Behind the Curious Meaning of the Traditional Song, “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”

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For anyone who has studied poetry, literature, music, or philosophy, the best part about the field is interpretation. Sometimes—most of the time—the meaning of a phrase or lyric is not clear. There is just enough on the page to hint at the meaning or to imply something significant.

Such is the case with the traditional nursery rhyme, “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.”

Let’s investigate.

Origins

“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is an English nursery rhyme that is often sung by children at play.

To many, the little ditty has a meaning akin to something religious. To others, it is about governorship or even fertility. But, of course, its origins and actual meanings are disputed.

And while some think it points to historical figures in the 16th century, there is no proof of the nursery rhyme being sung prior to the 18th century (see below).

Lyric Versions

Today the most common version of the lyrics go like this:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row

Yet, there are other versions that have popped up in history, as well. For example, the oldest known version of the rhyme was published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744. And that rhyme goes like this:

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,
And so my garden grows.

Even still, there are other versions, such as this offering from the 18th century:

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,
Sing cuckolds all in a row.

And even within more accepted versions, the last line has varied throughout history. Such alternative rhymes include:

Cowslips all in a row.

And:

With lady bells all in a row.

What could all this mean?

Terms

For clarification, a “cockle” is a bivalve mollusk that resides on sandy, sheltered beaches throughout the world. And a “cuckold” is understood as either a husband with an adulterous wife, or in biology terminology, a male who takes care of children who are not genetically his. And a “cowslip” is a type of flowering plant.

Much to digest.

Possible Meanings

As noted, the meaning of the nursery rhyme is disputed. It’s vague enough to offer many interpretations, and due to its variations in ending lines and verbiage, there are many ways to understand the history of the meaning, as well as the meaning itself.

For example, some say Mary refers to Jesus’ mother, and thus, the rhyme is about the spread of Catholicism. Others suggest the name refers to Mary I of England (Mary Tudor) or Mary, Queen of Scots (Mary Stuart), who were both contemporaries in the 16th century, which is some 200 years before the rhyme was popularized. Perhaps the rhyme points to all these people and their commonalities?

The Garden

But maybe the most important part of the rhyme is the idea of the garden.

For any bit of song to stick around for hundreds of years, there likely has to be many applications and interpretations. One meaning doesn’t tend to stick in history, but several have a better chance.

Therefore, the garden growing may mean some idea of fertility. How does Mary grow her family? How does the garden of her lineage increase? Or the garden could be religion: how does the adoption of a religion increase and spread?

But what about Mary being contrary? When someone is contrary, they go against the grain. Therefore, the rhyme may be wondering aloud: how does someone who goes against the grain expect to also grow their philosophy or family?

Well, with pretty flowers and seashells, that’s how.

And with men (cuckolds) who will watch over those children (or those religious theologies) that weren’t theirs originally but are theirs now.

Indeed, perhaps the rhyme is about a strong woman who gets things done.

Religion

Some believe the “bells” in the rhyme represent the sanctus bells and that the cockleshells are the badges of the pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in Spain. The pretty maids are the nuns.

Another theory is that it wonders how Mary, Queen of Scots’ reign grows, and the silver bells are her cathedral bells, the cockle shells are implying that her husband was not faithful to her and the pretty maids all in a row are her ladies in waiting.

Or, if Mary is Mary I of England, then the question arises about her heirs. And that she is quite contrary is a reference to her unsuccessful attempt to reverse changes by her father and brother. And the pretty maids are a reference to miscarriages.

But in reality, these meanings are likely superimposed after the fact.

Likely Meaning Today

More likely, the rhyme is about feminine growth of some sort, which is a fundamental, crucial part of human existence. The species is furthered by women, who give birth to more, and therefore, wisdom and governance and anything else that comes from humanity.

And it is the thoughtful women—the contrarians—who perhaps are best at that, in the end, who lead us into the future. Adorned with beautiful things, women make life possible. And there are more “in waiting,” thankfully.

So, let us never forget that.

That’s the point.

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