THE ROLE OF CATS IN NURSERY RHYMES
Copyright 2004-2014, Sarah Hartwell
This article looks at common nursery rhymes (USA: Mother Goose Rhymes) that involve cats. Some are comments on feline behaviour and others are not really about cats at all, but contain veiled references to people or events. Each age reinterprets traditional rhymes, some going as far as to rewrite, censor or satirise the rhymes.
At their most basic level, nursery rhymes help teach language skills to children. Rhythm makes words more memorable - many of us get songs irritatingly stuck in our minds. They teach sound families (e.g. cat, sat, mat) and other vocabulary. They can be sung, recited or acted out with other people to help develop interactive and social skills. They use onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds e.g. splash, tick-tock), alliteration (words that start with the same letter or sound), similes and basic story structure to help language development and fuel children's imaginations. While children derive innocent enjoyment and linguistic enrichment for the rhymes, many adults look for deeper meanings in apparently innocent childhood rhymes.
TRENDS IN INTERPRETING NURSERY RHYMES
Many nursery rhymes are considered to have "hidden" meanings, to commemorate events, to be teaching songs or to parody royalty. Some do commemorate real events or real people, or comment on everyday life, but others have gained entirely fictitious meanings. "Ring-a-ring of roses" (known in the USA as "Ring around the rosie") is said to be about the Black Death (1300s Europe). The rhyme wasn't documented until the 1880s, so if it was about bubonic plague, it referred to the outbreak during the 1660s. Urban legends sites therefore debunk the "Black Death" meaning, but miss the later plague connection. Many nursery rhymes originated during the 1600s and 1700s, though the late appearance of the rhyme in print suggests it was a variation of a ring-dance nonsense chant (but even then it might have alluded to illness!). Similarly, "Sing a Song of Sixpence" is claimed to be a pirate recruiting used by Blackbeard. This "hidden meaning" is a joke created in the late 20th meaning by an Urban legends debunking site.
It is not too hard to retro-fit your own meaning to a common rhyme. It is currently very much in vogue to assign steamy meanings to nursery rhymes, for example "Jack and Jill" is apparently an allusion to pre-marital sex in spite of describing how to treat broken bones (by making a papier mache cast from brown paper). In true Freudian manner, almost any object mentioned in a nursery rhyme can be interpreted as sexual symbols. Our 20th and 21st Century preoccupation with sex leads us to reinterpret, or rather to psychoanalyse, traditional rhymes. While some rhymes are the worn down remnants of folksongs, mummers' plays and adult material, anyone with a sufficiently smutty mind will be able to read sexual connotations into rhymes whether or not any such meaning was intended by its original author(s). Many rhymes with obvious adult content were rewritten into their modern innocent forms by the Victorians (during the mid-late 1800s) to make them more suitable for children.
As an alternative to seeking often non-existent political or sexual connotations in nursery rhymes, some rhymes have been reinterpreted to give them a Christian twist. Instead of retro-fitting sexual symbolism to a rhyme, Christian symbolism is read into it (much like the recent Christian reinterpretation of "Twelve Days of Christmas"). The Christian interpretations turn nursery rhymes into moral lessons or inspirational rhymes. There are also allegedly allusions to witchcraft and the pagan religion in some nursery rhymes. Another recent trend is to create "politically correct" nursery rhymes that contain no sexist, racist or any-other-ist connotations. Political correctness started out as satire and spawned humour books revisionist nursery rhymes and bedtime stories. It has since become something more sinister with "baa baa black sheep" being cited as racially offensive and the "three little pigs" story being labelled culturally offensive due to pigs being unclean.
There are numerous nursery rhymes about cats and various historical explanations and interpretations are championed by different authorities, some more tenuous than others. In some cases, authors with special interests have noted similarities between their discipline and a nursery rhyme and therefore concluded that the rhyme therefore relates to that discipline. The similarities may be coincidental, making the interpretation an example of an individual promoting a hidden agenda. Bear the above in mind when reading the "interpretations" offered here for some popular feline-themed nursery rhymes.
THE CAT'S IN THE CUPBOARD
Great A, little a, bouncing B,
The Cat's in the cupboard, and she can't see.
This of course is a play on the first letters of the alphabet, with alliteration for cat, cupboard and "C" (rendered "see" in the verse). This illustrates the use of nursery rhymes in teaching language and letter skills to young children.
THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE
Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon!
Over the years, several meaning have attached themselves to this rhyme. "Cat and the fiddle" is sometimes claimed to be a nonsense rhyme based on a corruption of "catus fideles", referring to a faithful cat. Another interpretation is that it refers to the animals and implements owned by a poor household - a cat to keep away mice, a dog to protect the home, a cow to provide milk, a dish and spoon to eat with and a fiddle for making music.
A more elaborate interpretation claims the rhyme to be derived from Egyptian mythology or artwork. The fiddle is not a fiddle at all, but an Egyptian instrument called a sistrum. A drawing of a sistrum does resemble a fiddle standing on its neck. The cat, dog and cow are, respectively, the Egyptian gods Bast, Anubis and Hathor although whoever created the rhyme may not have realised the animal-headed figures depicted in Egyptian art represented deities. The dish and spoon are ritual implements, just as the sistrum was used at religious ceremonies. Bast was a local deity associated with Bubastis and many depictions show her holding a sistrum. To those not versed in Egyptology, this could indeed have resembled a cat holding a fiddle. Hathor was most often depicted carrying the sun disk between her horns and this might have been misidentified as the moon.
Other variations of the verse have a slightly different second section. The dog may be laughing at fun, sport or craft. "Craft" has sometimes been interpreted as meaning witchcraft and the cat and dog as the witch's familiars. The following is a play on the sounds of laughed, craft and after:
"The little dog laug'd,
To see such craft,
While the dish ran after the spoon"
The first known publication date of Hey Diddle Diddle (originally called High Diddle Diddle) is 1765. The colloquial phrase "hey diddle diddle" is used in traditional songs in the same way as "hey nonny no". The most likely explanation is a nonsense rhyme about impossible and amusing actions that appeal to a child's imagination. A similar nonsense verse (below), albeit without a fiddle has a similar mix of rhythmic nonsense phrases and improbable images. It conjures up a picture of amusing chaos in the household.
Higglety, pigglety, pop!
The dog has eaten the mop;
The pig's in a hurry,
The cat's in a flurry
Higglety, pigglety, pop!
Though Hey Diddle Diddle is a nonsense verse with no historical meaning, this hasn't stopped it attracting some royal explanations. For example, in Elizabethan times it was the custom to give those in the royal court nicknames based on their personalities. Elizabeth I was known as “The Cat” from the way she "fiddled" with her Cabinet ministers as if they were mice. The cow, moon and her “lap-dog” were likewise characters in these court charades. The "dish" was Elizabeth’s serving lady and the "spoon" the royal taster. When the dish and spoon secretly eloped, Elizabeth had them captured and confined to the Tower of London.
If you aren't convinced by the Elizabeth story (and you'd be right to be unconvinced, since "High Diddle Diddle" appeared around 200 years later) how about another royal tale? Alternatively you can interpret it as Richard III's path to the throne of England; "diddle diddle" being the way he got rid of Edward V; the "cat and the fiddle" being William Catesby and the pre-contract; the jumping cow referring to the Nevilles (whose emblem was a cow) while "over the moon" meant the Nevilles (the cow) eclipsed the Percys, whose emblem was a moon. The little dog laughing was Viscount Lovel, Richard's best friend, whose emblem was a dog. The running dish was Richard himself while the spoon was the anointing spoon at his coronation. Other explanations claim the cat to be either Catherine of Aragon or Catherine the Great. What a lot of royal nonsense attaches itself to a simple nonsense rhyme!
An April Fool joke suggess that Hey Diddle Diddle is a cryptic prophecy relating to the new millennium (year 2000/2001). The new millennium has arrived without major global catastrophe, but here is the Nostrodamus-style interpretation of the rhyme - if nothing else, it proves that if you try hard enough you can read almost anything into nonsense verse! "Diddle" means "swindle" and hence refers to a time of money-laundering and fraud; cybercrime was on the rise throughout the 1990s.
The "cat" meant the lion; symbol of the British empire. Cats are associated with women so it meant a time when Britain had a queen i.e. the reigning monarch Elizabeth II. Royal scandals means she must to do some dramatic "fiddling" to save the monarchy (which many believe to be an anachronism). The fiddling also suggests Nero fiddling while Rome burned. In modern times, Rome means the Pope/Catholicism. The British monarch is head of the British protestant church; marriage of a British heir to a Catholic would be a constitutional crisis. However, this would conflict with anti-discrimination laws so the Queen would have to do some major fiddling to keep both sides happy.
"The cow jumped over the moon" simply refers to the outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain. Lunacy was once believed to be moon-madness ("lunar" means something related to the moon). Alternatively, the cow is a religious reference e.g. sacred cow or the important reference is "moon" indicating events related to the moon, or to the space programme. This is borne out by the laughing little dog: the star Sirius or even the Mars "Rover" project. The true rhyme is "the little dog laughed to see such craft" meaning that space "craft" will continue to be "dogged by failure". This has already come true with a space shuttle disaster and the loss of Beagle II. The "dish" would therefore be a radio telescope dish. The dish might also mean plate tectonics and hence refer to a major earthquake; these are accompanied by tidal waves (tides otherwise being under the control of the moon). The "spoon" would mean spoon-benders, meaning psychics with psychokinetic abilities, a manifestation of which is the ability to bend cutlery. The field of psychic ability is drawing serious research.
