IT WERE greatly to be desired that the instructors of our children could be persuaded how much is lost by rejecting the venerable relics of nursery traditional literature, and substituting in their place the present cold, unimaginative,—I had almost said, unnatural,—prosaic good-boy stories. "In the latter case," observes Sir Walter Scott, "their minds are, as it were, put into the stocks, like their feet at the dancing-school, and the moral always consists in good conduct being crowned with success. Truth is, I would not give one tear shed over Little Red Riding Hood for all the benefit to be derived from a hundred histories of Jemmy Goodchild. I think the selfish tendencies will be soon enough acquired in this arithmetical age; and that, to make the higher class of character, our own wild fictions—like our own simple music—will have more effect in awakening the fancy and elevating the disposition, than the colder and more elaborate compositions of modern authors and composers."
Deeply impressed with this truth, and firmly convinced of the "imagination-nourishing" power of the wild and fanciful lore of the old nursery, I have spared no labour in collecting the fragments which have been traditionally preserved in our provinces. The object is not so much to present to the reader a few literary trifles, though even their curiosity and value in several important discussions must not be despised, as to rescue in order to restore; a solemn recompense due from literature for having driven them away; and to recall the memory to early associations, in the hope that they who love such recollections will not suffer the objects of them to disappear with the present generation.
In arranging the materials gathered for this little volume, I have followed, in some respects, the plan adopted by Mr. Robert Chambers, in his elegant work, the Popular Rhymes of Scotland; but our vernacular anthology will be found to contain so much which does not occur in any shape in that of the sister country, that the two collections have not as much similarity as might have been expected. Together, they will eventually contain nearly all that is worth preserving of what may be called the natural literature of Great Britain. Mr. Chambers, indeed, may be said to have already exhausted the subject for his own land in the last edition of his interesting publication, but no systematic attempt has yet been made in the same direction for this country; and although the curiosity and extent of the relics I have been enabled to collect have far exceeded my expectations, I am fully aware how much more can yet be accomplished. An additional number of foreign synonymes could also no doubt be collected; though perhaps more easily by foreigners, for Continental works which contain notices of traditional literature are procured with difficulty in England. The following pages, however, contain sufficient of these to exhibit the striking similarities between rhymes prevalent over England, and others which exist in the North of Europe.
The collection of Nursery Tales is not as extensive as could have been wished, but the difficulty of procuring the brief traditional stories which were current some century since, now for the most part only recollected in obscure districts, is so great, that no apology is necessary for the apparent deficiency of that section. The few which have been obtained are of considerable curiosity and interest; and I would venture to suggest to all readers of these pages the great obligation they would confer by the communication of any additions. Stories of this kind are undoubtedly to be obtained from oral tradition, and perhaps some of literary importance may yet be recovered.
The compiler's best thanks are due to Captain Henry Smith for the very interesting communication of rhymes current in the Isle of Wight; to Mr. George Stephens for several curious fragments, and valuable references to Swedish songs; and to many kind correspondents who have furnished me with rhymes current in the various districts in which they reside. It is only by a large provincial correspondence that a collection of this kind can be rendered complete, and the minutest information on any of our popular tales or rhymes, forwarded to the address given below, would be most thankfully and carefully acknowledged.
BRIXTON HILL, SURREY