The house that Jack Built

22So, today’s prompt reminds me of a nursery rhyme that I learned ages ago where I first heard the word. Y’all probably know it, but I’ll put it down here (as I remember saying it, y’all might remember it differently)

This is the horse and the hound and the horn
Which belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
Who kept the cock that crowed in the morn
Which woke the priest all shaven and shorn
Who married the man all tattered and torn
Who kissed the maiden all forlorn
Who milked the cow with the crumbly horn
That tossed the dog, that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

The_house_that_Jack_built_pg_18Yeah, we said “crumbly” instead of “crumbled”  I know it’s not a word. Deal with it.  I remember this poem because of the word forlorn.  I didn’t know what it meant.  I thought it meant tragic, beautiful, and sad, and that’s why the beggar kissed her… maybe? Just for clarity’s sake, I remember learning this as “…the beggar all tattered and torn” but everywhere I look now says man. I mean, if a man is “all tattered and torn” wouldn’t he be a beggar? And since the rhyme didn’t say “woman” all forlorn, I figured that the man would get a title too, i.e. “beggar”. I didn’t know that maiden meant young, unmarried woman.  I mean, I kinda remember thinking this way… It was, after all, a long time ago. But I also remember teaching my kids “the beggar all tattered and torn”. So there’s that.  I also didn’t know what “worried” meant in this context either when I was a kid.  I mean I obviously knew what “worried” meant in the conventional sense… as in, “I’m worried it might rain tomorrow.” But not in this context, which, if y’all don’t know means this:

worry worried; worrying transitive verb
1 dialectal British : choke, strangle
2 a : to harass by tearing, biting, or snapping especially at the throat
b : to shake or pull at with the teeth a terrier worrying a rat

illus-0017-1And not to make the cat upset because there was a dog near.  Even when I was a kid, I had an idea that there was more to the word than met the eye.  I think because the cow “tossed” the dog, and the cat “ate” the rat, so the dog had to do more than cause the cat mental anguish.  The animals in this nursery rhyme are a bit vicious; aren’t they? So anyway, then there was the maiden, “all forlorn” — which, dear reader, was the first time I remember ever seeing “all” used as a modifier, and I ran with that from day one, much to my mother’s chagrin.  Anyway, there was the maiden “all forlorn” and for some reason, I liked that maiden.  Why was she “all forlorn”?  Was it because she had to milk the cow with the crumbly horn? Was it because the beggar kept kissing her? Why did the beggar keep kissing her? I’d be “forlorn” if a beggar kept kissing me!  Especially if he were already married to a priest (all shaven and shorn). Come on, you’ve gotta admit that the line could be read that way. I know I heard it that way and thought the priest and beggar were married. ^_^

Jack-of-all-tradesAnd for some reason, I kinda had the idea that they (all of them, the horse, the cow, the people, all of them), were actually in the house that Jack built.  I mean, the title of the rhyme is The House that Jack Built after all, and when it’s said correctly, you say that line every time “the house that Jack built”.  And who’s Jack? Why did he build a house that could hold all of these people? and why do we care about the rat that ate the malt that he left lying around in his house? And what the hell is malt?  These are the questions that a young mind wanted to know.  Of course, I know now.  Malt was used to make beer, and that’s why people cared that it was eaten by a rat — instead of Jack himself losing it or using it somehow.  Beer (or ale) was a valuable commodity back in the day, and therefore so was malt.  Jack, of course, was a generic name used in Ye Olde England in all kinds of children’s stories and rhymes — Jack and Jill, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer, &c… I think our modern day equivalent would be John.


Anyway, when I was learning this “memory rhyme” I had a lot of questions about the words in it — forlorn, worried, shorn, sowing (how does one sew corn?) — believe it or not, I already knew what a cock was (and not the modern day equivalent — ya pervs!) but I learned the rhyme because it’s what one does as a child and an adult is teaching you a rhyme. Besides, it was fun. Forlorn was the word I kinda sorta learned through the context of the poem. Tragic, beautiful, and sad, was the definition I inferred from the rhyme, and it’s the one that’s stuck with me all my life. Of course, it does mean sad, and it is tragic, but it’s a bit more than that… one more definition:

1 a : bereft, forsaken left quite forlorn of hope
b : sad and lonely because of isolation or desertion : desolate a forlorn landscape
2 : being in poor condition : miserable, wretched forlorn tumbledown buildings
3 : nearly hopeless a forlorn attempt

I’m not sure why the milk maid was so forlorn (other than to make the rhyme), but there it is.  And that, dear readers, is what came to mind with today’s prompt. A nursery rhyme I learned over forty years ago.

house that jack built

From a nineteenth century book

via Daily Prompt: Forlorn

4 thoughts on “The house that Jack Built

  1. Embeecee

    Interesting take on that old rhyme. Maybe the maiden (milk maid ) was forlorn because her employer, the ‘evil and tyrannical’ Country Squire fired her after the cow with the crumply horn would NOT be milked, because the cow’s horn HURT FFS (crumpled or crumply…that sounds PAINFUL to me); and therefore the milk maid’s services were surplus to requirements. So she was bereft, sad, and left all alone…. forlorn. But letting sketchy poor men come up and just kiss a girl all uninvited (nothing against poor people, but geez. If one is a MAIDEN (virginal quality implied), one has an opportunity to get something for the ‘prize’..particularly if one is unemployed due to truculent livestock and unfeeling rich people. I’m going to smile all day at your interpretation and I want to thank you for reminding me of a favorite childhood rhyme…. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marilyn Armstrong

    This is how language alters. We remember them the way we remember them and pass them to our kids who remember them their OWN way and pass them down. My mother used to sing nursery rhymes to me and I can still sing most of them. In fact, I can’t remember the words without the tunes.

    Liked by 1 person


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