life is but a dream…
We all remember the classic children’s song above, I believe I first heard it when I was in kindergarten. I remember sitting on the floor with the rest of the kids going over the song again and again. Once we had it down, the teacher divided us into small groups and we sang the song in rounds, stagger-start style. It sounded pretty cool! As far as I was concerned it was just a little kid’s tune about rowing your boat and having fun. It wasn’t until decades later when I returned to college that I learned the song had a deeper, more significant meaning, but then doesn’t everything?
I was taking a Children’s Literature course at Cal Poly and really enjoying the content. One day we were discussing children’s songs, poems and stories and their true origins and meanings, a rather fascinating topic. One of the first rhyme discussed was “Ring Around the Rosie.” Imagine my surprise when I learned that this cute little nursery rhyme is really about the Black Plague that killed off about a third of Europe back in the 1300’s. The “ring around the rosie”refers to the red blotches caused by the plague, “pockets full of posie” refers to the packets of herbs used to fight the infection , ashes, ashes refers to the cremation of the dead and “all fall down” refers to the fact that the plague afflicted both rich and poor alike. Wow! I never had a clue. Although many folklorist insist that this interpretation isn’t true, it still remains popular today.
And did you know “Mary, Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow?” is about Catholic Queen ‘Bloody Mary’, the daughter of King Henry VIII? Her garden is a graveyard of martyred Protestants, ‘silver bells refers to thumbscrews and ‘cockleshells’ to tools of torture. And are you ready for this? the “little maids all in a row” are a reference to “the Maiden” an English version of the guillotine. Other rhymes discussed included “Jack and Jill,” “Pop goes the Weasel,””Humpty Dumpty,” “Three Blind Mice” and several others, all with sinister origins.
Then our discussion took a more positive turn as we began to look at young children’s stories as metaphors for good life lessons. of course one of my favorites came up, “The Little Engine That Could,” a children’s story from the early 1900’s about a little engine who is asked to help pull a stranded train up and over a tall hill. the little engine approaches the job with an “I think I can,” attitude. As he struggles up the hill he begins to seriously doubt his ability to make it over the top, but with perseverance, hard work, and a strong believe in himself and his abilities, he at long last succeeds in reaching his goal. Truly a cute success story that teaching children the value of optimism and hard work. In fact many critics believe that the book is a metaphor for the American dream.
Several Dr. Seuss stories and poems were mentioned but it was the discussion on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a metaphor for life that really caught my attention. As I mentioned earlier I never thought much about it as a philosophical or profound life anthem but according to the professor there is definitely a deeper meaning.
In the song “Your boat” signifies your life, you are the oarsman, rowing down the river of time. But you aren’t simply rowing for a shot time and then are done with it, no, you are constantly row,row, rowing, meaning you are consistently working at life, rowing towards an end. of course some people row too quickly or try to race along but that’s not the way you should be rowing, you can miss too much along the way. No, you’re supposed to do it gently, slowly going with the current. You can’t force it, you simply go with the flow.
We’ve all heard the term “attitude is everything,” and it is. According to the song we should be row, row, rowing, merrily along, meaning we should be happy, joyous and passionate about our life journey. The song doesn’t say to row angrily, grudgingly or while upset. Its telling us to relax, be happy and enjoy the ride because “life is but a dream.” It’s our dream, our creation, just as our boat/life is ours and ours alone, no one can row our boat for us, we must do it ourselves. We have the ability to make our journey dream-like or nightmarish. The choice is ours alone.
I took that Children’s Lit class over 25 years ago. It was one of the best classes I ever took, informative, entertaining and definitely thought-provoking. I never looked at children’s poems, stories and songs the same way ever again.
So if in fact “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is a lesson on how we should live our lives, well then all I can say is “hang in there and keep row, row, rowing, merrily, merrily, merrily along, make your life a dream…”