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Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales by James Orchard Halliwell


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A VERY favorite class of rhymes with children, though the solutions are often most difficult to guess. Nursery riddle-rhymes are extremely numerous, and a volume might be filled with them without much difficulty. Many of the most common ones are found in manuscript collections of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I'm in every one's way,
   But no one I stop;
My four horns every day
In every way play,
   And my head is nailed on at the top!

—A turnstile.

There was a king met a king
   In a straight lane;
Says the king to the king,
   Where have you been?
I've been in the wood,
   Hunting the doe:
Pray lend me your dog,
   That I may do so.
Call him, call him!
   What must I call him?
Call him as you and I,
   We've done both.

—The dog's name was Been, and the name of the persons who met each other was King. This riddle was obtained recently from oral tradition. I observe, however, a version of it in MS. Harl. 1962, of the seventeenth century.

The cuckoo and the gowk,
The laverock and the lark,
The twire-snipe, the weather-bleak;
How many birds is that?

—Three, for the second name in each line is a synonyme.

The cuckoo is called a gowk in the North of England; the lark, a laverock; and the twire-snipe and weather-bleak, or weather-bleater, are the same birds.

With a round black body!
Three feet and a wooden hat;
What's that?

—An iron pot. In the country, an iron pot with three legs, and a wooden cover, the latter raised or put on by means of a peg at the top, is used for suspending over a fire, or to place on the hearth with a wood fire.

Riddle me, riddle me, what is that
Over the head and under the hat?

—Hair. From Kent.

The fiddler and his wife,
   The piper and his mother,
Ate three half-cakes, three whole cakes,
   And three quarters of another.
How much did each get?

—The fiddler's wife was the piper's mother. Each one there got ½ + 1 + ¼ or 1¾.

There was a little green house,
And in the little green house
There was a little brown house,
And in the little brown house
There was a little yellow house,
And in the little yellow house
There was a little white house,
And in the little white house
There was a little heart.

—A walnut.

A flock of white sheep
   On a red hill;
Here they go, there they go,
   Now they stand still!

—The teeth and gums.

Old Father Greybeard,
   Without tooth or tongue,
If you'll give me your finger,
   I'll give you my thumb.

—Greybeard, says Moor, Suffolk Words, p. 155, was the appropriate name for a fine large handsome stone bottle, holding perhaps three or four, or more gallons, having its handle terminating in a venerable Druidic face. This riddle appears to be alluded to in MS. Harl. 7316, p. 61:

I'm a dull senseless blockhead, 'tis true, when I'm young,
And like old grandsire Greyberd without tooth or tongue,
But by the kind help and assistance of arts
I sometimes attain to politeness of parts:

What God never sees,
What the king seldom sees;
What we see every day:
Read my riddle,—I pray.

—An equal. This riddle is well known in Sweden. The following version was given me by Mr. Stephens:

Jag ser det dagligen;
Kungen ser det sällan;
Gud ser det aldrig.
"I see it daily;
The king sees it seldom;
God sees it never."
As white a milk,
And not milk;
As green as grass,
And not grass;
As red as blood,
And not blood;
As black as soot,
And not soot!

—A bramble-blossom.

The land was white,
   The seed was black;
It'll take a good scholar
   To riddle me that.

—Paper and writing.

As high as a castle,
As weak as a wastle;
And all the king's horses
Cannot pull it down.

—Smoke. A wastle is a North country term for a twig or withy, possibly connected with A. S. wædl.

I've seen you where you never was,
   And where you ne'er will be;
And yet you in that very same place
   May still be seen by me.

—The reflection of a face in a looking-glass.

Banks full, braes full,
Though ye gather all day,
Ye'll not gather your hands full.

—The mist. From Northumberland. Sometimes thus:

A hill full, a hole full,
Ye cannot catch a bowl full.

A young man and a young woman quarrelled, and the former, in his anger, exclaimed,—

Three words I know to be true,
All which begin with W.

The young woman immediately guessed the enigma, and replied in a similar strain,—

I too know them,
And eke three which begin with M.

