Sing a song of sixpence,
pocket full of rye,
four and twenty blackbirds
baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
the birds began to sing:
isn’t that a dainty dish
to set before the King?

The King is in his counting-house
counting out his money;
the Queen is in the parlor
eating bread and honey;
the Maid is in the garden
hanging up the clothes,
when down swoops a Blackbird
and snaps off her nose!

“Sing a song of sixpence…” is one of the oldest nursery rhymes still popular today in “Mother Goose” collections. While its earliest printed appearance is in a 1744 song book, a reference to the poem appears in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1601?), Act II, Scene III: “Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song.”

Unlike some other nursery rhymes that allegedly have a coherent political or cultural background, “Sing a Song of Sixpence…” remains mysterious. (Unless you consider Snopes’ hoax claim that the rhyme was used as a recruiting song for the pirate Blackbeard.) At best we know that old European cookbooks did have recipes for baking pies containing live birds as kind of a joke or surprise (“a diverting Hurley-Burley”) for a guest or party.

Naturally I see the political in the rhyme. The vagrant and mischievous blackbirds ruining the King’s dinner with raucous singing aptly represent a loud-mouthed fiction writer and his rude blog. That the King merely retreats to his riches and the Queen to her sweets possibly mirrors the futility of the exercise, which is alleviated – no doubt unfairly – by the rogue blackbird’s violent attack on the innocent Maid.

  1. I am just guessing, but if this piece goes back to Shakespearean times and was tossed off so easily by the Bard, then I would bet that the blackbirds are clergy. It is anybody’s guess as to which kind, but since Shakespeare himself was divided on the issue … his father being a staunch Catholic … but Will being a little irreligious on account of his son’s early demise, might have been taunting the early Anglicans for sucking up to the King (‘Enry VIII) for just a pocket full of rye. The blackbird snipping off the nose of the maid is to say that Henry’s new state religion did not actually profit the under classes all that much.

    But, … the blackbirds could have been early bloggists out looking for their laptops and captured by the contemporary Sheriff of Nottingham.

  2. hey, just found your blog today and I’ve been reading … like what I read. Thanks for putting it out there.

  3. I remember reading this nursery rhyme when I when I was about 6 years old. (I am now 81) and I have wondered thru the years if this rhyme had any specific meaning. Now I know probably not. But at least it’s a bit of an answer. I read these rhymes over and over and I can still repeat some of them.

  1. 1 4&20 blackbirds » Blog Archive » Links…

    […] About the nursery rhyme […]

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