The Confusion of Childhood, Starring Old Mother Hubbard.

posted in: Chicago, Poetry, Word Nerd 4
Mother Hubbard and her dog; illustration in Traditional Nursery Songs of England, Ed. Felix Summerly (1843)
Mother Hubbard and her dog; illustration in Traditional Nursery Songs of England, Ed. Felix Summerly (1843)


While I’m in Chicago, I’m staying at my friend Heather’s house. She shares the house with her terrific husband, Sam, and I have very recently discovered they have many terrific books.

For instance, they have a full set of the Childcraft “How & Why Library.” I didn’t have Childcraft books growing up, but I’d seen them before. The volumes have names like, “How We Get Things,” “What People Do,” and “About Dogs.” They’re a kid’s first encyclopedia, basically.

I wanted to read all of these books, but “Poems and Rhymes” came first in the set, so I went with that, and the first page I opened to was the tale of Old Mother Hubbard. Have you ever read the entire Old Mother Hubbard poem? It’s not good. It’s not just that it lacks substance — it does lack substance — but it is also is confusing in frustrating ways, as opposed to being confusing in delightful ways, e.g., the work of Lewis Carroll.

Let’s take a look at this thing. The first verse everyone knows and it’s fine, albeit a bummer (if you’re the old lady’s dog):

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone; 
But when she got there, 
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none. 

Okay, fair enough. But buckle up. Next verse:

She went to the baker’s
To buy him some bread,
But when she came back,
The poor dog was dead.

The dog died?? Her dog died while she was running errands? Perhaps your dog died, Mother, because you chose to neglect your pantry. Just when rigor mortis begins to set in, however, the dog suddenly feels much better, not that the author helps his audience prepare for that:

She went to the fruiterer’s
To buy him some fruit,
But when she came back,
He was playing the flute. 

Ol’ Lazarus is playing the flute, eh? That is super, super creepy. And whose flute is it, anyway? The old lady can keep expensive woodwind instruments but no kibble? She should be ashamed of herself. The good news is that the word “fruiterer” is new to me and I like it.

She went to the fishmonger’s
To buy him some fish,
But when she came back,
He was licking the dish. 

We have an issue here with the conjunction. The word “but” is used to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned. For instance, “She went to the fishmonger’s/to buy him some fish/but when she came back/he had made himself tacos.” There is no contrasting idea in the verse as it is up there but the author uses “but” and it’s driving me bonkers.

She went to the barber’s 
To buy him a wig,

A what?!

She went to the barber’s 
To buy him a wig,
But when she came back
He was dancing a jig.

So … He couldn’t put the wig on. Because of the jig. Perhaps she couldn’t catch him in his jigging to affix the wig properly? See above problem with conjunction. I have a headache.

She went to the cobbler’s
To buy him some shoes,
But when she came back,
He was reading the news. 

She went to the tailor’s 
To buy him a coat,
But when she came back,
He was riding a goat.

Sloppy! These thoughts are not congruent in any way! I realize children’s poetry isn’t trying to be Yeats. But the minds of children are typically more fit than adults will appreciate or admit. Don’t you foist this goofy stuff on me, Childcraft. You’re lucky I’m staying in Heather’s guestroom and spied you on the shelf. It could be years before someone else comes along and gives you a fair shake. Okay, last verse:

The dame made a curtsy,
The dog made a bow;
The dame said, “Your servant,” 
The dog said, “Bow-wow.”

Introduction of a new character. Totally out of left-field. Maybe this work needs another draft, Childcraft.

Goodnight, Chicago.