There are also various joke versions of Hey Diddle Diddle, for example the following verse. It is through joke versions and mis-heard versions that nursery rhymes evolved into numerous variants. Printed form has made many rhymes almost static in modern times - once written down, they are virtually fossilised! Luckily word-of-mouth in the school playground continues to create and perpetuate variations on a rhyme.
Hey diddle diddle, the cat did a piddle
All over the bedside clock.
The little dog laughed to see such fun
When the cat died of electric shock.
Perhaps the association of cats and fiddles is due to the sound made when someone plays a violin badly, something my mother calls "sounds like someone's strangling a cat". Another nursery rhyme about cats and fiddles:
A cat came fiddling out of a barn,
With a pair of bag-pipes under her arm;
She could sing nothing but fiddle cum fee,
The mouse has married the humble-bee;
Pipe, cat, - dance, mouse,
We'll have a wedding at our good house.
In another variant of the cat's wedding, this time from a Scottish source, the bumble-bee ends up married to both a cat and a fly.
The cat has married the bumble-bee!
They went to the Church, and married was he,
The fly has married the bumble-bee!
It is this latter rhyme, now less common than Hey Diddle Diddle, that is believed to be the inspiration of Cat-and-Fiddle pub signs; perhaps advertising that music could be found or made on the premises. Below is yet another cat-and-fiddle rhyme, but this time it's not the cat playing the instrument.
The cat sat asleep by the side of the fire,
The mistress snored loud as a pig;
Jack took up his fiddle by Jenny's desire,
And struck up a bit of a jig.
The follow is less obviously a cat-and-fiddle rhyme and forms part of the "Froggy Goes A-Courting" family of folksongs. A "crowd" is an old British three-stringed fiddle with no neck. "Heigho crowdie", a common refrain, is a call to strike up this fiddle, usually for dancing or a chorus. "Crowdy" therefore means revelry, where even the cat is making music. Perhaps again it alludes to the sound of a badly played instrument.
Come dance a jig to my granny's pig,
With a rowdy, howdy, dowdy.
Come dance a jig to my granny's pig
And pussy cat shall crowdy.
Sometimes the fiddle is replaced by some other instrument. In the following rhyme, a banjo has been substituted in place of the fiddle. The rhyme brings to mind cats serenading each other, but fortunately a more tuneful instrument (this being a matter of opinion of course!) replaces the tomcat's yowling.
The cats went out to serenade
And on a banjo sweetly played;
And summer nights they climbed a tree
And sang, "My love, oh, come to me!"
CATS IN THE CREAM POT
Hogs in the garden, catch 'em, Towser;
Cows in the corn-field, run boys, run,
Cats in the cream-pot, run girls, run girls;
Fire on the mountains, run boys, run.
This is another rhyme that, like the Higglety Pigglety Pop variant earlier, conjures up images of domestic chaos - escaped pigs being rounded up by the dog, escaped cattle being rounded up by the boys, a cat raiding the kitchen and being shoo-ed out by the girls and finally a bush-fire, which the boys are presumably running to extinguish.
THE CAT AND THE PLUM TREE
Diddle-ti diddle-ti dumpty
The cat's stuck up the plum tree
Half a crown to fetch her down
Diddle-ti diddle-ti dumpty
Diddley, Diddley, Dumpty,
The cat ran up the plum tree.
I'll wager a crown I'll fetch you down,
Sing, Diddledy, Diddledy, Dumpty.
These two versions of the rhyme describe a situation familiar to many cat owners. Cats are very good at climbing trees, but are less good at getting down again. This is because their claws provide ample grip when climbing upwards, but face the wrong direction when descending (hence many cats climb backwards down trees). Unlike the Margay, domestic cats cannot rotate their ankles to get a better grip. In the first version of the verse, the owner is presumably offering someone a half-crown to retrieve the cat from the plum tree. In the second version, the owner is betting that the cat will not get down unaided. The amount offered to bring (fetch) the cat down varies from "half a crown to bring her down" to a whole crown: "I'll give you a crown to bring her down" or "Here's a crown to fetch her down". For those who disapprove of gambling there is another variation.
Diddlety diddlety dumpty,
The cat ran up the plum tree,
Give her a plum, and down she'll come,
Diddlety diddlety dumpty
Of course, cats don't eat plums, but there is another nursery rhyme relating to plums i.e. "Little Jack Horner" who pulled a plum from his pie. In the case of Jack Horner, the "plum" was a written deed hidden in the pie in order to smuggle it from one person to another.
