Friday, July 18, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Annotated Mother Goose

The Annotated Mother Goose, notes by William S. Baring-Gould and Ceil Baring-Gould

"The 'true' nursery or 'Mother Goose' rhyme, then, is generally, but not always, of anonymous authorship."

So, I've been reading this off and on; it's not the sort of book one can read from cover-to-cover. Well, not without going mad and constantly thinking in sing-song rhythm.

Or having terrifying nightmares. (wikipedia)

The Baring-Goulds do a great job of dividing their subject up into distinct publishing time periods. We start in 1744 with Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book and end up roughly in the 1930s. Which about covers the modern public domain period.

The annotations are scholarly and chatty in turns, with polite allusions to early obscene or offensive versions of some of the rhymes. Where possible, they run down the original song or poem that somehow got bundled into a collection over the years. Most of these, of course, have been anonymously passed down through oral traditions.


They also aren't afraid to smack down spurious interpretations, taking many opportunities to mention Katherine Elwes Thomas' unverifiable political interpretations of simple rhymes like Bah Bah Black Sheep ("a complaint of the common people..against the amount of wool that went to the King...").

And, of course, there are hundreds of wonderful illustrations, ranging from simple woodcuts to the more complex modern lines of Arthur Rackham.

As is usual with many of the old reference books that I pick up these days, there's the question of how much more useful this is than just looking things up on the internets. But, there's something satisfying about this labor of love. The annotations and essays are short and to the point, authoritative without being too stuffy. With the current craze for fancy annotated editions of children's books crowding the "classics" shelves, it's nice to see the fieldwork done, sanely and without today's need for trivia, by an earlier generation.

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