Christopher Fletcher

Anon’s Baby Song; a lullaby for your baby tonight

Anon’s Baby Song; a lullaby for your baby tonight
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Writing, as I have done, about the Bodleian’s holdings of Jane Austen or Byron is all very well, but our most prolific author is Anon. He (or she) leaves his (or her) elusive  traces everywhere – in ancient papyrus fragments, clerkly rolls of the middle ages, early-verse anthologies, copperplate accounts of long lost estates. Or, in one case, a manuscript volume of rhymes and songs just acquired from our friendly neighbour, Blackwell’s.

The book dates from around 1800 and is barely bigger than a playing card. Its physical format suits the person for whose little hands it was intended, an infant girl in the nursery. It is barely holding together (another one for the conservators) and features a chaos of pencil loops and swirls on its few blank pages: adult handwriting may change through the ages, but baby script doesn’t.

The manuscript, which includes musical notation, mostly comprises rhymes that my own five year old girl could sing along to. But there are a few that are more obscure, including three by Joseph Dacre Carlyle (1758-1804) a Professor of Arabic at, oh well, Cambridge. One song, however, seems to be entirely unknown and must be the work of the obscure compiler of the volume. Sweetly sad in tone, it is written for her own daughter.

I transcribe it here for you, mums. Read it to your infant daughter. Hug her. Try not to cry.

Baby Song: To be sung in honour of Mary Jane, by her Mama

My Dearie, my sweety, my love,

Has anything made thee unhappy?

Thou has twisted that dear little face

And quite overset all thy pappy.

Thy cheek is as red as the rose

Thy little nose turns up so nicy

From thy noddle quite down to thy toes

Thou art nothing but sugar & spicy.

Thine eye as the welkin is blue

Thy voice is as soft as the turtle

Of teeth thou canst only count two

But thy breath is as sweet as the myrtle.

Oh! What will thou be when thy charms

Their full height of beauty disclose

When escaped from thy Mother’s fond arms

The bud opens into the rose.

Yet my cares then by no means shall cease

Some youth as my wisdom conjectures

Whose manners thy fancy shall please

Shall break all the force of my lectures.

And steal from thine innocent heart

The treasure I thought was my own

Cruel fate at length bid thee depart

And the empty cage speak the bird flown.

Thus my tale shall be told o’er again

For nothing new under the sun is

The picture I see very plain

By Prophecy’s hand ready done is.

Thy part shall in time succeed mine

And thou in thy turn be a Mother

My place I to thee must resign

Just as one shadow follows another.

Then while I can call thee my own

Let me hug like a miser my treasure

Reflecting when old I am grown

That my toil has been ever my pleasure.

This is the fourth entry in an occasional series by Christopher

Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library. You can

read the other instalments here.