Another nursery rhyme about cats stuck in trees is given below. This time, the frustrated owner is apparently threatening the cat with a knock on the head followed by drowning. There are also claims that it alludes to Charles II's escape from the Roundheads in 1651 when he hid in an oak tree following the Battle of Worcester. Kings are often associated with lions (a big cat) and the verse contains a reference to "crack your crown" and perhaps forcing the captured king into exile overseas.
Feedum, fiddledum fee,
The cat's got into the tree.
Pussy, come down,
Or I'll crack your crown,
And toss you into the sea.
THE CAT AND THE PUDDING STRING
Sing, sing, what shall I sing?
The cat's run away with the pudding string,
Do, do, what shall I do?
The cat's run away with the pudding too.
Sing, sing, what shall I sing?
Cat's run away with the pudding-string!
Do, do, what shall I do?
The cat has bitten it quite in two.
Sing sing, what shall I sing?
The cat has eat[en] the pudding-string!
Do, do, what shall I do?
The cat has bit[ten] it quite in two.
In this day of convenience foods and microwave or canned puddings, it is easy to forget how steamed or boiled puddings used to be made. In many cases, a ball of raw pudding mix went into a muslin square and the muslin was gathered up and tied shut. The result was a spherical pudding. The alternative was to steam the pudding in a pudding basin with a foil lid tied on with string. In either case, the trailing string would have been irresistible to a playful cat. A cat that dragged the pudding string away might well have found the pudding still attached, much to cook's dismay! An alternative version has the cat biting the pudding string in half. The third variation is even more nonsensical as it has the cat biting the string in two after eating it.
PUSSY-CAT AND THE DUMPLINGS
Following on naturally from cats and puddings we have cats and dumplings.
Pussy-cat ate the dumplings, the dumplings,
Pussy-cat ate the dumplings.
Mamma stood by, and cried, "Oh, fie!
Why did you eat the dumplings?"
I have also heard this rendered "Pussy-cat ate the ducklings" which would put it in the same category as other cat-and-bird rhymes used to teach children of the relationship between hunters and prey.
THE CAT IN THE WELL
Ding, dong, bell, pussy's in the well.
Who put her in? Little Tommy Thin,
Who pulled her out? Little Tommy Stout,
What a naughty boy was that,
To [try to] drown poor Pussy Cat.
[Who never did him any harm,
But killed the mice in his father's barn!]
Ding, dong, bell, pussy's in the well!
Who put her in? Little Tommy Lin.
Who pulled her out? Dog with long snout.
What a naughty boy was that
To drown poor pussy-cat,
Who never did any harm,
But kill'd the mice in his father's barn.
The bracketed words "try to" cater for the different outcomes in different versions of the verse. In some renditions the cat is drowned, in others the cat is rescued alive by Tommy Stout (also called Tommy Trout) after Tommy Thin (also known as Tommy Lin or Tommy Green) tried to drown it in the well. In older alternate versions the cat is retrieved by a dog. The "ding dong bell" (also rendered ding, dong, dell) can be interpreted as either a nonsense line or a funeral bell for the drowned cat. The optional justification for rescuing the cat is that it is a good mouser. Until quite recently it was accepted practice to drown surplus kittens and even adult cats.
THE CAT AND THE QUEEN
Pussy-cat, Pussy-cat where have you been?
I've been to London to look at the Queen.
Pussy-cat, Pussy-cat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under a [her] chair.
One explanation of the origins of this rhyme goes back to 16th century England. One of the staff of Queen Elizabeth I (Good Queen Bess) was said to have had an old cat which tended to roam throughout one of the royal residences. On one occasion the cat apparently went underneath the throne (the "chair") and its tail brushed against the Queen's foot, startling her. Luckily Queen Elizabeth was amused and declared that the cat could wander through the throne room as long as it kept it free of mice!
Another suggested meaning of this relates to the poor hygiene of a different queen and is perhaps a cautionary tale about hygiene in general. Undergarments were uncommon among poorer women before the nineteenth century and dust, ash and general grime accumulated on the genitalia just as it did elsewhere on the body. Bathing was uncommon (indeed it was considered positively unhealthy) and while the hands and face would be washed, other parts were often overlooked for weeks or months, particularly those parts that would incite lustful thoughts if touched. One result of this was the accumulation of grime, cellular debris, menstrual discharge and natural secretions in the vaginal cleft. Quite substantial amounts could accumulate until their size and weight caused them to fall out while the lady was walking or when she rose from her chair. These accumulations were called sootikins and resembled small mice in colour and shape.