—Woman wants wit. Man much more.

The calf, the goose, the bee,
The world is ruled by these three.

—Parchment, pens, and wax.

A house full, a yard full,
And ye can't catch a bowl full.


As I was going o'er London bridge,
   I heard something crack;
Not a man in all England
   Can mend that!


I had a little sister,
   They called her Pretty Peep;
She wades in the waters,
   Deep, deep, deep!
She climbs up the mountains,
   High, high, high;
My poor little sister,
   She has but one eye.

—A star. This charming little riddle is always a great favorite with children.

As I was going o'er yon moor of moss,
I met a man on a gray horse;
He whipp'd and he wail'd,
I ask'd him what he ail'd;
He said he was going to his father's funeral,
Who died seven years before he was born!

— His father was a dyer.

As I look'd out o' my chamber window,
   I heard something fall;
I sent my maid to pick it up,
   But she couldn't pick it all.

—Snuff. From Yorkshire.

Black within, and red without,
Four corners round about.

—A chimney. From Yorkshire.

As I was going o'er London bridge,
I met a drove of guinea pigs;
They were nick'd and they were nack'd,
And they were all yellow back'd.

—A swarm of bees; not a very likely family to meet in that neighbourhood, at least nowadays, but some of the authors of these poems seem to have been continually traversing London bridge.

Higher than a house, higher than a tree;
Oh! whatever can that be?

—A star. From Yorkshire.

Which weighs heavier—
A stone of lead
Or a stone of feather?

—They both weigh alike.

Lilly low, lilly low, set up on an end,
See little baby go out at town end.

—A candle. Lillylow is a North country term for the flame of a candle. Low, A.-S. lig, is universal.

At the end of my yard there is a vat,
Four-and-twenty ladies dancing in that:
Some in green gowns, and some with blue hat:
He is a wise man who can tell me that.

—A field of flax.

Jackatawad ran over the moor,
Never behind, but always before!

—The ignis fatuus, or Will o' the Wisp. Jackatawad is a provincial term for this phenomenon.

Black'm, saut'm, rough'm, glower'm, saw,
Click'm, gatt'm, flaug'm into girnigaw.

—Eating a sloe. A North country riddle, given by Brockett. Girnigaw is the cavity of the mouth.

There was a man rode through our town,
   Gray Grizzle was his name;
His saddle-bow was gilt with gold;
   Three time I've named his name.

—Gaffer Was. From Yorkshire.

There was a man went over the Wash,
Grizzle grey was his horse;
Bent was his saddle-bow:
I've told you his name three times,
And yet you don't know!

—The same as the last. From Norfolk.

I am become of flesh and blood,
   As other creatures be;
Yet there's neither flesh nor blood
   Doth remain in me.
I make kings that they fall out,
   I make them agree;
And yet there's neither flesh nor blood
   Doth remain in me.

—A pen. Riddles similar to this are current in most languages. Mr.Stephens has kindly furnished me with the following one obtained in Sweden:

Af kött och blod är jag upprunnen,
Men ingen blod är i mig funnen;
Många herrar de mig bära,
Med hvassa knifvar de mig skära.
Mången har jag gifvit ära,
Mången har jag tagit af,
Mången har jag lagt i graf.

Of flesh and blood sprung am I ever;
But blood in me that find ye never.
Many great lords bear me proudly,
With sharp knives cutting me loudly.

Many I've graced right honorably:
Rich ones many I've humble made;
Many within their grave I've laid!

The pen has been a fertile subject for the modern riddle-writer. The best production of the kind was printed a few months ago in the Times newspaper, contributed by Miss Agnes Strickland.

Into my house came neighbour John,
With three legs and a wooden one;
If one be taken from the same,
Then just five there will remain.

—He had a IV legged stool with him, and taking away the left-hand numeral, there remains V.

Link Lank, on a bank,
Ten against four.

—A milkmaid.

Two legs sat upon three legs,
With four legs standing by;
Four then were drawn by ten:
Read my riddle ye can't,
However much ye try.

—An amplification of the above, the milkmaid of course sitting on a three-legged stool.

