Behind the Meaning of the Traditional Lullaby “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

When discussing the meaning of the traditional lullaby and nursery rhyme, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” there is a sense that you’re highlighting several lullabies.

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The song is the same tune and melody as several others, including “The Alphabet Song” and “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.” So, just for fun, we’ll dive into the meanings and histories of those two, as well. But our focus here will be on twinkling stars.

So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Origins of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

The lyrics for the lullaby stem from a 19th-century poem—”The Star“—written by author Jane Taylor, who was born in 1783 and died in 1824. That verse was first published in 1806 in Rhymes for the Nursery, a collection of poems by Jane and her sister Ann.

The song is sung according to the French melody of the tune, “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman,” which itself was first published in 1761, some 50 years before “The Star.” That French tune was later arranged by several composers, including Mozart via the collection Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman.”

Today, the English lyrics of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” include five stanzas, even though only the first of them is widely known.

Original Lyrics

These are the original lyrics to the lullaby:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are !
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the trav’ller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often thro’ my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.

‘Tis your bright and tiny spark,
Lights the trav’ller in the dark,
Tho’ I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Alternative Versions

Below is an alternative version, with a similar meaning, from 1896 from the collection Song Stories for the Kindergarten, by Mildred J. Hill:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How we wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the glorious sun has set,
And the grass with dew is wet,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

When the golden sun doth rise,
Fills with shining light the skies,
Then you fade away from sight,
Shine no more ’till comes the night.

Another version, a parody of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which was titled, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat,” is recited in chapter seven of Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by the character, the Mad Hatter.

It is but one verse and is as follows:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a teatray in the sky.

The Alphabet Song

This famous verse is sung in the same manner with the same melody as the version we know today of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Of course, the meaning is quite different, though both are meant for small children. “The Alphabet Song” is meant to teach children, well, the alphabet, their ABCs.

This song was first copyrighted in 1835 by the Boston music publisher Charles Bradlee.

“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”

This popular nursery rhyme dates back to publication around 1744. Since that time, the words have not changed. It, too, is sung similarly to the French “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman.”

The single-stanza version of the rhyme known today goes as follows:

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

But the meaning of this verse is worthy of speculation. In the 1930 book, The Real Personages of Mother Goose, Katherine Elwes Thomas suggests that it refers to heavy taxation on wool. Thought to be, perhaps, a reference to the English wool tax of 1275, which survived until the 1400s.

More recently, though, the rhyme is thought to point to the slave trade, particularly in the southern United States. But while this is easy to surmise, the thought has little supporting historical evidence. Despite this, some have changed the lyric to “Baa, Baa, Rainbow Sheep.”

Some believe the rhyme points to prized wool, black, and therefore not in need of dye.

First printed in the 1744 Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, which is the oldest surviving collection of English language nursery rhymes, the original version went like this:

Bah, Bah, a black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes old mate I have
Three bags full,
Two for my master,
One for my dame,
None for the little boy
That cries in the lane.

In the next oldest surviving printing, Mother Goose’s Melody from 1765, the rhyme is the same, except for the last line, which is changed to “But none for the little boy who cries in the lane.”

Final Thoughts

The meaning of nursery rhymes and lullabies that have subsisted throughout hundreds of years is always fun to parse. Likely, they have multiple meanings, which is why they’ve lasted through so many years. Maybe “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is about taxation, maybe it’s about slavery, or maybe it’s about a different type of sheep, plain and simple.

As for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” the verse is about the dignity of a light shining bright, something we don’t fully understand but that is also helpful along our way. It’s shimmering and it’s free.

Today, we sing these to feel good and to enjoy their melodies as much as their substance and context. In the end, they will last for many more years and offer many more smiles and many more interpretations as time passes.

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