Accounts written by Pepys and Boswell, mention men employed in London churches to sweep up sootikins after services. There is a scurrilous anonymous account of a sootikin being allegedly found under Queen Anne's chair in St Paul's Cathedral in London during the Thanksgiving Service for the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. The nursery rhyme contains all of these ingredients - London, a queen, a chair and a "mouse" underneath the chair. In addition, the word "pussy" is both an affectionate term for a cat and a slang term for female genitalia. In addition to the "pussy" and "mouse" meanings, "queen" is a term for a female cat and female cats are notoriously promiscuous. This has led to alternative suggestions that the rhyme may alludes to promiscuity or prostitution.
A Scottish dialect version has the cat catching a mouse on the stair and putting it in his lunch sack to eat later on. Those who hold to the Elizabethan meaning of the English version, might feel that the Scots version refers to the problems between Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. Perhaps the Scottish puss was Mary and the fat mouse was Elizabeth. Until her execution, Mary remained a focal point for Catholic conspiracies against the Protestant Elizabeth.
Poussie, poussie, baudrons, where hae ye been?
I've been to London, seeing the Queen.
Poussie, poussie, baudrons, what got ye there?
I got a guid fat mousikie, rinning up a stair.
Poussie, poussie, baudrons, what did ye do wi't?
I put it in my meal-poke, to eat it to my bread.
Another rhyme that mentions Queen Anne is this one. It was also used as counting song: “Four cats sat ... Five cats sat..” etc “Coal-dust” was sung in a highly elaborate manner, before others joined in the chorus.
Three cats sat by the fire-side,
In a basket full of coal-dust.
One cat said to the other in fun,
Pell mell “Queen Anne’s dead.”
“Is she?” said Grimalkin,
“Then I’ll reign queen in her stead!”
Then up, up, up, they flew up the chimney.
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives;
Every wife had seven sacks;
Every sack had seven cats;
Every cat had seven kits.
its, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?
Of course, this is a riddle as well as a nursery rhyme. The accepted answer is that only one person was going to St Ives (a place in Cornwall). The party comprising man, wives, cats and kittens were coming away from St Ives. Some might argue that the all parties were travelling towards St Ives and the lone traveller overtook the more heavily encumbered party, in which case the seven times table and some simple addition will provide the answer.
THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT
Although the first four lines of this rhyme are often used as a nursery rhyme in their own right, this is one of many nonsense poems by Edward Lear. A runcible spoon is probably a kind of fork with three broad prongs or tines, one having a sharp edge, curved like a spoon, used with pickles, etc. Interestingly, two-pronged "runcible spoons" were once sold as party cutlery - I've used them and they are very handy at buffets and barbecues where tables are not provided!
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat.
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
'0 lovely Pussy! 0 Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!'
Pussy said to Owl, 'You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
0 let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?'
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows,
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
'Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?' Said the Piggy, 'I will.'
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand. on the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
THE OWL AND THE PANTHER
I passed by his garden, and marked with one eye,
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie:
The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy, and meat,
While the Owl had the dish as its share of the treat.
When the pie was all finished, the Owl, as a boon,
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon:
While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl
And concluded the banquet by [eating the owl]
A nonsense verse (again cats and cutlery!) by Lewis Carroll. Carroll omits the bracketed words - they are left for the reader (or child) to gleefully fill in.
THE KILKENNY CATS
There were once two cats of Kilkenny.
Each thought there was one cat too many;
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails,
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there weren't any.
During the rebellion of Ireland, Kilkenny was garrisoned by a troop of Hessian soldiers, who amused themselves in barracks by the cruel sport of tying two cats together by their tails and throwing them across a clothes-line to fight, betting on the outcome. The officers heard of the cruel practice and apparently resolved to put a stop to it, but he had to catch the soldiers in the act. As the officer approached, a vigilant soldier saw him and cut off the cats' tails with a sword. The cats escaped, leaving only their tails behind. When the officer asked what was the meaning of the two bleeding tails, he was told that two cats had been fighting and had devoured each other except for their the tails.
An alternative to the Hessian soldier explanation, and more plausible, is that it is rooted in the fighting between two Irish towns and describes a war of attrition where, despite bitter fighting, neither party gains from the conflict. During the 17th Century, the municipalities of Kilkenny and Irishtown contested their boundaries and rights so hotly that that they mutually impoverished each other, leaving little else than "two tails" behind
I LIKE LITTLE PUSSY
I like little Pussy, her coat is so warm,
And if I don't hurt her she'll do me no harm,
So I'll not pull her tail, nor drive her away,
But Pussy and I very gently will play.
The most obvious explanation is a teaching rhyme to remind children to play gently with animals in order not to be scratched or bitten. Of late, this verse has taken on a secondary meaning alluding to sex, where "pussy" takes on its secondary meaning of female genitalia.
