"Little Jack Horner
" is a popular English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...
The term nursery rhyme is used for "traditional" poems for young children in Britain and many other countries, but usage only dates from the 19th century and in North America the older ‘Mother Goose Rhymes’ is still often used.-Lullabies:...
. It has the Roud Folk Song Index
The Roud Folk Song Index is a database of 300,000 references to over 21,600 songs that have been collected from oral tradition in the English language from all over the world...
number of 13027.
The most common modern lyrics are:
Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said 'What a good boy am I!'
Origins and meaning
In the chapbook
A chapbook is a pocket-sized booklet. The term chap-book was formalized by bibliophiles of the 19th century, as a variety of ephemera , popular or folk literature. It includes many kinds of printed material such as pamphlets, political and religious tracts, nursery rhymes, poetry, folk tales,...
The History of Jack Horner, Containing the Witty Pranks he play'd, from his Youth to his Riper Years, Being pleasant for Winter Evenings
(1764), there is a mangled version of the nursery rhyme. However, it has been observed that the story is based on the much earlier tale of The Fryer and the Boy
, and that this insertion is merely to justify the use of Jack Horner's name.
The earliest reference to the well-known verse is in Namby Pamby
, a ballad by Henry Carey
Henry Carey was an English poet, dramatist and song-writer. He is remembered as an anti-Walpolean satirist and also as a patriot. Several of his melodies continue to be sung today, and he was widely praised in the generation after his death...
published in 1725, in which he himself italicised the original:
- Now he sings of Jacky Horner
- Sitting in the Chimney-corner
- Eating of a Christmas-Pie,
- Putting in his thumb, Oh Fie
- Putting in, Oh Fie! his Thumb
- Pulling out, Oh Strange! a Plum.
This has been taken to suggest that the rhyme was well known by the early eighteenth century. Carey's poem is a satire on fellow writer Ambrose Philips
-Life:He was born in Shropshire of a Leicestershire family. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and St John's College, Cambridge, of which he became a fellow in 1699. He seems to have lived chiefly at Cambridge until he resigned his fellowship in 1708, and his pastorals were probably written in...
, who had written infantile poems for the young children of his aristocratic patrons. Although several other nursery rhymes are mentioned there, the one about Little Jack Horner has been associated with acts of opportunism ever since. Just six years later it figured in another satirical work, Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding was an English novelist and dramatist known for his rich earthy humour and satirical prowess, and as the author of the novel Tom Jones....
's The Grub Street Opera
The Grub-Street Opera is a play by Henry Fielding that originated as an expanded version of his play, The Welsh Opera. It was never put on for an audience and is Fielding's single print-only play. As in The Welsh Opera, the author of the play is identified as Scriblerus Secundus. Secundus also...
(1731). This had the prime minister Robert Walpole
Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, KG, KB, PC , known before 1742 as Sir Robert Walpole, was a British statesman who is generally regarded as having been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain....
as its target and ends with all the characters processing off the stage 'to the music of Little Jack Horner'.
In the nineteenth century the story began to gain currency that the rhyme is actually about Thomas Horner, who was steward to Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury before the dissolution of the monasteries
The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was the set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland; appropriated their...
under Henry VIII of England
Henry VIII was King of England from 21 April 1509 until his death. He was Lord, and later King, of Ireland, as well as continuing the nominal claim by the English monarchs to the Kingdom of France...
. The story is reported that, prior to the abbey's destruction, the abbot sent Horner to London with a huge Christmas pie which had the deeds to a dozen manors
A manor house is a country house that historically formed the administrative centre of a manor, the lowest unit of territorial organisation in the feudal system in Europe. The term is applied to country houses that belonged to the gentry and other grand stately homes...
hidden within it and that during the journey Horner opened the pie and extracted the deeds of the manor of Mells
Mells Manor at Mells, Somerset, England was built in the 16th century for Edward Horner, altered in the 17th century, partially demolished around 1780, and restored by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the 20th century...
The ceremonial and non-metropolitan county of Somerset in South West England borders Bristol and Gloucestershire to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east, and Devon to the south-west. It is partly bounded to the north and west by the Bristol Channel and the estuary of the...
. It is further suggested that, since the manor properties included lead mines in the Mendip Hills
The Mendip Hills is a range of limestone hills to the south of Bristol and Bath in Somerset, England. Running east to west between Weston-super-Mare and Frome, the hills overlook the Somerset Levels to the south and the Avon Valley to the north...
, the plum is a pun on the Latin plumbum
, for lead. While records do indicate that Thomas Horner became the owner of the manor, paying for the title, both his descendants and subsequent owners of Mells Manor have asserted that the legend is untrue.
