Thursday, 16 August 2012

Speaking in Rhymes: Penny Dolan

“When were you first interested in history?” is a question often asked of History Girls, so I’ve been thinking about my own interest and some of the places it came from. 

On reflection, my answer would be that History came riding in on the back of words and poems and rhymes, all bringing questions and objects from the past that needed explaining.

What were curds and whey and would I like them?

 Why did that pair go to fetch a pail of water when we had a tap?

Could I entice the King of Spain’s daughter with a silver nutmeg and a golden pear, assuming I had a tree that was better than the overgrown lilac in our tiny garden? 

Could you actually have blackbirds in a pie?
Why did the words "gunpowder, treason and plot" sound so deliciously rebellious and doom-laden?

And why did fat and fair Bobby wear silver buckles on his knee? And what about those rings on her fingers and bells on her toes? Nobody I saw ever dressed so grandly, or rode on such fine horses. It was bikes, buses and the occasional motor-car.

The rhymes read like codes, offering glimpses of life in the past. Those pretty lines didn’t stop the feeling that many carried sadness and cruelty in their pockets.

I was quietly sad about poor Piggy on the railroad picking up stones. and although I went along with dipping our heads in the deep blue sea, I knew that big ship sailing on the alley-alley-o met some kind of tragedy.

The love of such rhymes came years before I learned about the Opies and their collections and commentaries of traditional rhymes, or found the lamented Sendak’s clever illustrations for “I Saw Esau.”

That rag-bag of past time grew with my discovery of a Book of Story Poems, dressed in a faded green Everyman binding, and full of exploits that took place in historical or legendary settings. 

I met gude Sir Patrick Spens, wi’ the Scots Lords at his feet. 

I heard the bells ringing out the Brides of Enderby as the seething wave swept in from the Lincolnshire coast. 

I wept for mad Cuchulain warring against the tide, for the Forsaken Mermaid and for the Lady of Shalott singing her last song, as she drifted towards Camelot. 

 Many of the poems I found in that book, and in other collections at that time, looked backwards rather than forwards. Anthologies now seem different: glancing through some contemporary children’s anthologies, I note that few now have that strong sense of the sea and a maritime nation. Did that go, along with the ports and the docks? Let alone the horses that "the gentlemen" no longer ride by at night?

I know the poems loved back then were romantic, legendary stuff and not strictly proper history, yet those rhymes and ballads and verses held enough glamour to make the past a living breathing presence for me and create a living sense of time gone by.

Soon enough, life brought along proper stories and novels and non-fiction books and school history lessons along with films and tv programmes and museums, but when I look back,  poetry and word of mouth were where I met History first.

Penny Dolan
These two images come from Jackie Morris’s truly wonderful collection of nursery rhymes “ The Cat and the Fiddle” published by Frances Lincoln.


Sue Purkiss said...

This is interesting, penny - I'd never thought of nursery rhymes etc in connection with history, but it's true - the illustrations always showed people in historical costume, usually Victorian, Tudor or mediaeval - so I suppose the awareness of history was seeping in!

Pippa Goodhart said...

I was delighted to discover that they really DID put live blackbirds - and frogs and parrots - into pie cases to be cut open on grand occassions in the seventeenth century. It was quite a fashion, apparently, bringing amusement (and mess!) to feasts. I found this out when researching midget Jeffry Hudson who, aged 7, was put in a pie that was presented to new Queen Henrietta (aged just 15). She was so taken with little Jeffrey that she adopted him. He was with her through good times and bad, appearing in masques in the pocket of a giant, and leading troops in battle during the Civil War. He fled with the Queen to France, killed a man in a dual, was captured by pirates, and more .... but it all started with that pie.

Joan Lennon said...

"The rhymes read like codes, offering glimpses of life in the past. Those pretty lines didn’t stop the feeling that many carried sadness and cruelty in their pockets."

Evocatively put - this is a fascinating post - thanks!

Penny Dolan said...

What an amazing story, Pippa! Did not dare even begin on the many meanings of the rhymes - eg was ring-aroses about the plague or not? - but little Jeffrey's story must be one of the best. And comforting to hear that a young and possibly lonely queen could take someone from such an - er - unusual beginning as a friend.

Yes, Sue, the rhymes do draw pictures in the mind, don't they? As well as all the old fashioned illustrations. Glad you liked the post too, Joan.

Ann Turnbull said...

What an interesting and thoughtful post. It's true, those rhymes did give a real sense of the past. (But who were the Brides of Enderby? Must find out.)

And did anyone else see the Jimmy McGovern play the other night in which transvestite teacher Sean Bean was reading The Lady of Shalott to a class of bored teenagers?