Nursery rhymes go far back into the past, but until fairly recently were not recorded. Occasional lines can be retrieved from the Middle Ages onwards, but whole verses and nursery-rhyme collections were not published until the early and middle 18th century, and then hesitantly, the first noteworthy collection being Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (circa 1745). In the late 18th and early 19th centuries (especially with the Romantic revaluation of children and childhood), however, children's literature became an important area of publication.
MG is first associated with nursery rhymes in Mother Goose's Melody issued by Newbery of London. Its date is uncertain; according to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1952) by Iona and Peter Opie there was a lost 1765 edition; a 1791 edition survives. MG herself derives ultimately from French literature, where Charles Perrault used the traditional term contes de ma mère oye to designate Fairytales. The original French term is of shadowy origin.
In the UK MG was only one of several persons associated with nursery rhymes, but in the USA she became the prime dispenser, a position which she still retains. This is largely due to the Boston publisher Munroe and Francis, which included in its extensive line of juvenile books Mother Goose's Melodies (1833). The largest and most resourceful collection of classical rhymes to date, it was selected from various sources and illustrated by US wood-engravers. This book was reissued many times in slightly varying editions and remained in print well into the 1860s (there have been occasional later reissues). Since then countless editions of the rhymes have appeared, sometimes set to music, sometimes elaborately and beautifully illustrated, but almost all essentially and ultimately based on the early Boston editions.
As for the verses, they are a coloured patchbag of UK literature – with a few US additions. They have served various functions, sometimes as pure entertainment, sometimes as instruction, sometimes as both. They include counting rhymes ("One, Two, Buckle My Shoe"), dance games ("London Bridge Is Falling Down", "Oranges and Lemons"), finger and toe plays ("This Little Piggy Went to Market"), lullabies ("Rock-a-Bye Baby"), riddles ("Humpty Dumpty"), simple educational mnemonics ("A was an Apple Pie") and animal compassion rhymes ("I Love Little Pussy"). Some are deliberate Nonsense ("The Cat and the Fiddle"). Not all were originally children's verse. Some may have been magical in origin ("Jack Be Nimble", "Rain, Rain, Go Away", "Arthur O'Bower"); others are infantilized political squibs ("Little Jack Horner", "Bobby Shaftoe"); and yet others are decayed popular adult ballads ("Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be", "Lucy Locket Lost Her Pocket" – the last said to name two celebrated courtesans).
Most of the verses are traditional, but a few are of recorded authorship. "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (Poems for Our Children coll 1830) was written by Massachusetts poet Mrs Sarah Hale (1788-1879) and "There Was a Little Girl Who Had a Little Curl" (late 1850s) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). It has also been argued that some of the 18th-century collections were compiled by Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), who is known to have loved and recited nursery rhymes. A few of the verses have pan-European counterparts, like "London Bridge is Falling Down" and "Eenie Meenie Minee Mo".
Originally many of the verses accompanied things to do but, when nursery rhymes shifted from oral transmission to books, dancing, finger plays, music and action games dropped away. Today, MG is really a browsing book selectively read to children, for many of the verses are generally disregarded as obscure or uninteresting. A central core, however, remains very much alive as a source of wonderful images, subjects so idiotic as to be brilliant, and great (sometimes inadvertent) Nonsense.
Parodies and imitations of the verses are innumerable in almost every area of Western culture – advertising, politics, military life, personal satire, etc. Individual verses have also served as the heart or focal point of many larger works of literature, particularly in modern times. Lewis Carroll's use of "Humpty Dumpty", "The Queen of Hearts" and "The Lion and the Unicorn" is well known. The mystery writer Agatha Christie (1890-1976) structured A Pocketful of Rye (1953) on "Sing a Song of Sixpence", and has metaphorically invoked MG elsewhere, as in Crooked House (1949). John Le Carré (real name David Cornwell; 1931- ) echoed the children's rhyme in the title of his Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). [EFB]
further reading: The Annotated Mother Goose (1962) by William and Ceil Baring-Gould; Mother Goose's Melodies, Facsimile of the Munroe and Francis (1833) Edition (1970) ed E F Bleiler.