- Righting Sendak:The Psyche of Mother Goose
I have always been a bit peeved at Maurice Sendak for his disdain of Kate Greenaway's 1881 classic, Mother Goose; or, The Old Nursery Rhymes. I have a particular fondness for her work and a certain weakness for romanticized childhoods in English gardens. Sendak charged that Greenaway had no sense of the real spirit of Mother Goose and even accused her of initiating a whole school of sentimental Mother Goose collections. My indignation was somewhat lightened by reading Iona Opie and Peter Opie's I Saw Esau (illustrated by Sendak), in which the earthiness of rhymes evoked other than Greenaway images. Sendak's most recent book, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, reveals even further the psychic complexity of some of the familiar and less than familiar verse. Could he be right in his idiosyncratic vision of Mother Goose?
My sensibilities have grown even further with this provocative critical study of nursery rhymes. I will never see Mother Goose in the same slant of light again. Lucy Rollin's Cradle and All: A Cultural and Psychoanalytic Study of Nursery Rhymes explores different voices—the cultural as well as psychological meanings that shape the text of this early folk poetry, a rowdy street lore. Aware of a decided skepticism toward Freudian interpretation or, more specifically, of the idiosyncratic Bettelheim approach toward fairy tales, Rollin draws together the many voices of psychoanalysis, literary criticism, folklore studies, cultural history, and cultural anthropology to express meanings that lie deep within nursery verse. These meanings may be purposeful—intentional messages from [End Page 236] adult to child—as well as unconscious recordings of the human experience, its darkness and light.
Much to her credit, Rollin is tempered in her approach toward the psychoanalysis of folk culture. She acknowledges the delicate nature of her research, the controversies within. As a feminist scholar, Rollin also acknowledges her own resistance to the sexism of the rhymes, as well as to the persistent attempts to alter them, prescriptively, toward modern gender standards. The author refers to a commentary on the hazards of psychoanalytic literary theory in Children's Literature "The Reproduction of Mother in Charlotte's Web" (vol. 18, 1990) and addresses the concerns for a more cultural approach. In this particular volume, various critics—such as Michael Steig, Jerry Phillips, Ian Wojcik-Andrews, U. C. Knoepflmacher, Patrick Horgan, and Jack Zipes—critique the application of absolutist Bettelheimian-Freudian assumptions and argue, instead, for more elastic, multiple perspectives. Rollin positions her work within a broad framework of social history and conjoins various interpretive disciplines. Moreover, revealing her own relation to the particular theory she has chosen, she describes the psychoanalytic approach as "a congenial and informative way of looking at human behavior and at literature" (xv). Rollin distinguishes her own approach as a departure from classical Freudian concerns and toward object relations and ego psychology, which are only briefly defined in a sentence or two. Although I appreciate the author's nontechnical rhetoric, I would have appreciated a fuller explanation of these distinctions. She does articulate her own bent toward nursery rhymes to be their "containment of strong urges and the use of defensive and adaptive maneuvers in the service of maturation."
Rollin shapes her cogent analysis around specific categories—animal rhymes, courtship and marriage rhymes, lullabies, and amusements—that examine nursery rhymes as a body of verse. Rollin observes a considerable amount of cruelty to animals, with an ambivalent strain of tenderness. Nature can be tamed, they seem to say. The romantic verse reveals a complex relationship between the sexes and a fear of womanly arts. The verse that accompanies holding and playing activities between adult and child is both gentle and rough and tumble. Thus follows cradle and all—rock-a-bye and then the fall.
Rollin also examines the adaptation of verse, a kind of censoring and controlling process that is ongoing and all too contemporaneous. Whether the cause is ecological, fundamentalist, or gender free, many attempts have been made to purge the...