19 NOVEMBER 1870, Page 10


THE BROTHERS DALZIEL, with a good many eminent colleagues, have just been offering empirical solutions of the artistic problem how to illustrate a nursery rhyme.* Some of these solutions are very good indeed to our mind, and some but indifferent ; but the question of questions is the principle on which the solution of this great problem should be solved. A nursery rhyme we take to be in essence a capricious and grotesque collec- tion of images reduced into something like order by the self- imposed necessity of metre and rhyme. A true nursery rhyme begins at hap-hazard, and chances as it were on whatever mean- ing the fates which govern metre and rhyme will vouchsafe. Take the case of "Slog a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye, Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie; When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,— Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before a king ?"

It is obvious, we think, that the author of this time-honoured verse began in pure caprice. No one of whom we have ever beard has been able to connect the sixpence and the

pocketful of rye with the blackbird pie commemorated in the three last lines. The song is certainly not sung of sixpence, nor of a pocketful of rye. The sixpence and pocketful of rye are mere vestiges or landmarks, as it were, of the absolutely un- concerted and unconsidered character of the conception which resulted from this arbitrary beginning. 'Rye' suggested pie' as the proper rhyme for it, and the spirit of caprice in which the whole thing began suggested putting the four-and- twenty black- birds into it. Even then it was clearly entirely unknown to the author what would happen when the pie was opened, but the same spirit of caprice not unnaturally suggested that the black- birds should burst forth into exultation, while the word sing' led the poet to consider the pie as a dish for a king. Thus the whole verse becomes a natural growth from the spirit of absolute caprice when subjected to the fetters of rhythm and of rhyme. A nursery rhyme is a whimsical impromptu, a sort of spinning

• See Rational and Nursery Songs. Set to Music by J. W. Eliot With Illustra- tions, engraved by the Brothers Bade). U. Routledge and Sons.

of the teetotum of rhyme to see what turns up from the most arbitrary beginning. As a wizard puts his hand into the hat which his audience had seen to be empty, and brings out the oddest assortment of miscellaneous articles, a string' of sausages, a whole assortment of pocket-handkerchiefs, a singing- bird, and a bottle of champagne,—so the nursery-poet, at her wits' end apparently for the amusement of children, snatches at the strangest odds and ends, in the faith that rhyme, like the reflecting-glasses in a kaleidoscope, will somehow combine them into a whimsical sort of harmony. •

Having thus developed the elementary idea of a nursery rhyme,

we ask how far an artist can work it out to the eye ? It is obvious that there must be a great difficulty about this. For instance,

the artist (Mr. Walker) who has drawn an excellent picture of this blackbird pie,—of the king who has just slashed it open with a

sort of dagger, of the Queen in meditative astonishment, and of the courtiers enjoying the surprise as a few of the four-and-twenty blackbirds perch on the crust to sing, has very naturally aban- doned the notion of giving any sort of expression to the nonsensical throw-off—the "sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye." In fact he has illustrated the fanciful incident into which the nursery rhymester has been led by seizing the first rhymes that occurred to him (or her), but he has not illustrated—nor would it have been easy to illustrate—the utterly haphazard condition of caprice,— the negation of reason,—in which he began his ditty. In a still more difficult case, that of,-

"Dickery Dickery Dock,

The mouse ran up the clock, The clock struck one ; the mouse ran down, Dickery, Dickery Dock."

—we need hardly say that the artist, Mr. Griset, has not attempted to draw that setting of gibberish in which the career of the mouse is set forth. Yet we rather suspect the setting of gib-

berish very much enhances the charm of the rhyme to the infant mind. It is the growth of mere alliterative sounds like "Dickery

Dickery Dock," into a rhyme with pictures and meaning in it,— the nonsense suggesting sense,—which really pleases the child.

How could the artist in any degree convey this ? Sound can be traced growing into sense, you can hear how the gibberish suggests articulate thought,—and that pleases the

child,—but you can hardly draw a picture that seems to have been snatched, at a chance snatch, out of no-meaning, though you

can always illustrate the meaning when you have got it. The next thing to this, however, is for the artist to give the picture as much of the air of quaint and grotesque surprise as is possible, so that it may combine with that tone of caprice which is always expressed in nursery rhymes by their nonsensical start. This Mr.

Griset has to some extent done by perching a mouse on the-very summit of the clock-case, putting another in deep converse with him on the corner ornament, his tail dropping down in a streamer beside the clock, opening the clock-case, exhibiting the mouse who is engaged in the ascent (at four minutes to one), as ascending by the string which suspends one of the weights, and placing two more mice near the foot of the clock, one on the pedestal, and one at the very foot, only just lifting up its fore paws for the ascent.

