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.