The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren

One by one, all the books I wish I had time to write get written. Sometimes, after they come out, I still wish I’d done them myself, but not this one. It is a model of folklore collecting and like so much of the best folklorism in all countries, it seems to have been done by a couple with no great scholarly standing — at least previously — and with no Scholarships, Fellowships, Funds or Bourses. If the Fords or the Rockefellers or the Bollingens or the Guggenheims had financed this they’d be passing it around the office right now and they’d all be as proud and happy as mud larks.

This is not a collection of material of the Mother Goose type — folk poetry which adults teach children. It is all child-originated culture — the skip rope songs, counting out rhymes, parodies, singing verses, superstitions, of children themselves. There is nothing like it in English that comes close to being as extensive. The work of Dorothy [name illegible] and Patricia Evans in America is more intensive, but so far they have not equaled the Opies in bulk, or in geographic range. Sixty-three elementary schools, scattered evenly across the British Isles from northern Scotland to Land’s End, contributed material [illegible word] for several years. The Opies corresponded extensively with both students and teachers and visited a large number of the schools. Besides this, their acknowledgment pages list hundreds of individual informants and secondary sources.

It might be thought that most of these jingles and jokes and customs would be specially and peculiarly British. Indeed they are not. The hidden civilization of childhood is close to being at least Pan-European. The specific customs and poems are spread throughout the English-speaking world. Not only are they spread, they do spread right now. Parodies of the Davy Crockett song not only jump the Atlantic from Maryland to Shropshire, they leap the Pacific and appear in Australia within a couple months.

The child world is a coherent primitive culture lying right at our door. I do not accept the Lévy-Bruhl hypothesis. I know primitive people are not childlike — but children are cultural primitives. Some aspects of their ways find parallel in barbaric cultures, some in hunting and gathering cultures, others appear as traces in our own Neolithic. Irrespective of their values for culture history, they have a far greater value for us as being the immediate roots of contemporary culture. Moreover, since the activities of children are confined for the most part to very small ranges of age — sixth graders despise the games and jingles of fourth graders — many culture processes are greatly accelerated, and can be studied as we study heredity with fruit flies. On the other hand, children seem extraordinarily conservative: stale jokes, trick conundrums, bits of doggerel, can be traced back with little change to Elizabethan times. Also, childhood holiday activities preserve some of the most ancient rites and customs of the European peoples.

A discussion of the poetic virtues of these jingles would have to be complex and subtle; it would run to many pages. Sufficient to say that they embody not only psychological and historical sources of poetry, but in many instances exhibit the fundamentals of poetic stimulus and response. One of the best collections of this type is Claude Roy, Trésor de la Poésie Populaire, published by Seghers, which also includes the bulk of French Mother Goose poetry. Roy himself has been greatly influenced by such poetry, but so has almost every other French poet of importance from Supervielle to Yves Bonnefoy. We know the great prevalence of such influences in German literature, beginning of course with Goethe. Faust itself, shall we say, is one enormous skip rope and counting out rhyme? W.H. Auden introduced the mode into contemporary English poetry, but it never seems to have properly caught on. Possibly American poets do not care to use this material, but even so they should know it thoroughly. And so should children. There are a couple of scandalous chapters on pranks and jokes which my two little girls devoured with glee.

As a concluding note, I should mention that the Opies are also the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes and The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book. I would say that these three books are an essential part of the library for every student of culture, anthropologist or other, and for every serious student or practitioner of the art of letters.

April 1960


This review of Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford University Press, 1959) originally appeared in The Nation (9 April 1960). Copyright 1960. Reprinted here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth essays