money, 

The queen was in the parlor 

Eating bread and honey, 

The maid was in the garden 

Hanging out the clothes. 

Along came a blackbird 

And snipped off her nose.

The following stanzas describe what happened after the meal. The king, queen, and maid were going about their business. The queen was eating, the maid working, and the king was in the “counting-house,” where he kept the royal accounts and funds. In what’s certainly a twist ending, the song concludes with one of the many blackbirds coming along and biting or snipping off the maid’s nose. 

Similar Nursery Rhymes

Readers who enjoyed ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ should also consider reading some other popular English nursery rhymes. For example, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,’ ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,‘ ‘Humpty Dumpty,‘ and Row, Row, Row, Your Boat.’ These are all quite well known with different possible origins and meanings. For example, ‘Itsy, Bitsy Spider’ is usually interpreted as an allegory about the working classes with the waterspout serving as a ladder to success that’s impossible to climb.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
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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