On the whole, Mr. Griset has managed to convey the impres- sion that the ascent of the clock was the same kind of object to the mice engaged in it which an ascent of Mont Blanc is to a party of travellers,—an impression which, in connection with the dismay about to be produced for the mouse on the clock- weight by its sudden descent as the clock strikes one, is really

grotesque and quaint in a high degree, though grotesque and quaint in a way quite unauthorized, as we admit, by the historical nursery rhyme. Still it is better to give the general effect of quaintness and incoherence by an unhistorical suggestion, than not at all.

But some of the artists have, we think, succeeded still better in translating the chanciness, so to speak, of the nursery rhyme into their illustrations. Take Mr. Z wecker's admirable illustration of "Hey diddle diddle,

The cat and the fiddle, The cow jumped over the moon, The little dog laughed to see such sport, And the dish ran after the spoon."

By the way, the authentic rhyme is "the dish ran away with the spoon," suggesting either petty larceny on the part of the dish, or an elopement concerted between the dish and the spoon, as you please; and we are sure Mr. Z wecker would much have pre- ferred illustrating the authentic, to illustrating the corrupt ver- sion, as it would have given him room either for a display of avarice, or a display of tenderness, on the part of the dish, which,

as an artist, he must have greatly enjoyed. But though he has lost this opportunity, the illustration is admirable, and not least admirable for the " chanciness" of its effect. The cat is working away at the fiddle with a marvellous intensity of genius and expression worthy of a Paganini or a Joachim, her eyes fixed on the cow clearing the moon with an air as if a single note lost or out of tune might interfere with the cow's enterprise; the cow herself, passing over the moon at an immense altitude ikbove it, is frisking and kicking to an extent which few artists could have managed to attribute to a cow ; and the dish is bowling away after the spoon,—which flies through the air,—in a most inconsequent manner ; and best of all, the little dog who is laughing to see such fine sport, is not look- ing at the sport, but is come to the front of the stage, as it were, to enjoy a hearty laugh with the spectators at what is going on. The spectacle has tickled him so much that he comes forward for sympathy with the audience, instead of gazing any longer at the scene. The look on the little dog's face of having a private understanding with his human friends about the ridiculous scene enacting behind him, and of asking them to share with him the laugh at the expense of the cat and cow and dish and spoon, is inimitable, and certainly gives as much of the effect of a grotesque situation lit upon by a whimsical accident, as art could give. So, too, with Mr. H. S. Marks's admirable picture of " Humpty- Dumpty's" great broken bald head, over which you see the cracks running in all directions as in splintered glass. .He lies on his back at the foot of the wall,—the head, a very big, empty, philanthropic one (suggesting that Humpty Dumpty would have done better to sit on a School Board than on a wall), upturned, and the face disfigured by a painful smile (like that painted on the signboards of any " Sun " Inn), while a sedate frog is apparently examining anxiously the nature of this fractured globular body near him, and contemplating a jump on to its upper surface. The completely extemporized character of Humpty Dumpty and his misfortune could hardly have been more effectually represented than by the astonishment and curiosity with which this frog is exploring his smooth, bald, fractured brain. In the same artist's admirable picture of the " old man clothed in leather," —who was so clothed, as every child who has heard this nursery rhyme knows, solely because 'leather' rhymes to weather,' and the original rhymester had hit upon cloudy weather in his first line,—Mr. Marks has made his hero almost confess himself a grotesque whim of the rhyming faculty, as he certainly was :---

"One misty, moiety morning,

When cloudy was the weather, 0 then I met an old man Clothed all in leather ; Clothed all in leather, With cap under his chin ; Oh, how d'ye do, and how d'ye do And how d'ye do again ?

I shook his hand at parting, Though cloudy was the weather, This imbecile old party Clothed all in leather ; Clothed all in leather, With cap under his chin, Oh, fare thee well !

And fare thee well !

And fare thee well, again !"

Mr. Marks brings this grotesque "accident of an accident," with bowed head, and a very peculiar leather cap, hobbling on to the scene with a stick in each hand, meeting a very bright-look- ing young woman in a mob cap, with a very ostentatious umbrella under her arm, who almost as good as says that she is thinking of the weather, and that the old gentleman has met, not her thought, but its sound, half- way, by appearing in the nick of time in so eccentric and com- plete a snit of leather, and has caused her lively gratification thereby. A better illustration of a rhyming 'accident' could scarcely be conceived. The grotesque old man seems summoned out of the earth to rhyme to the young woman's idle sing-song about the weather, and you feel sure, as she bids him "fare thee well, and fare thee well, and fare thee well, again," that he will run in her head, exactly like a stupid rhyme, for the rest of her walk at least.

There are many of these illustrations far too grave and matter- of-fact for the nursery nonsense they illustrate, but on the whole the Brothers Dalziel have got together a troop of artists with no little of the kind of humour needed for bringing the pictures as near as possible to the whimsical oddity of our ancient Nursery Rhymes.