Behind the Meaning of the Traditional Nursery Rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”

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Videos by American Songwriter

Throughout history, few nursery rhymes are as adorable as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

The lyric itself feels plush, cozy, like a big hug with an even bigger pillow.

But often these nursery rhymes have much deeper meanings than on their face. Is “Mary Had a Little Lamb” one more such example? Let’s dive into its meaning and find out.

Origins

Dating back to the 1800s, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is an American nursery rhyme from the nineteen century. The verse was first published by Marsh, Capen & Lyon, a Boston publishing outfit, as a poem by the author, Sarah Josepha Hale. The work was printed on May 24, 1830.

It was likely inspired by real-life (cute) events.

In one of Hale’s biographies, a passage reads, “Sarah began teaching young boys and girls in a small school not far from her home [in Newport, New Hampshire]…It was at this small school that the incident involving ‘Mary’s Lamb’ is reputed to have taken place.”

The story continues, “Sarah was surprised one morning to see one of her students, a girl named Mary, enter the classroom followed by her pet lamb. The visitor was far too distracting to be permitted to remain in the building and so Sarah ‘turned him out.’ The lamb stayed nearby till school was dismissed and then ran up to Mary looking for attention and protection. The other youngsters wanted to know why the lamb loved Mary so much and their teacher explained it was because Mary loved her pet. Then Sarah used the incident to get a moral across to the class: 

“Why does the lamb love Mary so? Mary so, Mary so?
“Why does the lamb love Mary so? The eager children smiled,
“Mary loves the lamb, you know, Lamb, you know, lamb, you know,
“Mary loves the lamb, you know, The teacher’s happy smile.”

But Who Was Mary?

At 70 years old in 1876, a woman named Mary Tyler claimed to say that she was the original Mary from Hale’s poem.

Tyler claimed that as a young girl, she kept a pet lamb that she took to school one day after her brother made the suggestion to do so. This caused her school class to make a meaningful fuss upon seeing the animal.

She said, “visiting school that morning was a young man, by the name of John Roulstone; a nephew of the Reverend Lemuel Capen, who was then settled in Sterling, Massachusetts. It was the custom then, for students to prepare for college, with ministers, and for this purpose, Roulstone was studying with his uncle. The young man was very much pleased with the incident of the lamb, and the next day, he rode across the fields on horseback to the little old schoolhouse and handed me a slip of paper, which had written upon it the three original stanzas of the poem…”

Authorship Controversy

Tyler’s above claims, however, have not been supported by evidence, beyond her memory of the events. For example, the “slip of paper” she speaks of has never been produced. And the earliest actual evidence of the poem’s publication is Hale’s 1830 collection of poems.

Nevertheless, multiple sites in the town of Sterling, Massachusetts, claim Tyler is correct and accurate. In fact, a two-foot-tall statue representing Mary’s Little Lamb stands in the town center. In addition, The Redstone School, where Tyler attended and says the “slip of paper” incident took place, was built in 1798 and was later purchased (by Henry Ford) and moved to a churchyard on the property of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

Tyler’s house, which was located in Sterling, Massachusetts, was listed in 2000 on the National Register of Historic Places. But it was later destroyed by arson in 2007.

The Original Poem

The original published text was a poem called “Mary’s Lamb.” It was comprised of three stanzas, each eight lines. It went like this:

Mary had a little lamb,
   Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
   The lamb was sure to go ;
He followed her to school one day—
   That was against the rule,
It made the children laugh and play,
   To see a lamb at school.


And so the Teacher turned him out,
   But still he lingered near,
And waited patiently about,
   Till Mary did appear ;
And then he ran to her, and laid
   His head upon her arm,
As if he said—‘ I’m not afraid—
   You’ll keep me from all harm.’


‘ What makes the lamb love Mary so ?’
   The eager children smile—
‘ O, Mary loves the lamb, you know,’
   The Teacher did reply ;—
‘ And you each gentle animal
   In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call,
   If you are always kind.’

Later Renditions

Later, in the 1830s, author Lowell Mason changed the lyrics somewhat and set the nursery rhyme to a melody, adding some repetition, which is what most are more used to now. That offering goes like this:

Mary had a little lamb, 
Little lamb, little lamb,
Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow.


And everywhere that Mary went,
Mary went, Mary went,
Everywhere that Mary went 
The lamb was sure to go.


It followed her to school one day, 
School one day, school one day,
It followed her to school one day
Which was against the rules.


It made the children laugh and play,
Laugh and play, laugh and play,
It made the children laugh and play,
To see a lamb at school.


“Why does the lamb love Mary so?
Mary so, Mary so?
Why does the lamb love Mary so?” 
The eager children smile.


“Mary loves the lamb, you know,
Lamb, you know, lamb, you know,
Mary loves the lamb, you know,”
The teacher did reply

But How Does Thomas Edison Fit Into This?

“Mary Had a Little Lamb” was the first audio recorded by the inventor Thomas Edison in his new photography in 1877. It marked the very first instance of recorded English verse. It followed the recording of the French folk song “Au Clair de la lune.”

And How Do Buddy Guy, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Ray Vaughan Fit Into This?

Later, in the 20th century, Buddy Guy recorded and popularized the rhyme in a playful fashion in 1968. Later, in 1983, Stevie Ray Vaughan recorded his own version. Many suggest Guy got the melody for his recording from Freddie King’s song, “Just Pickin.'”

In 1972, Paul McCartney and his then-wife Linda recorded and released a non-album single version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It was, of course, based on the meaning of the traditional nursery rhyme.

Meaning

In the end, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is all about devotion. It’s easy to picture the cotton-white, fluffy little lamb following behind the little girl named Mary. She dotes on the lamb and it follows her, completely dependent and devoted. There is no sinister secondary meaning, just the one of love and affection, and appreciation. We should all be so lucky.

Do you have a favorite nursery rhyme? Let us know by commenting below.

Photo credit: DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA

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  1. Mary Had A Little Tree
    written by
    Mark Andrew Allen
    December 20, 2008

    Mary had a little tree,
    In her front yard for all to see.
    She watered and took care of it,
    Soon she saw it no longer fit.

    The tree had grown so big and strong,
    It cracked the foundation before too long.
    So she decided to get rid of it,
    And had it cut it down bit-by-bit.

    The lumber it yielded was quite impressive,
    It was stacked it up high but not too excessive.
    It all was picked up by a great big truck,
    To build a brand new school with any luck.

    Her good deed was rewarded one day in the fall.
    When she received an exciting telephone call.
    She was invited to see the new school now complete,
    And to bring her family and friends from down the street.

    Come one and come all it was said on the call,
    From the youngest to the oldest please bring them all.
    So Mary was delighted that from her tree this could bring,
    All this fun and excitement now in full swing.

    She gathered up her friends and family to go,
    Along with her pet lamb that walked sort of slow.
    This little lamb you see went everywhere with her,
    With cute little ears and all that curly fur.

    Well you might have heard the rest of this story somehow,
    It was in the news a lot and raised lots of eyebrows.
    How could they not let poor Mary’s lamb play,
    With the children in the school yard on that fall day?

    Well there’s a part of this story that you probably didn’t hear,
    When Mary went home later with her little lamby dear.
    She saw on the evening news the city had changed it’s strict rules,
    Lambs are NOW allowed in the halls of the schools.

    So the moral of this story is kind of confusing,
    but basically it’s this, it’s sort of amusing,
    Nursery rhymes are fine and they’re really quite fun,
    But leave the tree growing to a tree nursery and eat lamb well done!

    ©2008 Mark Andrew Allen
    http://www.markandrewallen.com

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