- In his satirical novel Melincourt (1817), Thomas Love Peacock
Thomas Love Peacock was an English satirist and author.Peacock was a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley and they influenced each other's work...
has five go-getting characters contribute to a song in which they describe how they misuse their trades to fleece the public. It begins with the recitative
Recitative , also known by its Italian name "recitativo" , is a style of delivery in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms of ordinary speech...
- Jack Horner's CHRISTMAS PIE my learned nurse
- Interpreted to mean the public purse.
- From thence a plum he drew. O happy Horner!
- Who would not be ensconced in thy snug corner?
Each character then describes the nature of his sharp practice in a stanza followed by the general chorus
- And we'll all have a finger, a finger, a finger,
- We'll all have a finger in the CHRISTMAS PIE.
- Lord Byron mentions Jack in his Don Juan
Don Juan is a legendary, fictional libertine whose story has been told many times by many authors. El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra by Tirso de Molina is a play set in the fourteenth century that was published in Spain around 1630...
(Canto the Eleventh, stanza LXIX, 1823). It is the ancestor of many allusions since then, remembering him for little more than sitting in a corner.
- Sir James Fitzjames Stephen
Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 1st Baronet was an English lawyer, judge and writer. He was created 1st Baronet Stephen by Queen Victoria.-Early life:...
, in "A Tale of Two Cities," originally published in the Saturday Review (Vol.VIII, No.216, December 17, 1859), sarcastically compares Charles Dickens with Jack Horner, so as to show that Dickens is a hypocrite:
"The grandfathers of the present generation were, according to him, a sort of savages, or very little better. They were cruel, bigoted, unjust, ill-governed, oppressed, and neglected in every possible way. The childish delight with which Mr. Dickens acts Jack Horner, and says What a good boy am I, in comparison with my benighted ancestors, is thoroughly contemptible."
In popular music
- The character of Jack Horner
Jack Horner is a fictional character in the comic book series Fables by Bill Willingham. His first appearance was in issue #1 of Fables and continued as a regular character of the series until leaving the series for his own title, Jack of Fables...
appears in the Fables comic book by Bill Willingham
Bill Willingham is an American writer and artist of comics.-Career:Willingham got his start in the late 1970s to early 1980s as a staff artist for TSR, Inc., where he illustrated a number of their role-playing game products...
, where it is revealed that he is also most of the other Jacks featured in fairy tales, nursery rhymes, etc. The now-grown Jack is a chancer, amiable for the most part, but not overly competent, as a rule; as such, most of his get-rich-quick schemes are doomed to failure.
- In the 20th century there are references to Jack Horner in songs by such musicians as Fats Waller
Fats Waller , born Thomas Wright Waller, was a jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and comedic entertainer...
and Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter, musician, poet, film director and painter. He has been a major and profoundly influential figure in popular music and culture for five decades. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s when he was an informal chronicler and a seemingly...
but most refer to little more than the fact that he sat in a corner.
- There is a reinterpretation of the rhyme in a Chumbawamba
Chumbawamba is a British musical group who have, over a career spanning nearly three decades, played punk rock, pop-influenced music, world music, and folk music...
lyric from their album The Unfairy Tale (1985). "Jack Horner" is put in the corner for resisting the racist and self-regarding interpretation of history given by his teacher. Eventually the children rise up to defend him:
- But when the head walked in the children made such a din.
- They said, 'Jack get up, you got to get out, don't let them push you about, you know they'll keep you in that corner till you're dead. Jack get out, don't sell out, don't compromise with christmas pies. Keep shouting back, you tell 'em Jack, don't swallow none of their crap. Calling Jack Horners everywhere, don't bend to authority which doesn't care, you know they'll keep you in that corner 'till you're dead.'
- Jane got up, she helped Jack out, she said, 'Teachers, don't mess us about, we won't listen to your dirty lies. It's you who've got your fingers in the pie. People die, you don't question why, we won't study your lies, we won't eat your christmas pie, we won't eat dead animal pie, we won't eat nukiller pie, we won't eat your pie r squared, and if you really cared, neither would you.'
- The 1990 album Pornograffitti
-Personnel:* Pat Badger - Bass Guitars, Backing Vocals* Nuno Bettencourt - Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Percussion, Backing Vocals* Gary Cherone - Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals* Paul Geary - Decadent Drums, Percussion* Barbara Glynn - Mutha's Voice, "Decadence Dance"...
by the American rock band Extreme
Extreme is an American rock band, headed by frontmen Gary Cherone and Nuno Bettencourt, that reached the height of their popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s.Among some of Extreme's musical influences are Queen and Van Halen...
contains a song called “Lil' Jack Horny“ that contains references to this nursery rhyme among others.