Mother Goose Melodies (1781)
Nonsense Rhymes
in Mother Goose

Conversation with
Kay Ryan

Poetry Workshop
(English 192V)
Stanford University
Winter Quarter 2010

Peter Y. Chou

"As I Was Walking to St. Ives"

Preface: Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate (2008-2010) told her Stanford Poetry Workshop on February 9, 2010 that our homework assignment for February 23 is "Conversation with Kay: Look at nonsense elements and/or the loosening effects of rhyme in some poem you care about." Kay told us that "Nonsense is an invented goal, there's exactness (as in Edward Lear's "To Make Gosky Patties"), delights in incongruity, generates sense of immanence, reader is co-conspirator, absence of sentiment, indifference to outcome, sense of helplessness, object is delight" (Poetry, May 2006). We then discussed Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy Cat" (1871), Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Windhover" (1877), "Three Young Rats", Stevie Smith's "Thoughts about the Person from Porlock" and "So to fatness come". Kay said "Rhyme makes things happen, creates a form, makes us safe and free, makes both writer and reader go out on a limb, provides structure conducive to playfulness." When Kay asked the class about rhyming poems, some of the responses were "sing-song monotonous rhythm is boring, cliché of Hallmark cards, and nursery rhymes are a turn-off." Kay said "That's interesting— you don't like nursery rhymes because they remind you of childhood, and now you're grown up." This was a revelation to me, so I'll focus in this essay on my experience with Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.

An Experience with Mother Goose at Cornell

    I was a graduate student at Cornell (1963-1970) with Professor Harold A. Scheraga who had a research team of 40 studying protein structure and function. We were in the basement of Baker Lab. Then in 1967 we moved to the 6th floor of an adjacent new seven-floor Spencer T. Olin Chemistry Research Lab. One day while taking the elevator, an elderly gentleman was talking to a student about Mother Goose— how it inspired him with a chemical discovery. I was so fascinated that I didn't get out of the 6th floor when the elevator door opened, but stayed when it went to the 7th floor. I followed his conversation until it dawned upon me that he was Professor Vincent du Vigneaud, the name plate on his office. Scheraga had told our group that Prof. du Vigneaud was forced to retire at 65 from the Cornell Medical School in New York City. Since there was room on the 7th floor of the new building, he welcomed du Vigneaud to Ithaca. In his book-lined shelves of biochemical journals and textbooks, du Vigneaud pulled out a copy of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes. He read to us "Milking":
Cushy cow, bonny, let down thy milk,
And I will give thee a gown of silk;
A gown of silk and a silver tee,
If thou will let down thy milk for me.

— William S. Baring-Gould & Ceil Baring-Gould,
The Annotated Mother Goose (1962), #490, p. 213

Image: The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book,
Assembled by Iona & Peter Opie,
Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 75
Source: T. Clark, English Mother's Catechism for her Children (1824)

    Du Vigneaud was doing research on oxytocin, a peptide hormone of nine amino acids: Cys-Tyr-Ile-Glu-Asp-Cys-Pro-Leu-Gly. The Cysteine residues form a sulfur bridge. He was successful in synthesizing this pituary hormone in 1953 that is involved in lactating (breastfeeding) mothers. Oxytocin acts at the mammary glands, causing milk to be "let down" into a collecting chamber, from where it can be extracted by compressing the areola and sucking at the nipple. Somehow this passage on "let down thy milk" in Mother Goose inspired du Vigneaud in his hormonal research that he won the Chemistry Nobel Prize in 1955 for the first synthesis of a polypeptide hormone. "Remember," he smiled at us, "there are wisdom nuggets in Mother Goose!" I was so humbled by his surprising tale that I promised myself never to look down on children literature because I'm now a grown-up. I also began meditation to rediscover that childlike wonder I had lost during the education process in high school as well as at Columbia and Cornell.

