Sunday, October 26, 2008

Over in the Meadow

One of my favourite nursery rhymes on one of my son's CDs is 'Over in the Meadow' (a variant on the original version by Olive A Wadsworth):

Over in the meadow
In a pond in the sun
Lived an old mother froggy
And her little froggy one
Hop, said the mother,
I hop, said the one
So they hopped and were glad
In the pond in the sun

Over in the meadow
In a nest in a tree
Lived an old mother birdie
And her little birdies three
Sing, said the mother,
We sing, said the three
So they sang and were glad
In the nest in the tree

Over in the meadow
In a sly little den
Lived an old mother spider
And her little spiders ten
Spin, said the mother,
We spin, said the ten
So they span and were glad
In their sly little den

Viewed as poetry it's a nice piece of all's-well-with-the-world conservative pastoral (especially the verse with the spiders, whose spinning conjures accidentally or otherwise the historical textile industry). Of course it lacks both political sophistication (there are no contrary notes in the gladness) and structural sophistication (each verse simply recapitulates the theme, rather than developing it — a fact which is even more apparent, and slightly tedious, in the ten-verse original). These would generally be considered faults in a poem in the modern period — by which I mean, in English, anything written after about 1550 (Wyatt would have scorned the poem's static simplicity).

On the other hand, it isn't primarily a poem but a song or a nursery rhyme, for which different aesthetic criteria apply. And it also strikes me that these features I've summarised are common features of medieval poetry — reiterative rather than developmental verse structure, simplicity of theme and viewpoint — whose own roots in song and folk tradition should be obvious. If modern poets and critics demand technical and thematic sophistication from poems, this shouldn't blind them to values of simplicity and beauty — not least because a sophisticated reader supplies her own awareness of complications which prevents her giving full assent to the sentiment of a song like 'Over in the Meadow'; and that barrier to assent actually enriches and quickens the pleasure of reading it.


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