Ding, dong, bell
I well remember this nursery rhyme from my own childhood. The modern-day version of this ditty, complete with shocking final rhyme, goes like this; “Ding, dong, bell,/ Pussy’s in the well./ Who put her in?/ Little Johnny Flynn./ Who pulled her out?/ Little Tommy Stout./ What a naughty boy was that,/ To try to drown poor pussy cat,/ Who ne’er did him any harm,/ But killed all the mice in the farmer’s barn.”
But its origins are much older. The first printed variant of the rhyme dates to around 1580 where, courtesy of the organist of Winchester Cathedral, John Lang, the following has been preserved, “Jacke boy, ho boy newes,/ the cat is in the well,/ let us ring now for her Knell,/ ding dong ding dong Bell.” Thomas Ravenscroft in his Musicks Miscellanie of 1609 has the song arranged as a canon or a round featuring four voices.
Not unsurprisingly, the descriptive phrase “ding, dong” has been associated with the ring of bells. After all it is the sound they make and is a wonderfully evocative onomatopoeic description. That it was in common currency at the turn of the 17th century is evidenced by the fact that it appears a couple of times in the plays of Shakespeare – in the Tempest (Act 1, Scene 2), “Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:/ Hark! Now I hear them – Ding, dong, bell” and in The Merchant of Venice (Act 3, Scene 2), “Let us all ring fancy’s bell;/ I’ll begin it – Ding, dong, bell.”
What are we to make of it all? What is fascinating about the earliest variant is that the cat is left to drown in the well and the description of the sound of the bell appears at the end of the rhyme. As with Shakespeare’s usage of the description in the Tempest the sound of the bells is associated with the knell with its connotations of death and funerals.
However, by the time we get to the modern variant of the rhyme, not only has ding, dong moved from the end of the rhyme to the beginning but also the cat has been rescued from the well, thanks to the good offices of Tommy Stout. The modern version also begs the questions as to who are the dastardly Johnny Flynn and the angelic Tommy Stout?
Nowadays we consider neutering to be an acceptable method of controlling the population of our feline friends but in earlier times it was considered to be barbaric. The more preferred approach to cat control was to drown the moggies and as wells were the source of many people’s water it is not difficult to imagine that the unfortunate was dunked in a well.
Modern sensitivities being what they are coupled with the positioning of nursery rhymes as a source of enlightenment and education to the young, the later variant can be seen as an exhortation to the young not to be cruel to our furry friends.
We have seen Jack being used in other rhymes to indicate the stereotypical male and I’m sure that is what Jacke is in Lang’s early version. It is not necessary for Johnny Flynn or Tommy Stout to be real historical characters. They are just names that help the rhyme along.
The origin of this rhyme shines an interesting light on to the changing mores and sensibilities over time.