IN Britain and America, and wherever the English word is spoken, the children become joyful and wise listening to the same traditional verses. In the New World as in the Old their first poetic memory is of 'Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie', 'A slipkin, a slopkin, a pipkin, a popkin', 'Pat-a-cake, pat- a-cake, baker's man', and 'Over the hills and far away'. Almost the only point of difference is that in England the verses are known as 'nursery rhymes', and in America as 'Mother Goose songs'. The term 'nursery rhyme' seems to have become current in the second decade of the nineteenth century (see e.g. British Review ( Aug 1815), 55), probably promoted by Ann and Jane Taylor's immensely successful Rhymes for the Nursery ( 1806), which was actually labelled 'Nursery Rhymes' in gilt on its spine+ADs- and James Kendrew plundered this volume for some of his chapbooks. Previously the rhymes had been known as 'songs' or 'ditties', and in the eighteenth century usually as 'Tommy Thumb's' songs, or 'Mother Goose's', the title retained in America.
The problem of where nursery rhymes come from is perhaps of minor importance to literature. Yet these trivial verses have endured where newer and more ambitious compositions have become dated and forgotten. They have endured often for nine or ten generations, sometimes for considerably more, and scarcely altered in their journey. 'Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man', to take an everyday example, is shown in D'Urfey's comedy The Campaigners to have been waiting to greet infant ears two- and-a-half centuries ago. It was undoubtedly already old in 1698 when Fardell, the 'affected, tattling, nurse', crooned to her charge,
Ah Doddy blesse dat pitty face of myn Sylds, and his pitty, pitty hands, and his pitty, pitty, foots, and all his pitty things, and pat a cake, pat a cake Bakers man, so I will master as I can, and prick it, and prick it, and prick it, and prick it, and prick it, and throw't into the Oven.