Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Professor Mitchill’s Reformation of “Mother Goose”

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Professor Mitchill’s Reformation of “Mother Goose”

By John Wakefield Francis (1789–1861)

[Reminiscences of Samuel Latham Mitchill. 1859.]

I WAS repeatedly curious enough to interrogate him as to the question what agency he had had in the modification of the New England Primer, and whether, at his suggestion, the old poetry, “Whales in the sea God’s voice obey,” had been transformed into the equally sonorous lines, “By Washington great deeds were done.” In one of my morning visits to him, at his residence in White Street, about the time that Jeffrey, the celebrated Edinburgh critic, had called upon him, to take the dimensions of a universal philosopher, the learned Doctor was engaged in writing a series of minor poems for the nursery; for his nursery literature, like his knowledge of botanical writers, had scarcely any limitation. “You are acquainted,” says he, “with the nursery rhymes commencing ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds?’ They abound with errors,” added he, “and the infantile mind is led astray by the acquisition of such verses. I have thus altered them this morning: ‘When the pie was open, the birds they were songless; was not that a pretty dish to set before the Congress?’ I thus correct,” added the doctor, “the error that might be imbibed in infancy of the musical functions of cooked birds; and while I discard the King of Great Britain, with whom we have nothing to do, I give them some knowledge of our general government, by specifying our Congress.” These trifles show how intense was his Americanism. When he declared, in his ingenious effusion on “Freedom and Fredonia,”
  • “Not Plato in his Phædon
  • Excels the chief of Fredon,”
  • his democracy and his admiration of the philosopher Jefferson, then President, was complete.