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.



Do you remember the smell? The redolence of the little tubes of ‘oil paint’?

Not to mention the exquisite risk (because oil paint would not wash off). The necessity to soak the brush in that strange stuff—‘turpentine’. The ambition, the aspiration to achieve the picture of a horse in a field, the flowers in a jar, the replication of the Mona Lisa: so perfect and so beautifully available—if you could just fill in each numbered portion faithfully, with its own faithful colour.

And the painting to be achieved would arrive on a birthday or at Christmas, the perfect thing to fill several hours of patient application. But oh, the disappointment when half way through, your patience ran out or you discovered you’d painted a bit with the wrong colour. Your edges weren’t clear, like they should have been. The horse was not as horse-like as it had been on the cover. It should have fitted together as magically as a jig-saw but (in my case, at least) it never quite did. And so the painting lay about, and the little tubes looked squeezed and limp, and the brush was not soaked in turpentine as it should have been, but hardened in the unforgiving paint, which had also somehow found its way onto bits of the dining room table. There was retribution, and there was guilt.

Wikipedia tells me it all started in the early 1950s, just in time for me (born 1953) to undergo aspiration and anguish. Max S Klein (owner of the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, Michigan) and Dan Robbins (a commercial artist with an eye for the main chance) were the perpetrators, and the marvellous idea led to ‘colour by numbers’ (with crayons, so much less dangerous to household furniture), as well as the same principle applied to tapestry.

Stamped cross-stitch and embroidery kits must, however, have long pre-dated painting by numbers. From the tablecloths we grew up with, I have reason to believe my mother tackled pre-printed designs long before I was born. In this case, no numbers are required, just the faint indication of the design on the cloth, sometimes in colour, more often in monochrome shadow, with the colours left to the craftswoman’s judgement. I have a memory of half-finished embroidered cloths in the little sewing table (the lid lifted up and the threads and bobbins were underneath). Presumably the vision grew thin halfway through, or my mother got too busy to finish the job.

There’s no real connection between this and writing by numbers. There isn’t really an equivalent, and when Pope talks about it in his ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot’, he means something different:

Why did I write? what sin to me unknown
Dipp’d me in ink, my parents’, or my own?
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobey’d.
The Muse but serv’d to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life

‘Numbers’ were the Renaissance term for poetry, because poetry was defined in terms of measured form, counted out metrically or syllabically, or via some patterned system. Certainly it makes sense in terms of Pope’s work, his ear for the perfect turn of phrase to complement a neatly iambic line.

And now? What about the repeating French forms: the villanelles, the sestinas, the triolets, and even the paradelle (the last invented by Billy Collins as a joke, but now popping up in various places with disturbing solemnity). The pattern is supplied. You study it carefully. You choose the words that are to recur in the recurring places, and – voilà! a poem appears. I am among the many who have served their time with these forms, who have industriously studied to repeat the repetitions, in the hope that something would emerge.

For me, however, they do not have the charm of the oil paint, the risk and the promise. I can’t say these forms are unworthy. Sometimes, when penned by other people, I read them with pleasure and surprise. I know the feat has been achieved when I discover I have liked the poem without noticing the elaborate practice in numbers. This is rare.  (It doesn’t help when the work is titled ‘Sestina’.)

As for the villanelle: if you are going to repeat two lines four times inside one poem of only 19 lines in total, those two lines had better be good. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is one of the few that does it for me. By and large, I think the villanelle is a villain. But let Pope have the last word:

Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
They rave, recite, and madden round the land.

What walls can guard me, or what shades can hide?
They pierce my thickets, through my grot they glide;
By land, by water, they renew the charge;
They stop the chariot, and they board the barge.
No place is sacred, not the church is free;
Ev’n Sunday shines no Sabbath-day to me:
Then from the Mint walks forth the Man of Ryme,
Happy! to catch me just at Dinner-time.

Ken Pyne cartoon