Elisa shares Mother Goose with me in Palo Alto

    I moved to Palo Alto from Boston in May 1985 to care for my elderly parents. My 8-year old niece Elisa who lived a few blocks away would often come for visits. As she was quite precocious, Elisa would often read her favorite poems and books to me. I'll cite three Mother Goose poems she shared with me. One day she sang from Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes (#533 in Annotated Mother Goose, p. 218) on the seven days of the week:

Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living,
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day,
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

    This rhyme proceeds nicely with "child" appearing and rhyming in every line except the last. The end-rhymes face/grace, woe/go, giving/living, day/gay make this poem memorable. There are many alliterations— fair/face/full/far; bonny/blithe; good/gay. Then I asked Elisa whether this description is accurate. She told me "Yes. I surveyed the birthdays of my friends and they seem to match what Mother Goose said. When I found out she surveyed only five friends, I told her that her statistical sampling is too small for scientific accuracy. Since my brother-in-law David is a high-energy physicist, I suggested Elisa ask her Dad to explain it to her much better than I could. In my first computer class at Foothill College, I chose as my final project (12-5-1991) an analysis of "Birthdays of 27 Musical Conductors". The results showed a preponderance of musical conductors been born on Sundays (33% vs. 14% average), in the Astrological Sign of Aries (33% vs. 8% average), and the Chinese Zodiac Years of the Rat (22% vs. 8%). What is most fascinating about this occurrence is that Sunday is the first Day of the Week, Aries, the first Astrological Sign (Spring: March 20), and the Rat Year is the first in the Chinese Zodiac Cycle of 12 Animal Years. The fact that a greater than average (from double to quadruple) of musical conductors were born under these first signs of the week, month, and year, shows their natural ability to lead and orchestrate a diverse group of musicians to create a harmonious work of symphony. Is there something special about Sunday's child that Mother Goose devoted two lines to it and just one to those born on the other days of the week? Perhaps her prophecy is true.

    Another Mother Goose Rhyme Elisa brought to my attention was "As I was going to St. Ives":

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;
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

— William S. Baring-Gould & Ceil Baring-Gould,
The Annotated Mother Goose (1962), #678, p. 270

Ives/wives and wives/Ives are mirror rhymes, and "going to St. Ives" at the end cycles back to the beginning. "Every... had seven" are repeated in the middle three lines like a litany. Slant-rhymes appear in sack/had, cat/had, cats/sacks in lines 4-6. Of course, back in 1985, I was not aware of these off-rhymes. My mind immediately navigated to the mathematical puzzle posed in the last line— How many were there going to St. Ives? I got out my electronic pocket calculator and presto—

When I announced to Elisa that the answer is an even 2800, she laughed and said "It's zero! The kits, cats, sacks, and wives were coming from St. Ives and none of them are going there now." My 8-year old niece had stumped me because I didn't read Mother Goose carefully. In David Wells' Curious and Interesting Numbers (1997), mention was made that Mother Goose's "St. Ives" query can be traced to Problem 79 of the Rhind Papyrus written by the scribe Ahmes (1650 BC) in the British Museum. Leonardo of Pisa (1170-1250), also called Fibonacci, repeats this problem in his Liber Abaci (1202 and 1228).

    One day Elisa was singing happily this Mother Goose Rhyme

What are little boys made of?
Frogs and snails, and puppy dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and all that's nice,
That's what little girls are made of.

— William S. Baring-Gould & Ceil Baring-Gould,
The Annotated Mother Goose (1962), #320, pp. 175-176
Illustration of "Children Playing" by Walter Crane, p. 203

It suddenly occurred to me what Mother Goose said was indeed true. I showed Elisa a biochemistry book with illustrations showing the similarities which amazed her. Five years later, I wrote a poem on this experience in a Galway Kinnell poetry workshop at Squaw Valley (Web links added in poem for biochemical images):


                                              for Elisa

When you sang the Mother Goose Rhymes
on what little girls are made of,
I joked that you must have eaten
lots of candy and red pepper.

You are what you eat, and when you
laughed at my lunch of milk, alfafa
sprouts and salad greens, I added
"art, music, and poetry too."

Now that you're eight years old, it's time
to learn about proteins swimming inside
your body— how polysaccharides are
really long chains of glucose sugars

that enzymes contain a spice of zinc,
DNA looks like a double helix of snakes,
protein bends resemble snail-like turns,
and spermatozoa, puppy-dog tails.

The hemoglobin in your red blood cells
is a protein of two twin subunits—
a red schoolbus with four heme seats
carrying oxygen to all your tissues.

