We generally remember nursery rhymes as harmless, reassuring metrical jingles giving babes entertainment, even though many of them like Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty and Ring a Roses have quite dark origins and undertones. Francis takes these reassuring rhymes and, it seems to me, deliberately jars us out of our nostalgia for childhood and the familiar nursery world. He often breaks up the rhythms and rhymes to let in draughts of social malaise or of the great cosmic drama of salvation. He does this in various ways, trying to surprise rather than to delight the reader. They are not really for children, they prick childish illusions. They can also often lull the mind into dropping its defenses so that a new creative insight opens to us.

The nursery rhyme of the title, Sing a Song of Sixpence has fascinated generations with its mixture of seeming nonsense and dark undertones.

Reading Four And Twenty Blackbirds

They do not read well as poems, often something uncomfortable about them as the world of experience breaks in on the world of innocence. Maybe many of them need to be put to music to make up for their absence of eloquence. To read them as poems they have to be dramatised and exaggerated. Notice in the following what happens:

Simple Clod-Man went to God-Man
Said, Let me have Bliss-state.
Said God-Man to simple Clod-Man
That is not your fate –
Unless you first die from Love’s thirst,
And then My pleasure wait.

The original of course goes –

Simple Simon met a pieman
Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
Let me taste your ware.

Says the pieman to Simple Simon,
Show me first your penny;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
Indeed I have not any.

The last two lines of Francis’ poem jerk us out of the childlike rhythm.


Well we, to say the least, laugh at Simple Simon. But of course we all are in the same boat, desiring our pie in the sky without wanting to pay the price. The break in the rhythm wakes us up, not be entertained but to be confronted. Francis is not being witty or entertaining. Each poem is alerting us and he uses lots of different ways, some perhaps more successful than others.

A common proverb goes –

If wishes were horses
Beggars would ride:
If turnips were bayonets
I would wear one by my side.

Francis writes

If wishes were horses
God, the Beggar, would ride
On easeful journey –
But he tramps by my side.

How is that? In four lines the whole of creation is summed. God does not and cannot dream up a perfect world. He takes the long journey, in us and with us. God humbles Himself to become man to become God.

These simple and sometimes disconcerting poems are worth pondering over.


[Author: Geoff Gunther]