Hey, my kitten, my kitten,
And hey my kitten my dearie,
Such a sweet pet as this
Was neither far nor neary.
An alternative view of our relationship with cats is given in the following rhyme. When life is easy, the kittens are treated as living toys, but in times of crisis they may become food. During wars and sieges, pet keeping was a luxury that most people could not afford due to food shortages. Pets, strays and wild cats and dogs end up in cooking pots when more usual food sources have been exhausted - this is the logical, but unspoken, step between eating livestock and eating rats. The rhyme cautions against becoming over-attached to a pet, because it may become necessary to eat that pet later on.
Oh kittens, in our hours of ease
Uncertain toys and full of fleas,
When pain and anguish hang o’er men,
We turn you into sausage then.
RIDE AWAY JOHNNY
Ride away, ride away, Johnny shall ride,
And he shall have pussy-cat tied to one side;
And he shall have little dog tied to the other,
And Johnny shall ride to see his grandmother.
Although this could no doubt be interpreted as political or royal allegory, it seems to describe a little boy playing on a hobby horse or rocking horse and drafting his pets into the game. Many cats have suffered the indignities of being dressed in doll's bonnets as substitutes playmates in nursery games.
PUSSY-CAT MEW or PUSSY CAT MOLE
Pussy-cat Mew jumped over a coal,
And in her best petticoat burnt a great hole.
Poor Pussy's weeping, she'll have no more milk
Until her best petticoat's mended with silk.
Pussy-cat Mole jumped over a coal,
And in her best petticoat burnt a great hole.
Poor Pussy's weeping, she'll have no more milk
Until her best petticoat's mended with silk.
Perhaps a reminder to a child to take care not to rip her best clothing and be punished as a consequence. A much longer child's verse about damaging clothing is given in "Three Little Kittens".
THREE LITTLE KITTENS
Three little kittens they lost their mittens, and they began to cry,
"Oh mother dear, we sadly fear that we have lost our mittens."
"What! Lost your mittens, you naughty kittens!
Then you shall have no pie."
"Meeow, meeow, meeow, now we shall have no pie."
The three little kittens they found their mittens,
And they began to cry,
"Oh mother dear, see here, see here
For we have found our mittens."
"Put on your mittens, you silly kittens
And you shall have some pie"
"Meeow, meeow, meeow, now let us have some pie."
The three little kittens put on their mittens
And soon ate up the pie,
"Oh mother dear, we greatly fear
That we have soiled our mittens."
"What! soiled you mittens, you naughty kittens!"
Then they began to cry,
"Meeow, meeow, meeow" then they began to sigh.
The three little kittens they washed their mittens
And hung them out to dry,
"Oh mother dear, do you not hear
That we have washed our mittens."
"What! washed your mittens, you are good kittens."
But I smell a rat close by,
"Meeow, meeow, meeow" we smell a rat close by...
This is a much longer cautionary tale about children losing, damaging or soiling their clothing. The rhyme takes the form of a conversation between a mother and her children. The kittens are chastised for losing their mittens and rewarded with pie for finding them later on. The crafty kittens then soil their mittens, again annoying mother, and they have to wash them to get back in her good books. The "meeow, meeow, meeow" sounds like kittens crying - whether in sadness, or because they have had the equally traditional smack is left unsaid.
However, it seems that the kittens may have deliberately soiled their mittens in the hope of getting another reward for washing them. Their wise mother sees through their childish deception and "smells a rat" (is suspicious). Instead of getting another pie, the kittens once again end up crying - very likely through being punished for telling lies. So the Three Little Kittens not only tells children to take good care of their belongings, it also tells them not to try to profit from dishonesty. It is also suggested it refers to the 19th Century "Kit-Cat Club" with Congreve, Vanburgh et al; Kit being the sort form of "Christopher" referring to Christopher Cat the pie-maker (The Kit-Kat Club, by Ophelia Field, Harper Collins).
TWO LITTLE KITTENS
Two little kittens, one stormy night,
Begun to quarrel, and then to fight;
One had a mouse, the other had none,
And that's the way the quarrel begun.
"I'll have that mouse," said the biggest cat;
"You'll have that mouse? We'll see about that!"
"I will have that mouse," said the eldest son;
"You shan't have the mouse," said the little one.
I told you before 'twas a stormy night;
When these two little kittens began to fight;
The old woman seized her sweeping broom,
And swept the kittens right out of the room.
The ground was covered with frost and snow,
And the two little kittens had no where to go;
So they laid them down on the mat at the door,
While the old woman finished sweeping the floor.
