Think the oral tradition is lost? Wrong. We’re more drenched in it than ever.

My granddaughter Lois is two. One of her favourite silly songs is ‘One, two, three, four five, Once I caught a fish alive’. It’s a counting rhyme, like ‘One, two, buckle my shoe’, but better.

If you like words, and making things out of them (which most of us do, as little children), counting rhymes count. It’s like Alexander Pope says in his Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, ‘As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame, / I lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came.

I’m being naughty, of course. By ‘numbers’, Pope meant metrical stuff (measured verse, and maybe rhymes), not counting songs. But counting songs are measured, and it’s the measure that deepens (or doesn’t) the satisfaction.

I donate to Wikipedia every year, simply because it tells me things like this: the rhyme ‘One, two, three, four, five, Once I caught a fish alive’ is not immeasurably ancient. It was first recorded in Mother Goose’s Melody around 1765. Not only that, it wasn’t even any good in 1765:

One, two, three, Four and five,
I caught a hare alive;
Six, seven, eight, Nine and ten,
I let him go again.

I bet it was a lot harder to catch a hare than a fish, but let that be. There’s no rhythmic satisfaction in that Hare. Pope would have dismissed it with a curl of the lip and:

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be

Yep. The rhythm of that Hare rhyme is awful. But through common usage, it was improved. There’s an instinct for metre in human beings, and the oral tradition mainly makes things better. Rhythmically better, at least. So the current version, the version I know and which proliferates in dozens of different recordings and films on YouTube, is (according to Wikipedia) derived from three variations collected by Henry Bolton in the 1880s from America. (The source footnote to this is the Opies’ Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes).

Three variations? I’m clinging to the one I know (though YouTube has at least one minor, and lesser, variation). It goes:

One, two, three, four, five,
Once I caught a fish alive.
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,
Then I let it go again.

Why did you let it go?
Because it bit my finger so.
Which finger did it bite?
This little finger on the right.

Why is this good? Because it is good. Ask any two year old.

One: the rhymes are good, perfect rhymes (which is more than can be said for ‘It’s raining, it’s pouring / The old man’s snoring. / He went to bed and bumped his head And couldn’t get up in the morning.’)

Two: there’s a commanding, dynamic stress on the first syllable of every line (except ‘Because’, but we all say Cos so that doesn’t matter; or we say ‘be’ very tinily before even more emphatic CAUSE).

Three: all those monosyllables in the first verse, trickling along there so nicely. The variations are ‘alive’ and ‘seven’ – and ‘seven’ is particularly satisfying with the tune (you get to lean on the ‘sev’ of ‘seven’ in a delicious way).

Four: it does question and answer – a technique in poem and song that yanks the listener smack into the action. And the question-words (Why and Which) draw the metrical stress into them like magnets. You can’t miss them. WHY? WHICH?

Five: it ties in neatly with gesture. It acts out. Which finger? This one!

Six: it sounds so good, that second verse in particular, because of the multiplicity of ‘i’ sounds. The ‘i’ in the fish is in did and it and which and finger and this and little, and then it bends slantways in my and why and bite and right. This is so good, I mean really so good.

Seven: there are three ‘fingers’ in the second stanza. Finger is a great word. You can linger over finger.

Eight: the word ‘little’. It’s a great word for little people. It’s personable and precise. You have to smile to say it.

Nine: oh the rhythm the rhythm of the last line. It rushes through to the end so neatly, so agilely, so delightfully. This little finger on the right. It’s as quick as a minnow.

Ten: it’s comical. (We remember funny things.) It’s a neat story in which fish and man meet, and fish gets the (sorry about the pun) upper hand.

All this stuff learned when you think you’re just doing one to ten. All this stuff fed into your greedy young brain. All this po-stuff in your fingers forever.



  1. I once turned up at a school, I think in rural Pakistan, where hundreds of children were milling in the playground but no teachers were around. I taught them One, two, three, four, five – with all the actions. It was a magical, rhythmic moment that I’ve never forgotten.

  2. Dear Nell,

    I love this post and have always loved the rhyme – it was the first one my kids (now 3 and 4) learnt by heart and they recite it regularly. I also love that it was once a bad rhyme, and that it was edited by many people’s ear until perfect. I think that most of my poems would benefit from such an editorial process, but, of course, if this were to have happened I would have been long forgotten.

  3. Tristan, that’s a lovely comment! Perhaps the greatest compliment any poet can ever have is for one of their poems to turn into Anon, for the poem to be copied and reworked and reshaped until it’s part of the language, known and loved and necessary.

  4. I have it on good authority that ‘Mother Goose’ was essentially Oliver Goldsmith, who silently edited the anthology, and that its contents are a mix of genuine songs and rhymes, sourced and adapted from oral tradition, and outright forgeries created by Goldsmith and others in his circle. The problem (if it is one) is that we don’t know for sure which are which. The game of fabricating folk rhymes and other kinds of ‘ancient’ verse (like Lady Elizabeth Wardlaw’s ‘Hardyknute’, James MacPherson’s ‘Ossian’ etc) was quite the thing at the time, it seems.

  5. Not just those times, Wayne. But I believe Scott (Sir W) was a silent editor of some of the ballads he collected, but if so was expert at it so nobody really minds. Lots of the ballads survive in manifestly cobbled-together fashion and [i]some[/i]body needs to do a bit of trimming and tidying. The oral tradition lends itself to such practice, and the ultimate test I guess is whether the rhyme catches on and is remembered. I love to think that secret Goldsmiths may have been feathers in the cap (as it were) of Mother Goose: thank you for this lovely bit of retrospective gossip. The Ossian business is more sinister, I think, though equally fascinating, and perhaps further evidence, if any were needed, that human beings tend to believe things they long to be true. 🙂

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