Mother Goose in Prose
Mother Goose in Prose
by L. Frank Baum
None of us, whether children or adults, needs an introduction to
Mother Goose. Those things which are earliest impressed upon our minds
cling to them most tenaciously The snatches sung in the nursery are
never forgotten, nor are they ever recalled without bringing back with
them myriads of slumbering feelings and half-forgotten images.
We hear the sweet, low voice of the mother, singing soft lullabies to
her darling, and see the kindly, wrinkled face of the grandmother as
she croons the old ditties to quiet our restless spirits. One
generation is linked to another by the everlasting spirit of song; the
ballads of the nursery follow us from childhood to old age, and they
are readily brought from memory's recesses at any time to amuse our
children or our grandchildren.
The collection of jingles we know and love as the "Melodies of Mother
Goose" are evidently drawn from a variety of sources. While they are,
taken altogether, a happy union of rhyme, wit, pathos, satire and
sentiment, the research after the author of each individual verse
would indeed be hopeless. It would be folly to suppose them all the
composition of uneducated old nurses, for many of them contain much
reflection, wit and melody. It is said that Shelley wrote "Pussy-Cat
Mew," and Dean Swift "Little Bo-Peep," and these assertions are as
difficult to disprove as to prove. Some of the older verses, however,
are doubtless offshoots from ancient Folk Lore Songs, and have
descended to us through many centuries.
The connection of Mother Goose with the rhymes which bear her name is
difficult to determine, and, in fact, three countries claim her for
their own: France, England and America.
About the year 1650 there appeared in circulation in London a small
book, named "Rhymes of the Nursery; or Lulla-Byes for Children," which
contained many of the identical pieces that have been handed down to
us; but the name of Mother Goose was evidently not then known. In this
edition were the rhymes of "Little Jack Homer," "Old King Cole,"
"Mistress Mary," "Sing a Song o' Sixpence," and "Little Boy Blue."
In 1697 Charles Perrault published in France a book of children's
tales entitled "Contes de ma Mere Oye," and this is really the first
time we find authentic record of the use of the name of Mother Goose,
although Perrault's tales differ materially from those we now know
under this title. They comprised "The Sleeping Beauty," "The Fairy,"
"Little Red Riding Hood," "Blue Beard," "Puss in Boots" "Riquet with
the Tuft," "Cinderella," and "Little Thumb"; eight stories in all. On
the cover of the book was depicted an old lady holding in her hand a
distaff and surrounded by a group of children listening eagerly. Mr.
Andrew Lang has edited a beautiful English edition of this work
America bases her claim to Mother Goose upon the following statement,
made by the late John Fleet Eliot, a descendant of Thomas Fleet, the
At the beginning of the eighteenth century there lived in Boston a
lady named Eliza Goose (written also Vergoose and Vertigoose) who
belonged to a wealthy family. Her eldest daughter, Elizabeth Goose (or
Vertigoose), was married by Rev. Cotton Mather in 1715 to an
enterprising and industrious printer named Thomas Fleet, and in due
time gave birth to a son. Like most mothers-in-law in our day, the
importance of Mrs. Goose increased with the appearance of her
grandchild, and poor Mr. Fleet, half distracted with her endless
nursery ditties, finding all other means fail, tried what ridicule
could effect, and actually printed a book under the title "Songs of
the Nursery; or, Mother Goose's Melodies for Children." On the title
page was the picture of a goose with a very long neck and a mouth wide
open, and below this, "Printed by T. Fleet, at his Printing House in
Pudding Lane, 1719. Price, two coppers."
Mr. Wm. A. Wheeler, the editor of Hurd & Houghton's elaborate edition
of Mother Goose, (1870), reiterated this assertion, and a writer in
the Boston Transcript of June 17, 1864, says: "Fleet's book was partly
a reprint of an English collection of songs (Barclay's), and the new
title was doubtless a compliment by the printer to his mother-in-law
Goose for her contributions. She was the mother of sixteen children
and a typical 'Old Woman who lived in a Shoe.'"
We may take it to be true that Fleet's wife was of the Vergoose
family, and that the name was often contracted to Goose. But the rest
of the story is unsupported by any evidence whatever. In fact, all
that Mr. Eliot knew of it was the statement of the late Edward A.
Crowninshield, of Boston, that he had seen Fleet's edition in the
library of the American Antiquarian Society. Repeated researches at
Worcester having failed to bring to light this supposed copy, and no
record of it appearing on any catalogue there, we may dismiss the
entire story with the supposition that Mr. Eliot misunderstood the
remarks made to him. Indeed, as Mr. William H. Whitmore points out in
his clever monograph upon Mother Goose (Albany, 1889), it is very
doubtful whether in 1719 a Boston printer would have been allowed to
publish such "trivial" rhymes. "Boston children at that date," says
Mr. Whitmore, "were fed upon Gospel food, and it seems extremely
improbable that an edition could have been sold."
Singularly enough, England's claim to the venerable old lady is of
about the same date as Boston's. There lived in a town in Sussex,
about the year 1704, an old woman named Martha Gooch. She was a
capital nurse, and in great demand to care for newly-born babies;
therefore, through long years of service as nurse, she came to be
called Mother Gooch. This good woman had one peculiarity: she was
accustomed to croon queer rhymes and jingles over the cradles of her
charges, and these rhymes "seemed so senseless and silly to the people
who overheard them" that they began to call her "Mother Goose," in
derision, the term being derived from Queen Goosefoot, the mother of
Charlemagne. The old nurse paid no attention to her critics, but
continued to sing her rhymes as before; for, however much grown people
might laugh at her, the children seemed to enjoy them very much, and
not one of them was too peevish to be quieted and soothed by her
verses. At one time Mistress Gooch was nursing a child of Mr. Ronald
Barclay, a physician residing in the town, and he noticed the rhymes
she sang and became interested in them. In time he wrote them all down
and made a book of them, which it is said was printed by John
Worthington & Son in the Strand, London, in 1712, under the name of
"Ye Melodious Rhymes of Mother Goose." But even this story of Martha
Gooch is based upon very meager and unsatisfactory evidence.
The earliest English edition of Mother Goose's Melodies that is
absolutely authentic was issued by John Newbury of London about the
year 1760, and the first authentic American edition was a reprint of
Newbury's made by Isaiah Thomas of Worcester, Mass., in 1785.
None of the earlier editions, however, contained all the rhymes so
well known at the present day, since every decade has added its quota
to the mass of jingles attributed to "Mother Goose." Some of the
earlier verses have become entirely obsolete, and it is well they
have, for many were crude and silly and others were coarse. It is
simply a result of the greater refinement of modern civilization that
they have been relegated to oblivion, while the real gems of the
collection will doubtless live and grow in popular favor for many
While I have taken some pains to record the various claims to the
origin of Mother Goose, it does not matter in the least whether she
was in reality a myth, or a living Eliza Goose, Martha Gooch or the
"Mere Oye" of Perrault. The songs that cluster around her name are
what we love, and each individual verse appeals more to the childish
mind than does Mother Goose herself.
Many of these nursery rhymes are complete tales in themselves, telling
their story tersely but completely; there are others which are but
bare suggestions, leaving the imagination to weave in the details of
the story. Perhaps therein may lie part of their charm, but however
that may be I have thought the children might like the stories told at
greater length, that they may dwell the longer upon their favorite
heroes and heroines.
For that reason I have written this book.
In making the stories I have followed mainly the suggestions of the
rhymes, and my hope is that the little ones will like them, and not
find that they interfere with the fanciful creations of their own
L Frank Baum
Chicago, Illinois, September, 1897.