Hemoglobin expands and contracts just
like your lungs when taking up oxygen.
When you ask me how to get on that bus,
I tell you: "Breathe in... Breathe out...
                  Breathe in... Breathe out..."

        — Peter Y. Chou
             Squaw Valley, 7/12/1990
             Poetry Workshop with Galway Kinnell

Some Thoughts on Rhyming Poems

    When I discovered the musicality of Swinburne's verses (circa 1964) during my graduate studies in chemistry at Cornell, I shared them with my sister. She liked "Chorus from Atalanta in Calydon" and we both memorized the opening stanza: "Before the beginning of years, / There came to the making of man / Time, with a gift of tears; / Grief, with a glass that ran;" Later, I found Swinburne's "Rococo" to my liking and memorized the entire 80-lines poem. I would recite the lines to the stars during my walks home across the Cornell campus from Baker Lab of Chemistry to my apartment in Ithaca. I gave my paperback copy of Swinburne to my sister and bought the complete 6-volume set of Swinburne's Poems (London, 1904) in a used Manhattan bookshop on Fourth Avenue. When I attended my first poetry workshop at Foothill College Summer Writing Conference (1987), a poetry instructor asked the class to name their favorite poet, I said "Algernon Swinburne". Nobody in the class knew who he was. The instructor told me, "He's out of fashion. People rarely read him these days." When I brought my rhyming verses to class, everyone told me that my style was archaic, that I had better learn to write free verse. I left Swinburne behind, and began reading modern poets, and typed a few hundred poems in learning the craft of free verse.

    On March 24, 1990, I attended a Poetry Workshop with Gary Snyder in San Jose. He told us a story that has remained vivid with me— “My grandson was stomping around the room to Blake's Tiger poem"Tiger Tiger. burning bright, / In the forests of the night" with such relish that it was so much fun just watching him. There's something about rhymes that's riveting and liberating.” Since I admire Gary Snyder's nature poems and Zen lifestyle, his remarks about rhymes stayed with me. While writing about the Mother Goose Rhymes which a Nobel Laureate and my niece shared with me, I tried to show that these nonsense rhymes were not frivolous but led to some scientific insights. Just found this new gem in Mother Goose Rhyme #590 that's simply delightful—

Go to bed first,
A golden purse;
Go to bed second,
A golden pheasant;
Go to bed third,
A golden bird.

Down with the lambs,
    Up with the lark,
Run to bed children
    Before it gets dark.

Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book,
Assembled by Iona & Peter Opie,
Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 16>

Note: Baring-Gould's The Annotated Mother Goose (1962) Rhyme #590
does not contain the second stanza.

Commentary on Mother Goose Rhyme #590:
The slant-rhymes first/purse, second/pheasant, and the rhymes third/bird, lark/dark are quite effective in this ditty. The thrice repetitions of "Go to bed" sound like a litany for going to sleep. Also Go/golden is alliterative as well as rhyming. "Down with the lambs" and "Up with the lark" refer to changing the recipe from counting sheep to flying with a lark if you can't fall sleep. Blake writes in Milton 36.12: "The 28th Lark flies clear in inspiration... The Lark is a mighty Angel." So switching from lambs to lark is going airborne to the dreamland of the imagination. What I like about this poem is that no matter whether you go to bed first, second, or third— your reward is golden! Is that not the nature of sleep— for peace and silence are golden. The sage Ramana Maharshi tells us that deep sleep is closer to reality than the waking state because it is more subtle. The author of this Mother Goose Rhyme 590 has an inkling of this truth. This poem ends with "dark" rhyming with "lark"— which takes us to the angelic realms according to Blake. Now physicists tell us that the reality we see with all our instruments adds up to less than 5% of the universe, the other 95% is made of dark energy and dark matter. How interesting— isn't that the dark place we go each night when we go to sleep?

In the May 2006 issue of Poetry, Kay Ryan writes about nonsense rhymes in her article "Laugh While You Can: A Consideration of Poetry". In closing I like to share a poem that brought much laughter in a Sharon Olds workshop on July 11, 1990 at Squaw Valley— "Baseball Memories". It closes with my dear four-year old niece Elisa from whom I've learned so much.

— Peter Y. Chou, February 23, 2010