Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Nursery Rhymes, Aesop and the Little Red Hen

The prophet Isaiah once wrote to the residents of Jerusalem:

For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.

And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed.… (29:10-12)

When I read these verses this morning, I could hardly help but to think about the America we are living in now. I do not seek to address the political reality. That could be the subject of another blog, perhaps several. Rather, I am alluding, by a strange sort of temporal and cultural metonymy, to quite another phenomenon: our society’s loss of cadence, rhyme, literature, even story.

Isaiah is speaking specifically about the last of these contiguous ideas, the loss of story. He compares his people to someone sleeping. That sleeping man, Isaiah had said a few lines earlier, dreams that he has had a fine meal only to wake up to realize that he is still hungry. So it is with our own generation in which the dreamt-up dinner of political correctness has replaced the hearty meal of morality. Situation ethics are in vogue, though the term is but seldom used nowadays. Perhaps that is the case because the effete situation ethics that was evolving at least by the 1960s is too flexible a term for the intolerant fashioners of political correctness who want the permanence of morality but get only the ephemeral corrective, judgmental terminology that changes with the times.[1]

But to return to Isaiah’s point about the generation he lived in not being able to see, consider this: his contemporary “seers,” he says, can’t see. The message they need to heed is laid out right before them like words in a book, but that book is sealed. Thus another translation reads, “their worship … is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (NIV). They have learned rules, but they can’t read. And if they can’t read, they don’t know stories, they don’t know nursery rhymes, they don’t know that stories matter and that nursery rhymes teach moral lessons.

What stories do we need to heed if we don’t want the empty dreamt-up fodder of our “ethical” spokespersons such as Amanda Taub, who actually denies that political correctness exists or at least qualifies it as merely the demand for heightened sensitivity and recognition of the hurtfulness of microaggressions.[2] Let’s consider a few such stories; and here’s a spoiler alert—they’re loaded with micro-aggressions.

Aesop writes of the ant and the grasshopper (Perry Index, 373). The ant, of course, gathers all summer so that when the winter comes he has a great store of grain. The ant, however, asks the grasshopper, legitimately enough, whether he had gathered his own grain in the summer for the long winter. The grasshopper’s reply is that he had not but he had been busy drinking, singing and dancing. The ant’s response is micro-aggressive (at a minimum), for he states that those who sing, dance and drink away the summer will wind up starving in the winter. Not exactly the answer that the grasshopper was looking for. And just think of how this might sound to a child!

The Little Red Hen is a modern adaptation of the same story, of course, with a delightful twist that involves the denial of fully baked goods, not a mere supply of grain, to the hen’s slothful friends. And what about the boy who cried wolf, another of Aesop’s fables? (Perry Index, 210).

Illustration by Francis Barlow (1687)

In some versions of that tale not only do the sheep wind up dead, but the boy does, too.[3] Talk about an aggressive moral lesson!

And, to the politically correct person, perhaps it only seems to go downhill from there:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

What possible lessons could be gleaned from such a nursery rhyme? Is there anything? Well, yes, actually there is: first, if you’re a single mother with a lot of children and (presumably) little income, you might just have to live in tight quarters and, being poor, there’s a good chance that you will not have adequate means to feed yourself or your children well. Second, you might find yourself being short tempered from time to time—or, from the child’s point of view, you might just get a whipping if you complain about dinner. Are these the best lessons a child can learn? Perhaps not, but they are lessons nonetheless.

It might behoove us, in this regard, to realize that not all stories are proscriptive (telling you what to do) but many, like biblical proverbs, are merely descriptive (about what might happen and sometimes does and that you thus just have to deal with it). Descriptive things can be funny or at least mildly amusing and, simultaneously (and this is very important) apotropaic. Certainly that is what is meant here—if you joke about it, hopefully it won’t happen to you: you can ward it off by addressing it, at least in a roundabout, playful way. Consider another, which some say describes the Great Plague of London in the mid-seventeenth century:

Ring-a-round a rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.

Those who accept the plague as a possible explanation for this ditty’s origin and thus interpret the poem on that basis presume the ashes refer to death, along with the falling down motion of the children playing the game. On that interpretation, the children learn that death is omnipresent—but they do so in a game and, again, probably apotropaically. If we deny our children the opportunity to deal with stark reality, in this case death, because we want our children to feel safe, when death does come they will be ill equipped to deal with it. We can’t forget the value of the ancient dictum, “Live ever mindful of death” (Persius, Saturae 5.153), a lesson that a child can learn both from the boy who cried wolf (in some versions, at least) and, if only obliquely, from the simplest song in which the children have fun dropping to the ground.

Finally, let me suggest that we should not be surprised that our stories are strange, for life can be strange, too. And we should celebrate that strangeness, perhaps, with stories that can wake us up from the slumber that Isaiah describes and can inform our ethical choices. Such discernment can last us a lifetime—but only if we heed the moral of the story.

[1] An interesting ethical dilemma is the inability to teach ethics: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/ethics-professor-almost-impossible-to-teach-class-anymore-because-students

[2] One might also find interesting this article on how a reaction to political correctness helped to elect Donald Trump: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/30/political-correctness-how-the-right-invented-phantom-enemy-donald-trump.

[3] This occurs in John Hookam Frere’s Fable 3 (http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/fable-3-boy-and-wolf).

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply