Row, Row Your Boat

Essays > Psychology

Srajan reflects on nursery rhymes in general and one in particular…

The first thought that arises when you awaken in the morning can sometimes be revelatory, or at least it can propel you on a search. Recently, for three days in a row I woke up humming a nursery rhyme from my childhood:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Rowing Boats van Gogh

Nursery rhymes are, as one would suspect, little simple rhymes sung by mommy to gently ease into sleep their darling children. Looking up the meaning and derivation of common American nursery rhymes proved quite the opposite however.

The internet search soon delivered an article written by someone called ‘JS ‘who had actually taken a university level Children’s Literature class at Cal Poly, USA. There he learned that the derivation of most nursery rhymes were not as benign as one would expect. “Mary, Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow?” for example refers to Catholic Queen Mary’s graveyard of martyred Protestants and tools of torture and the guillotine.

Now… sleep soundly my little darling!

These kind of themes were found throughout many of the common nursery rhymes. “Ring around the Rosie” refers to the Black Plague that was the reason for the killing of a third of Europe in the 14th century. And not to be forgotten is “Three Blind Mice” who chase the farmer’s wife only to have their tails cut off with a carving knife.

How about, “Hush-a-by baby, on the tree top, when the wind blows, the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will fall baby, cradle and all.”

Sleep tight my little one!

“Row, row, row, your boat” was first printed in 1852 and today is often sung in nursery schools in America. It can be sung as an “action” rhyme, whereby the youngsters sit opposite one another and “row” forwards and backwards with joined hands often in a round. Children, quick to tire of the same old lyrics, have created new verses along the way such as this cautionary one:

Row, row, row the boat,
Gently down the stream.
If you see a waterfall,
Don’t forget to scream!


Osho’s tales of his early years and love of the river near his home have always inspired me. One of them is about him jumping into a whirlpool which easily takes a body down into the deep, especially when the body is fighting against the powerful pull; his strategy was not to fight but to go with it and he would come up again without a problem. He says he learned his art of let-go through those whirlpools and feels indebted to the river.

Looking more deeply I noticed that many religious orientations were well aware of “Row, row, row, your boat”. For example, the Buddha is said to have put his begging bowl in the current of a river and watched it float upstream against the flow of the water. It was a small miracle to indicate that what he was doing was on the right track, and that it is possible to flow gently in the current, even if it is against the current of the world.

It is fun to play with rhymes. Make up your own, maybe something like this:

Row, row, row your boat
While you’re in the tub,
Take a breath, start to dive,
Then you’ll be a sub!


SrajanSrajan is a regular contributor

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