There I was, happy
and secure in the conviction that the following nursery rhyme commemorates
a specific historical event:
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
That event being,
of course, either the Great Plague of London (1664-6) which killed 70,000
people in south-east England, or possibly the Black Death, which in five
years in the middle of the 14th century wiped out a full third of Europe‘s
Well, I’m here to
confess to you that I’ve learned the error of my ways. It would seem
that modern experts, including Iona and Peter Opie (editors of The
Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, 1951) and Gloria T. Delamar (Mother
Goose: From Nursery to Literature, 1987), are very sceptical of the
idea of any bubonic plague being the inspiration for Ring-a-Ring o’
It is tempting, of
course, to see a plague as the source of the rhyme. The “roses” could
plausibly refer to the rash that always accompanies the disease, the “posies”
to herbs and spices used to sweeten the air, while “a-tishoo” would
represent the sneezing, and “we all fall down” would imply inevitable
death. A related conjecture would have it that the “ring” referred to
the red spot that marked the onset of the disease.
No doubt, the
belief arose because a handful of nursery rhymes do derive from historical
events or personalities, like Little Jack Horner (Thomas Horner of
Mells), The Brave Old Duke of York (probably George III’s son,
Frederick), Jack Sprat (Archdeacon Pratt), and Humpty-Dumpty
(Richard III — maybe). Nevertheless, as a rule,
many ingenious theories have been advanced attributing hidden
significance, especially political allusions, to nursery rhymes, there is
no reason to suppose they are any more arcane than the popular songs of
the day. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
o’ Roses the case today seems clear. It is no more than a nursery
chant, first recorded in print in 1881, one “which instantly rises from
the lips of small children whenever they join hands in a circle”. (Opie)
There are several variants of the song, and in none of them do the words
imply any reference to the Great Plague. Furthermore,
. . the time-lapse between the plague and the appearance of the game,
diminishes . . . [the plague] theory. Satires are almost always written
about then-current events . . . The [plague] interpretations continue to
surface, however, probably because people in some perverse way would like
to believe that the innocent rhyme has a grim history. (Delamar)
(The Black Death,
of course was even more remote in time from the first appearance of Ring-a-Ring
o’ Roses, and thus even less likely to be the idea behind the
In short, the whole
far-fetched bubonic edifice can be seen — if I may be so bold to put it
in this non-Shakespearian way — as no more than the speculative
jerry-building of “a house on both your plagues”.
Yet if you thought
all that was too much, consider this. There’s a fellow on the Internet,
one Rich Stoney,
who believes strongly that “some versions of Ring a-round a Rosy
are based on the mythology of the Hindu god Shiva”.
In particular, he
identifies the rhyme’s source as Shiva’s Dance of Bliss, which “re-energizes
life”. From his point of view, the sneezing interpretation of “A-tishoo!”
is quite wrong:
suggest that in reality, it is coughing as a result of his violent dance
actions during which mountains are flattened and the cosmos themselves
[sic] are destroyed.
Those who have
recovered sufficiently to read on may now relax to the sound of a nice
example of a 1949 parody which the Opies provide:
A pocket full of uranium,
All fall down.
Dictionary has a germane quote, too, albeit a quite mysterious one,
from The Times (1/4/1974, 1/8):
men blenched and broke into a sweat of embarrassment when made to dance
"Ring-a-ring o’ roses" in public outside Guildhall.
Tarnation seize me!
What was going on outside Guildhall? If one of our readers gets to check
this out before I do, I’d love to hear the full story.
But note that date.