Then they crept in, as quiet as mice,
All wet with snow, and cold as ice,
For they found it was better, that stormy night,
To lie down and sleep than to quarrel and fight.
Another cautionary tale about a mother and unruly children who need to learn some manners. In quarrelling over a relatively thing, both kittens end up outside in the cold - no doubt the old woman is fed up listening to their bickering. When they are let back in again, they have learnt the lesson that fighting gets them nowhere. Perhaps next time they will share their toys and play amenably instead of both being punished! A historical/political interpretation suggests it means compromising to avoid the wrath of the monarch - opposing parties who failed to compromise could find themselves "out in the cold" (out of favour).
PUSSY IN THE BARN
Some little mice sat in a barn to spin,
Pussy came by, and popped her head in,
"Shall I come in, and cut your threads off?"
"Oh, no, kind sir, you will snap our heads off!"
Six Little Mice Sat Down to Spin
Six little mice sat down to spin;
Pussy passed by and she peeped in;
"What are you doing, my little men?"
"Weaving coats for gentlemen."
"Shall I come in and cut off your threads?"
"No, no, Mistress Pussy, you'd bite off our heads."
"Oh, no, I'll not; I'll help you to spin."
"That may be so, but you don't come in!"
A simple warning to be wary of strangers, especially those who speak kind words but are unlikely to have your best interests in mind. Much like many fairy stories, it warns against opening the door to strangers. The type of warning is found in the children's tale "The Three Little Kids" where the kids (young goats) are told not to open the door to strangers, but they open the door to a cunning wolf.
PUSSY AND ROBIN REDBREAST
Little Robin Redbreast sat upon a tree,
Up went Pussy-cat, and down went he;
Down came Pussy-cat, and away Robin ran;
Says little Robin Redbreast, "Catch me if you can."
Little Robin Redbreast flew upon a wall,
Pussy-cat jumped after him, and almost got a fall;
Little Robin chirp'd and sang, and what did Pussy say?
Pussy-cat said "Mew," and Robin flew away.
Though some people have suggested the cat and bird game is a political reference, this rhyme does not appear to have a historical origin. It tells young children that cats hunt birds and it helps them identify the English robin (a small brown bird with red breast and white belly). It also teaches very young children that birds fly, but cats don't! The following verse about animal enemies, though a rhyme in its own right, is also found in some variants of "Froggie Goes A-Courting".
The old black cat jumped over the wall
And ate the rat, the mouse, and all.
If you want any more you can sing it yourself
The book lies on the pantry shelf.
Another cat and bird rhyme:
Ding, dong, darrow,
The cat and the sparrow;
The little dog has burnt his tail,
And he shall be hang'd to-morrow
A further cat-and-bird rhyme is the "Pussy cat ate the ducklings" variant rhyme mentioned earlier.
PUSSY-CAT BY THE FIRE
Pussy-cat sits by the fire, how can she be fair?
In walks the little dog, says: "Pussy, are you there?
How do you do, Mistress Pussy? Mistress Pussy, how d'ye do?"
"I thank you kindly, little dog, I fare as well as you!"
Possibly this documents little more than the fact that cats often got to sit by the kitchen hearth (due to keeping the kitchen mouse-free) while dogs generally lived outdoors, often tied or chained near a kennel, and were either guard dogs, herding dogs or ratting dogs. This is evidently considered unfair by the little dog and though he enquires after pussy's health she does not invite him to join her by the fire. If anything, pussy's reply suggests she doesn't think she fares any better than the little dog. In other words, whatever our lot in life, we often feel that the other party is getting the better deal. In the second version, there is an element of gloating from the cat - she has a place by the fire and replies smugly to the little dog.
Pussy sits beside the fire, so pretty and so fair,
In walks the little dog - ah, pussy, are you there?
How do you do, Mistress Pussy? Mistress Pussy, how do you do?
I thank you kindly, little dog, I'm very well just now.
Pussicat, wussicat, with a white foot,
When is your wedding? for I'll come to't.
The beer's to brew, the bread's to bake.
Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, don't be too late.
WILT THOU BE MINE
Pussy cat, pussy cat, wilt thou be mine?
Thou shalt not wash dishes, nor feed yet the swine,
But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam
And feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream.
The suitor in this verse is calling his beloved by a term of endearment. He is evidently a man of means, perhaps a higher class than she, because he is offering her a married life where servants will be cleaning and tending the animals. She will instead be a fine lady, sat on a cushion doing her embroidery (either a "fine seam" or a "silk seam") and eating fine foods. There are numerous versions where he calls his beloved "curly locks" or "bonny lass, pretty lass" rather than "pussy cat".
