A was an Archer, and shot at a frog;
B was a Blind-man, and led by a Dog;
C was a Cutpurse, and liv'd in disgrace;
D was a Drunkard, and had a red face: ...
For as long as we have had an alphabet we have needed tricks to help us memorise the essentially illogical order in which the letters are arranged. As soon as that department of life and training had been defined, the nursery acquired the rhyming alphabet as part of its furniture.
Along with appropriate clothes for children, the nursery is a comparatively recent development. The tall town houses of the eighteenth century made provision for a nursery floor. The Winnie the Pooh drawings at Longleat are still on the top floor. Hogarth painted child sitters in miniature grown-up clothes: Reynolds shows them in the first romper suits. So these too were invented in the later eighteenth century. The bitter heyday of the governess was charted by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.
Before the eighteenth century, and after it in less affluent households, children found a niche in the fireplace corner, where Granny was the source of most of their early learning. The rhyming alphabet of which the first couplets head this paragraph, was printed by `TW' (sold at the Ring in Little Britain) in the reign of Queen Anne. It is the earliest to be identified of an interrelated group published in the eighteenth and very early nineteenth centuries. Their publication dates do not necessarily, or even probably, reflect their real antiquity. Archers, by the reign of Queen Anne, were warriors of the past. The rest of the motley gathering, (with the exception of Xenophon and Zeno, but X and Z were always difficult to caste), are hardy perennials.
The new-minted and longest enduring memories of childhood span two generations every time a Grandmother has her Grandchild on her knee. What about the intervening generation? Through most centuries mothers have been too busy for much tale and rhyme telling. Before the days of television, the role of keeping the little ones amused fell to Grandmother. Therefore oral tradition of this kind may span a century in less than three tellings. For example, I was told it by my grandmother when I was three in 1903. I tell it to my grandson when he is three and I am 70 in 1970. By the time he is telling it to his grand-daughter when he is 70 and she is three it will be 2037.
Take the case of `White Bird Featherless', among the most beautiful of all nursery rhymes, and still too little known:
White bird featherless
Flew from Paradise,
Perched on the castle wall;
Along came Lord Landless,
Took it up Landless,
And rode away horseless to the King's white hall.
The answer is a snow flake in a sunbeam, so it belongs to the group of often still unresolved Saxon riddles. The pedigree of `White Bird Featherless' goes back through a reference in Notes and Queries of 1855, to versions, mostly seventeenth century, in Greek, Latin, German, Shetla and Swedish. But behind these it leaps back through another twelve grandmothers or so to a Latin version, differing from the later ones in no serious particular, in an early tenth-century manuscript from the solemn Abbey of Reichenauer:
Volavit volucer sine plumis,
sedit in arbore sine foliis,
venit homo absque manibus,
conscendit illum sine pedibus,
assavit illum sine igne,
Comedit illum sine ore.
`White Bird Featherless' has a close cousin in the most familiar of all nursery rhymes. We have known `Humpty Dumpty' since we could speak, and with it the answer to the riddle, but if we were hearing it for the first time - have you ever met anyone who can remember hearing it for the first time? - would we immediately guess that it was an egg?
That great scholar of ancient Northern tongues, J. …