Little Boy Blue
This popular nursery rhyme was first published in 1744, inevitably in Tommy Thumb’s Little Song Book, and the most common version goes along these lines, “Little Boy Blue/ Come blow your horn/ The sheep’s in the meadow/ the cow’s in the corn; / Where is the boy/ who looks after the sheep?/ Under the haystack/ fast asleep. Will you wake him?/ On no, not I/ For if I do/ He will surely cry”.
At its most literal level this rhyme recounts the perils of employing a negligent shepherd or cowherd. Either because of the long hours that he worked or because of his naturally lazy disposition little Boy Blue is fast asleep in the haystack while the animals under his nominal custody run amok. For communities where agriculture was still the principal means of feeding itself, cows munching away at the wheat which would be required to feed the community over the winter and sheep feeding on the lush grass of the meadows rather than scratching around on the scrub would be a major disaster. As well as potentially impacting future food supplies, cattle and sheep grazing on lush pastures of rapidly growing grass, particularly in the spring, can be prone to the potentially lethal disease of tetany which relates to deficiency in magnesium.
Clearly, this is something that the farmer would be keen to avoid and having a boy who prefers his shut-eye to watching over the herd was a cause for concern. Little Boy Blue is a sensitive soul, however, and the respondent to the opening quatrain is loath to wake the miscreant up for fear of reducing him to tears. You can imagine that this was a fairly regular occurrence and the rhyme can be seen as broadly sympathetic to the youth.
There are echoes of the rhyme in Shakespeare’s King Lear where Edgar, in Act 3 scene 6, is given the lines, “sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepheard?/ Thy sheepe be in the corne”. Although this may be a direct allusion to it, I suspect it is more likely to reflect that the combination of a weary or lazy shepherd and errant flocks was a common feature of pastoral life at the time.
We have observed on numerous occasions that there is a temptation to impose a more fanciful explanation on a relatively innocent rhyme and this rhyme is no different. Some commentators suggest that the little Boy Blue is none other than Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475 – 1530) who, although he actually died of natural causes, was charged with high treason at the end for failing to negotiate successfully the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catharine of Aragon.
Wolsey’s rise was as spectacular as his downfall and at his pomp was the second most powerful man in England and was known as alter rex, the other king. He obtained his degree from Oxford at the age of 15 earning himself the nickname of the Boy Bachelor and on his rise up the greasy pole put many noses out of joint. He was known for his arrogance – perhaps blowing his horn is a reference to this characteristic? – and was not averse to diverting some of the state’s monies to feather his own nest or to fund the conversion of a mediaeval manor into the sumptuous Hampton Court. As much of the country’s revenue at the time came from taxes imposed on wool, perhaps the phrase “where is the boy who looks after the sheep?” is a reference to his putting of his own financial interests ahead of those of the state.
Or perhaps not. It seems to me that each of the supposed allusions is not an obvious interpretation of the phrase in question – why blue and not bachelor, for instance? – and whilst there are some attractions to thinking it might be a coded attack on a leading figure of Tudor times, the more convincing interpretation is what it says on the tin – the perils of having a lazy shepherd.