THE CAT AND THE MUTTON
Until less than a century ago, one of the commonest meats fed to cats was mutton. Mutton fat was considered medicinal. Nowadays, mutton is rarely eaten in the west. The following two rhymes illustrate the once-common association between cats and mutton. "Mumbles" means sucks or chews; the cat is evidently tossing the bone around as though it were a mouse.
Who's that ringing at my door bell?
A little pussy cat that isn't very well,
Rubs its little nose with a little mutton fat,
That's the best cure for a little pussy cat.
Hie, hie says Anthony,
Puss is in the pantry,
A mutton, mutton bone;
See how she tumbles it,
See how she mumbles it,
See how she tosses
The mutton, mutton bone.
TWO GREY KITS
The two grey kits and the grey kits' mother
All went over the bridge together.
The bridge broke down, they all feel in,
"May the rats go with you," says Tom Bowlin.
OLD MISTRESS MCSHUTTLE
Old Mistress McShuttle
Lived in a coal-scuttle,
Along with her dog and cat;
What they ate I can`t tell.
But `tis known very well,
That none of the party were fat.
Old Mistress McShuttle
Scoured out her coal-scuttle,
And washed both her dog and cat;
The cat scratched her nose,
So they came to hard blows,
And who was the gainer by that?
OLD MOTHER HUBBARD
It's quite common for cat lovers to adapt existing nursery rhymes into cat-themed rhymes that children in a cat-owning household can better relate to. Any hidden meaning that the rhyme might once have had will often get lost in the process, but we are left with a charming rhyme nonetheless. Despite being written down in books, nursery rhymes are not static entities. They have evolved over the decades and will continue to evolve. Of relatively recent origin, we have a feline version of Old Mother Hubbard and her empty cupboard that concerns not a dog and a bone, but a cat and some fish.
Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her wee Pussy some fish,
Whemnshe got there
The cupboard was bare
With nothing for Pussycat's [poor Pussy's] dish.
MISS JANE HAD A BAG
Miss Jane had a bag, and a mouse was in it,
She opened the bag, he was out in a minute;
The Cat saw him jump, and run under the table,
And the dog said, catch him, puss, soon as you're able.
I can personally relate to this one! When bringing in a sack of coal one evening, I was unaware that a mouse was inside the sack. This was in the days before I had cats of my own. The mouse was contained in one room and a neighbour's cat was borrowed (with permission) - the idea being to shut the cat in for an hour or so. Sapphire dispatched the mouse within seconds of entering the room.
HEY WILLIE WINKIE
"Hey, Willie Winkie, are ye comin’ ben?
The cat’s singin’ grey thrums to the sleepin’ hen.
The dug’s spelder’d on the flair, and disna’ gi’e a cheep,
But here’s a waukrife laddie that winna fa’ asleep!"
Onything but sleep, you rogue? Glow’ring like the mune.
Rattlin’ in an airn jug wi’ an airn spune,
Rumblin’, tumblin’, roond aboot, crawin’ like a cock,
Skirlin’ like a kenna-what, wauk’nin’ sleepin’ fowk.
"Hey Willie Winkie - the wean’s in a creel!
Wambling aff a bodie’s knee like a verra eel.
Ruggin’ at the cat’s lug, and rav’lin a’ her thrums.
Hey, Willie Winkie!" - see, now, there he comes!
Wearit is the mither that has a stoorie wean,
A wee stumpie stoussie, that canna rin his lane,
That has a battle aye wi’ sleep before he’ll close an e’e,
But ae kiss frae aff his rosy lips gi’es strength anew tae me.
This is probably the most famous of all the Scottish nursery rhymes and is used when putting children to bed. It is also used to teach children (and adults) their first Scottish accented words. It basically says everyone else is asleep, or ready to go to sleep, except the child. The child is not only wakeful, he is tormenting the cat.
BILLY BOY SEEKS A WIFE
Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy?
I have been to seek a wife,
She’s the joy of my life -
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.
Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she bake a cherry pie, Charming Billy?
She can bake a cherry pie
Quick as the cat can wink its eye.
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.
How old is she now, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
How old is she now, Charming Billy?
Four time six and eight times seven,
Forty-nine and then eleven,
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.
Another rhyme from a Scottish source, with some arithmetic thrown in - how old is the wife that Billy Boy seeks? The reference to a cat, is that the young woman who has caught Billy Boy's eye can bake a cherry pie as fast as a cat can wink. Although the winking cat alludes to speed, cats don't actually wink, they blink (both eyes).
Not all nursery rhymes are scores or hundreds of years old. Here's a more modern one. It is self-explanatory!
Cat hair on the bedspread,
Cat hair on the chair.
Cat hair in the casserole,
Cat hair everywhere
Cat hair on my best coat,
Even on the mouse!
You live and eat and breathe cat hair,
When cats live in your house.