Sing a Song of Sixpence
is a well-known English nursery rhyme
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:...
, perhaps originating in the 18th century. It is also listed in the Roud
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...
folk song index as number 13191.
A common modern version is:
- Sing a song of sixpence,
- A pocket full of rye
Rye is a grass grown extensively as a grain and as a forage crop. It is a member of the wheat tribe and is closely related to barley and wheat. Rye grain is used for flour, rye bread, rye beer, some whiskeys, some vodkas, and animal fodder...
- Four and twenty
24 is the natural number following 23 and preceding 25.The SI prefix for 1024 is yotta , and for 10−24 yocto...
- Baked in a pie
A pie is a baked dish which is usually made of a pastry dough casing that covers or completely contains a filling of various sweet or savoury ingredients....
- When the pie was opened,
- The birds began to sing;
- Wasn't that a dainty dish,
- To set before the king?
- The king was in his counting house
A counting house, or compting house, literally is the building, room, office or suite in which a business firm carries on operations, particularly accounting. By a synecdoche, it has come to mean the accounting operations of a firm, however housed...
- Counting out his money;
- The queen was in the parlour
Parlour , from the French word parloir, from parler , denotes an "audience chamber". In parts of the United Kingdom and the United States, parlours are common names for certain types of food service houses, restaurants or special service areas, such as tattoo parlors...
- Eating bread and honey.
- The maid was in the garden,
- Hanging out the clothes;
- When down came a blackbird
- And pecked off her nose.
The final line of the fourth verse is sometimes slightly varied, with nose pecked
off. One of the following additional verses is often added to moderate the ending:
- They send for the king's doctor,
- who sewed it on again;
- He sewed it on so neatly,
- the seam was never seen.
- There was such a commotion,
- that little Jenny wren
The wrens are passerine birds in the mainly New World family Troglodytidae. There are approximately 80 species of true wrens in approximately 20 genera....
- Flew down into the garden,
- and put it back again.
The rhyme's ultimate origins are uncertain. References have been inferred in Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...
's Twelfth Night
(c. 1602), (Act II, Scene iii), where Sir Toby Belch
Sir Toby Belch is a character in William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. He is considered one of William Shakespeare's finest comic characters, an ambiguous mix of high spirits and low cunning. He first appears in the play's third scene, when he storms onto the stage the morning after a hard night...
tells a clown: "Come on; there is sixpence for you: let's have a song" and in Beaumont and Fletcher
Beaumont and Fletcher were the English dramatists Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, who collaborated in their writing during the reign of James I ....
Bonduca is a Jacobean tragi-comedy in the Beaumont and Fletcher canon, generally judged by scholars to be the work of John Fletcher alone. It was acted by the King's Men c. 1613, and published in 1647 in the first Beaumont and Fletcher folio....
(1614), where the line "Whoa, here's a stir now! Sing a song o' sixpence!" occurs.
In the past it has often been attributed to George Steevens
George Steevens was an English Shakespearean commentator.He was born at Poplar, the son of a captain and later director of the East India Company. He was educated at Eton College and at King's College, Cambridge, where he remained from 1753 to 1756...
(1736–1800), who used it in a pun at the expense of Poet Laureate
A poet laureate is a poet officially appointed by a government and is often expected to compose poems for state occasions and other government events...
Henry James Pye
Henry James Pye was an English poet. Pye was Poet Laureate from 1790 until his death. He was the first poet laureate to receive a fixed salary of £27 instead of the historic tierce of Canary wine Henry James Pye (20 February 1745 – 11 August 1813) was an English poet. Pye was Poet Laureate...
(1745–1813) in 1790, but the first verse had already appeared in print in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book
Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book is the earliest extant printed collection of English language nursery rhymes, published in London in 1744. It was a sequel to the lost Tommy Thumb's Song Book and contains the oldest version of many well-known and popular rhymes, as well as several that have been...
, published in London around 1744, in the form:
- Sing a Song of Sixpence,
- A bag full of Rye,
- Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
- Baked in a Pye.
The next printed version that survives, from around 1780, has two verses and the boys have been replaced by birds. A version of the modern four verses is first extant in Gammer Gurton's Garland or The Nursery Parnassus
published in 1784, which ends with a magpie
Magpies are passerine birds of the crow family, Corvidae.In Europe, "magpie" is often used by English speakers as a synonym for the European Magpie, as there are no other magpies in Europe outside Iberia...
attacking the unfortunate maid. The additional fifth verses with the happier endings began to be added from the middle of the 19th century.
Meaning and interpretations
Many interpretations have been placed on this rhyme. It is known that a 16th century amusement was to place live birds in a pie. An Italian cookbook from 1549 (translated into English in 1598) contained such a recipe: "to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up" and this was referred to in a cook book of 1725 by John Nott. The wedding of Marie de' Medici
Marie de Médicis , Italian Maria de' Medici, was queen consort of France, as the second wife of King Henry IV of France, of the House of Bourbon. She herself was a member of the wealthy and powerful House of Medici...
and Henry IV of France
Henry IV , Henri-Quatre, was King of France from 1589 to 1610 and King of Navarre from 1572 to 1610. He was the first monarch of the Bourbon branch of the Capetian dynasty in France....
in 1600 contains some interesting parallels. "The first surprise, though, came shortly before the starter—when the guests sat down, unfolded their napkins and saw songbirds fly out. The highlight of the meal were sherbet
Sherbet may refer to:- Foodstuffs :* Sherbert , an effervescent drink or a fizzy powder sweet, chiefly UK* Sherbert, an American term for a frozen dessert like sorbet, but containing a small amount of dairy...
s of milk and honey, which were created by Buontalenti."
In The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes
, Iona and Peter Opie write that the rhyme has been tied to a variety of historical events or folklorish symbols such as the queen symbolizing the moon, the king the sun, and the blackbirds the number of hours in a day; or, as the authors indicate, the blackbirds have been seen as an allusion to monks during the period of 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...
by Henry VIII
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...
, with Catherine of Aragon
Catherine of Aragon , also known as Katherine or Katharine, was Queen consort of England as the first wife of King Henry VIII of England and Princess of Wales as the wife to Arthur, Prince of Wales...
representing the queen, and Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn ;c.1501/1507 – 19 May 1536) was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife of Henry VIII of England and Marquess of Pembroke in her own right. Henry's marriage to Anne, and her subsequent execution, made her a key figure in the political and religious upheaval that was the...
is maid. The rye and the birds, have been seen to represent a tribute sent to Henry VII, and on another level, the term "pocketful of rye" may in fact refer to an older term of measurement. The number 24 has been tied to the Reformation and the printing of the English Bible
The efforts of translating the Bible from its original languages into over 2,000 others have spanned more than two millennia. Partial translations of the Bible into languages of the English people can be traced back to the end of the 7th century, including translations into Old English and Middle...
with 24 letters. From a folklorish tradition, the blackbird taking the maid's nose has been seen as a demon stealing her soul.
No corroborative evidence has been found to support these theories and given that the earliest version has only one verse and mentions "naughty boys" and not blackbirds, they can only be applicable if it is assumed that more recently printed versions accurately preserve an older tradition.
An entremet is in modern French cuisine a small dish served between courses or simply a dessert. Originally it was an elaborate form of entertainment dish common among the nobility and upper middle class in Western Europe during the later part of the Middle Ages and the early modern period...
or Subtlety, an elaborate form of dish common in Europe, particularly England and France, during the late Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...