Over the water,
And under the water,
And always with its head down!

—A nail in the bottom of a ship.

As straight as a maypole,
   As little as a pin,
As bent as a bucker,
   And as round as a ring.

I do not know the solution of this riddle. A bucker is a bent piece of wood by which slaughtered sheep are hung up by their expanded hind legs, before being cut out.

Hitty Pitty within the wall,
Hitty Pitty without the wall:
If you touch Hitty Pitty,
Hitty Pitty will bite you.

—A nettle. MS. Harl. 1962, xvii. cent.

The first letter of our fore-fadyr,
A worker of wax,
An I and an N;
The colour of an ass:
And what have you then?

—Abindon, or Abingdon, in Berks. An ancient rebus given in Lelandi Itin. ed. 1744, ii. 136.

I saw a fight the other day;
A damsel did begin the fray.
She with her daily friend did meet,
Then standing in the open street;
She gave such hard and sturdy blows,
He bled ten gallons at the nose;
Yet neither seem to faint nor fall,
Nor gave her any abuse at all.

—A pump. MS. Harl. 1962, xvij. cent.

A water there is I must pass,
A broader water never was;
And yet of all waters I ever did see,
To pass over with less jeopardy.

—The dew. From the same MS.

There is a bird of great renown,
Useful in city and in town;
None work like unto him can do;
He's yellow, black, red, and green,
A very pretty bird I mean;
Yet he's both fierce and fell:
I count him wise that can this tell

—A bee. From the same MS.

As I went over Hottery Tottery,
I looked into Harbora Lilly;
I spied a cutterell
Playing with her cambril.
I cryed, Ho, neighbour, ho!
Lend me your cue and your goe,
To shoot at yonder cutterell
Playing with her cambril,
And you shall have the curle of her loe.

—A man calling to his neighbour for a gun to shoot a deer, and he should have her humbles. MS. ibid.

As I went through my houter touter,
   Houter trouter, verly;
I see one Mr. Higamgige
   Come over the hill of Parley.
But if I had my early verly,
   Carly verly verly;
I would have bine met with Mr. Higamgige
   Come over the hill of Parley

—A man going over a hill, and a fly lighting on his head. MS. ibid.


I have four sisters beyond the sea,
      Para-mara, dictum, domine.
And they did send four presents to me,
      Partum, quartum, paradise, tempum,
      Para-mara, dictum, domine!

The first it was a bird without e'er a bone;
      Para-mara, dictum, domine.
The second was a cherry without e'er a stone;
      Partum, quartum, &c.

The third it was a blanket without e'er a thread,
      Para-mara, dictum, &c.
The fourth it was a book which no man could read,
      Partum, quartum, &c.


How can there be a bird without e'er a bone?
      Para-mara, dictum, &c.
How can there be a cherry without e'er a stone?
      Partum, quartum, &c.
How can there be a blanket without e'er a thread?
      Para-mara, dictum, &c.
How can there be a book which no man can read?
      Partum, quartum, &c.

When the bird's in the shell, there is no bone;
      Para-mara, dictum, &c.
When the cherry's in the bud, there is no stone;
      Partum, quartum, &c.

When the blanket's in the fleece, there is no thread;
      Para-mara, dictum, &c.
When the book's in the press, no man can read;
      Partum, quartum, &c.

Several versions of this metrical riddle are common in the North of England, and an ingenious antiquary has suggested that it is a parody on the old monkish songs! It will remind the reader of the Scottish ballad of Captain Wedderburn's Courtship,

O hold away from me, kind sir,
   I pray you let me be;
For I will not go to your bed,
   Till you dress me dishes three:
Dishes three you must dress to me,
   And I must have them a',
Before that I lie in your bed,
   Either at stock or wa'.

O I must have to my supper
   A cherry without a stone;
And I must have to my supper
   A chicken without a bone:
And I must have to my supper
   A bird without a ga',
Before I lie into your bed,
   Either at stock or wa'.


