There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly’ is a funny children’s rhyme. It describes an old lady who swallows everything from a fly to a cat to a horse.

There are many variations of ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.’ But, the best-known and most commonly recited was written by Rose Bonne and Alan Mills in 1952. Bonne composed the lyrics and Mills, the music that’s usually used today. The rhyme appeared in Folk Songs, Dramatic and Humorous in 1953 and later in a 1961 picture book. Variations of the rhyme date back to December 1947, when three different versions were included in Hoosier Folklore.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly Nursery Rhyme


Summary

‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly’ is an amusing children’s nursery rhyme. It tells the story of an old lady who swallows animals.

The poem starts with the old lady swallowing a fly and then attempting to retrieve it by also swallowing a spider. This is only the beginning of her problems. Her life gets increasingly difficult as she swallows more animals. Eventually, she dies after trying to swallow a horse.

Structure and Form

‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is a cumulative nursery rhyme. This means that the song builds on itself from stanza to stanza. At first, the old lady swallows a fly. She adds a spider to “catch the fly” and a “bird to catch the spider.” This goes on, using a repeating pattern throughout the stanzas. There are, in total, fifty-six lines in this version of the rhyme. The stanzas grow as the poem progresses, eventually ending with an eleven-line stanza (before the concluding two-line stanza).

Literary Devices

There are several literary devices present in ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.’ These include but are not limited to:

  • Repetition: occurs whenever the poet repeats the same images, ideas, structures, words, phrases, etc., in a poem. In this case, the poet depends on repetition throughout.
  • Refrain: a type of repetition that occurs when the poet repeats the same line or lines. For example, “There was an old lady who swallowed.”
  • Hyperbole: the use of over-the-top descriptions that are usually exaggerations meant to make the reader laugh or smile. In this case, the poem is filled with them. For example, “There was an old lady who swallowed a goat. / Just opened her throat and swallowed a goat!”
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “wiggled and wiggled’ in line six and “swallowed” and “spider” in line seven.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-3

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.
I dunno why she swallowed that fly,
Perhaps she’ll die.

The first three lines of ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly’ begin with the title sentence. They also introduce the first animal the lady swallowed, setting up the cumulative style the nursery rhyme is written in. The final line, “Perhaps she’ll die,” is surprisingly morbid for a children’s song, especially as it is used as a refrain. It appears at the end of each stanza.

Lines 5-9

There was an old lady who swallowed a spider,
That wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly –
Perhaps she’ll die.

The second stanza follows the same pattern as the first. But, it adds in another creature. This time, the lady purposefully swallows a spider in order to catch the fly. This hyperbolic and nonsensical image is one that should charm and amuse young readers. The stanza ends as all the others do.

Lines 10-24

There was an old lady who swallowed a bird;
How absurd, to swallow a bird!
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
That wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly –
Perhaps she’ll die

There was an old lady who swallowed a cat.
Imagine that, she swallowed a cat.
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird …
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
That wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
Perhaps she’ll die

The next two stanzas do the same thing as the second. The lady swallows a bird and then a cat “to catch the bird.” These animals are piling up one on top of the other, and she can feel each wiggling and tickling her. It’s interesting to note the speaker’s repetition of “I dunno why she swallowed” in each stanza. She gives a reason to catch the previous animal, but it still doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Lines 25-43

There was an old lady who swallowed a dog.
What a hog! To swallow a dog!
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat…
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird …
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
That wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
Perhaps she’ll die.

There was an old lady who swallowed a goat.
Just opened her throat and swallowed a goat!
She swallowed the goat to catch the dog …
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat.
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird …
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
That wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
Perhaps she’ll die.

The following two stanzas introduce a dog and a goat. The animals are getting larger and more absurd. It’s harder to believe that anyone could eat one of these animals, much less swell them whole. The goat stanza includes the line “Just opened her throat and swelled a goat.” This is a great example of internal rhyme with “throat” and “goat.” This is a common feature of children’s poetry as usually, the more rhyming, the better.

Lines 44- 56

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow.
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!
She swallowed the cow to catch the goat…
She swallowed the goat to catch the dog…
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat…
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird …
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
That wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
Perhaps she’ll die.

There was an old lady who swallowed a horse –
She’s dead, of course.

The last stanzas bring in a cow and a horse. The final line rhymes “horse” and “course,” perfect end rhymes that create a couplet. The speaker has finally come to the conclusion that the old lady could never accomplish such a feat. It brings the rhyme to a solid ending that’s amusing and satisfying. This is certainly true after the seemingly endless repetition of “She swallowed the.”

FAQs

What is the meaning of ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly?’

The meaning is that sometimes asking for help, rather than trying to solve a problem yourself, is the best course of action. The lady’s attempts to solve her initial problem make it far worse.

What type of poem is ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly?’

It is a cumulative nursery rhyme. The lines build on top of one another until the final stanza has grown to include all of the animals. This is part of the song’s attraction.

What is the tone of ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly?’

The tone is amused and wonder-filled. The speaker is constantly entranced by the old lady’s attempts to get the fly, spider, bird, and so on out of her by adding other animals. Her attempts end up in failure, but they amuse the speaker throughout.

Who is the speaker of ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly?’

It’s unclear who the speaker of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly’ is supposed to be. But, they are obsessed with the old lady’s actions and are willing to go into detail to describe them. Without their narration, there would be no story.

What is the purpose of ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly?’

The purpose of this light-hearted poem is to entertain the reader. It acts as a kind of tongue twister that lends itself to memorization and recitation. Young readers should be amused by the content and the repetition.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly’ should also consider reading some related nursery rhymes. For example:

  • Foxy’s Hole’ – a popular nursery rhyme that originated in Tudor England. It talks about putting a finger in the fox’s hole to find if it’s there or not.
  • Hey, diddle diddle’ – a nonsense rhyme that describes a cow jumping over the moon and a dish running away with a spoon.
  • Humpty Dumpty’ – describes Humpty Dumpty and how he had a great fall.

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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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