Friday, January 13, 2017

I've been goosed!

I don't know why I've had this rather inane nursery rhyme repeating in my head lately. I don't know how it got started. I'm aware that most of these childish things have dark or even sinister origins, buried in antiquity somewhere.

I wondered if this one wasn't just a piece of nonsense, incongruous, like the wacky poems of Edward Lear or even Lewis Carroll. But no. The merest probing into Wikipedia brought up this:

Most historians believe that this rhyme refers to priest holes—hiding places for itinerant Catholic priests during the persecutions under King Henry VIII and later under Oliver Cromwell. Once discovered the priest would be forcibly taken from the house ('thrown down the stairs') and treated badly. Amateur historian Chris Roberts suggests further that the rhyme is linked to the propaganda campaign against the Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII.

Other interpretations exist. Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey note in Birds Britannica that the greylag goose has for millennia been associated with fertility, that "goose" still has a sexual meaning in British culture, and that the nursery rhyme preserves these sexual overtones ("In my lady's chamber").

Priest holes! Sexual connotations! It doesn't quite hang together for me, but these things can evolve over time, or exist in layers. The original version didn't even have the throwing-down-the-stairs bit:

Goose-a goose-a gander,
Where shall I wander?
Up stairs and down stairs,
In my lady's chamber;
There you'll find a cup of sack
And a race of ginger.

We won't even ask what a "race of ginger" is. It's just one of these obscure things. Some older versions include these even-sillier lines:

The stairs went crack,
He nearly broke his back.
And all the little ducks went,
'Quack, quack, quack'.

All that strange left-leg stuff ("so I took him by his left leg and threw him down the stairs") didn't seem to add up for me, until I suddenly remembered hearing the expression, "He kicks with his left foot." Just recalling that phrase jarred awake a synapse that hadn't fired since I was six and listening to my Grandmother quietly, politely eviscerate every Catholic in the neighborhood. The left foot is like the left leg or the left hand - sinister, half a bubble off plumb, "not the thing". In other words, to an observant Protestant - Catholic.

You have to ask yourself, however, why anyone would invent a children's rhyme about priest holes and the persecution of Catholics, those nasty old left-foot-kickers. Why would anyone throw in references to geese (ladies of the night) and ladies' chambers (implying high-status quarters not normally open to the goose trade)? There is Mother Goose, of course, just to complicate things. But if you really look at the structure of the rhyme, which absolutely no one does, you see that it can be interpreted entirely another way.

The narrator, the "I" who is reciting the rhyme, is actually addressing it to the goose character - asking it, in essence, "where should I go? It's kind of like "hey, you over there - yes, I mean YOU, Goosey Goosey Gander - what's a-happenin'?" But it's definitely not "Here I am, Goosey Goosey Gander, Esquire, and let me tell you all about my lady's chamber." This is in spite of the fact that every illustration I've ever seen for this thing includes a big, nasty goose, usually throwing a man down the stairs.

 In fact, "Goosey Goosey Gander" might just be a collection of nonsense syllables, a blithery-blathery-tra-la-lee sort of thing.

If you take the goose right out of the equation (and that's no fun, because I love these depictions of savage geese throwing terrified men down the stairs), then you have something like this:

Dinder, dander, donder
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs, downstairs,
In my lady's chamber.

When you look at it this way, it can and does have erotic possibilities. Hmmm, let's see, where am I going to wander? (wandering being a sort of aimless idling, or even a poking-around-in-none-of-your-business thing). Maybe up here, maybe down there (whew - now that has some sexual meaning behind it!), or maybe in my lady's chamber, where I certainly do NOT belong. It has a sort of subtext of invaded intimacy.

The old man who wouldn't say his prayers kind of reminds me of the old rhyme about "I met a man who wasn't there". In any case, is it really the goose who does the "throwing down the stairs" bit? Of course not; it's the narrator of the poem. So maybe it's really by that notorious old Catholic-hater, Henry VIII. Who knows, he wrote a lot of songs, such as Greensleeves. Or maybe Anne Boleyn wrote it for something to do in the Tower before she got chopped.

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