Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a fine horse.
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall make music wherever she goes
When I recite these lines from Mother Goose, especially the last two, the pleasure centers of my brain light up. I relish the rhyme and rhythm and repetition. I feel them in my body. I delight in the silliness, the leaps of logic, and the rich imagery.
I sense something deep at play here. Something serious. Something I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around for a long time now.
I grew up on nursery rhymes and fairy tales, as many children do. I read them to my own as well. My mother bought a whole set of books, twelve in all, meant to carry a child from the nursery into middle school. They were called My Book House and edited by Olive Beaupre Miller. I have them still, full of poems and stories, myths and legends, and fairy tales from all over the world.
The rhythms and rhymes and images of those books seeped into my growing bones and imagination and made me who I am today. I am sure of it. And the older I grow and the wider I read, the more I realize how these nursery rhymes speak to us on a deeper level than we might suspect.
Babies’ brains crave repetition, rhythm, and rhyme. They lap it up the way cats do rich cream, according to child psychologists. Reading nursery rhymes to infants facilitates language acquisition and creates early readers and lovers of words.
Even as adults, when engaged in rhythmical activity, whole portions of our brains light up in anticipation and pleasure, so musicologists will tell you.
We’ve long known how rhyme, rhythm and repetition are used by oral traditions as mnemonic devises to store and retrieve information. Somehow they tap into the deep roots of our memories, even as they light up the pleasure centers of our minds.
I can’t help wondering if it’s all linked somehow: rhyme, rhythm, pleasure, memory. Something deep and primal is going on.
No doubt some of the pleasure infants take in listening to these nursery rhymes comes from associating these sounds with similar sensations while being held in their mother’s arms: The rhythm of her rocking body, the sound of her heartbeat, the movement of her breath flowing through her. others they hear being held in their mother’s lap, or rocked in their father’s arms. I wonder if they hear in these rhythms and rhymes their own heartbeats and the feel of their breath moving through their bodies. Perhaps they recall the other pleasant and soothing sounds they hear all around them, day by day: their parent’s footsteps going up and down the stairs, the tap of raindrops on rooftops, and creaks of trees in wind storms, the chatter of squirrels and trills of songbirds when they wake in the morning?
It could be that listening to nursery rhymes recalls even the deeper memories. The pleasure of being in their mother’s womb, perhaps. Feeling the sway of her body as they walk together. Hearing the cadence of voices they recognize and take comfort in, even when they make no sense.
Perhaps the rhythms and rhymes and rich imagery first heard in the nursery tap into some ancestral memory still stored within the cells of our bodies, recalling the dreaming earth and seas from which life evolved. Perhaps we feel ourselves once again drifting in those ancient tides, swaying among the sea fans. We feel within ourselves the circling of the sun, the swirling of the galaxies, and hear the morning stars singing together.
Some linguists and philosophers say that language, rather than being some purely abstract phenomena, has its roots in the sensuous world around us.
“Ultimately, then, it is . . . the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language. As we ourselves dwell and move within language, so, ultimately, do the other animals and animate things of the world: if we do not notice them there, it is only because language has forgotten its expressive depths. . . . .It is no more true that we speak than that the things, and the animate world itself, speak within us.” (David Abram from The Spell of the Sensuous)
“Language,” writes the philosopher Merleau-Ponty, “is the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests.”
This I know: The use of rhyme and rhythm in language, the repetition of alliteration, speaks to our deeper selves. In a way, we were made to make music, and to hear it, wherever we go. We carry the rhythms and rhymes of the universe in our swaying bodies and singing voices, in the memories and dreams that we weave and weave us, in our poetry and art and nursery rhymes. And in the language we spill across our pages like the patterns moonlight makes tracing tree leaves across grassy meadows.
POSTSCRIPT – I think my love of art began when browsing through the gorgeous illustrations of nursery rhymes and fairy tales found in My Book House. I created a Pinterest page to bookmark some of my favorites. You can view it HERE. It’s a work in progress