When the cherry is in the bloom,
   I'm sure it hath no stone;
And when the chicken is in its shell,
   I'm sure it hath no bone:
The dove it is a gentle bird,
   It flies without a ga',
And we shall both lie in ae bed,
   And thou's lie next the wa'.


It is not generally known that many of our popular riddles are centuries old. Yet such is the fact, and those whose course of reading has made them acquainted with ancient collections are not unfrequently startled by observing a quibble of the fifteenth or sixteenth century go the round of modern newspapers as a new invention, or perhaps as an importation from America! A few months ago, an instance of this species of resuscitation took place in the publication of the question, "Which were made first, elbows or knees?" This was an enigma current in England in the time of Queen Elizabeth, and is found in a manuscript in the British Museum written before the close of the sixteenth century.

The earliest collection of riddles printed in this country came from the press of Wynkyn de Worde in the year 1511, in black letter, under the title of the "Demaundes Joyous." Only one copy of this tract, which was "imprynted at London, in Flete Strete, at the sygne of the Sonne," is known to exist, and it is now preserved in the public library at Cambridge. It is chiefly a compilation from an early French tract under a similar title, but which is far more remarkable for its grossness. The reader may be amused with the following specimens, and perhaps recognise some of them as old favorites:

"Demand. Who bore the best burden that ever was borne?—R. The ass on which our Lady rode when she fled with our Lord into Egypt. D. What became of that ass?—R. Adam's mother did eat her. D. Who is Adam's mother?—R. The earth.

Demand. What space is from the surface of the sea to its greatest depth? — R. A stone's cast.

Demand. How many calves' tails behoveth to reach from the earth to the sky? — R. No more but one, an' it be long enough.

Demand. Which is the most profitable beast, and that which men eat least of? — R. Bees.

Demand. Which is the broadest water, and the least jeopardy to pass over? — R. The dew.

Demand. What thing is that which never was nor never will be? — R. A mouse making her nest in a cat's ear.

Demand. Why doth a dog turn himself thrice round before he layeth down? — Because he knoweth not the bed's head from its foot.

Demand. Why do men make an oven in the town? — R. For because they cannot make the town in the oven.

Demand. How may a man know or perceive a cow in a flock of sheep? — R. By sight.

Demand. What alms are worst bestowed that men give. — R. Alms to a blind man, for he would willingly see him hanged by the neck that gave it him.

Demand. What thing is that which hath no end? — R. A bowl.

Demand. What people be they that never go a-procession? — R. Those that ring the bells in the mean time.

Demand. What is that that freezeth never? — R. Hot water.

Demand. What thing is that that is most likest unto a horse? — R. That is a mare.

Demand. What thing is that which is more frightful the smaller it is? — R. A bridge.

Demand. Why doth an ox lie down? — R. Because he cannot sit.

Demand. How many straws go to a goose's nest? — R. None, for lack of feet.

Demand. Who slew the fourth part of the world? — Cain, when he killed his brother Abel.

Demand. What man is he that getteth his living backwards? — R. A ropemaker.

The reader will please to recollect the antiquity of these, and their curiousity, before he condemns their triviality. Let the worst be said of them, they are certainly as good as some of Shakespeare's jokes, which no doubt elicited peals of laughter from an Elizabethan audience. This may be said to be only a negative kind of recommendation, and, indeed, when we reflect on the apparent poverty of verbal humour in those days, the wonder is that it could have been so well relished. The fact must be that we often do not understand the greater part of the meaning intended to be conveyed.

To revert to the lengthened transmission of jokes, I may mention my discovery of the following in MS. Addit. 5008, in the British Museum, a journal of the time of Queen Elizabeth. The anecdote, by some means, went the round of the provincial press in 1843, as of modern composition. "On a very rainy day, a man, entering his house, was accosted by his wife in the following manner: 'Now, my dear, while you are wet, go and fetch me a bucket of water.' He obeyed, brought the water and threw it all over her, saying at the same time, 'Now, my dear, while you are wet, go and fetch another!' "

Halliwell, James Orchard. Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales. London: John Russell Smith, 1849.

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Page created 10/25/07; Last updated 10/25/07