This is the house that Jack built
This was never a favourite nursery rhyme of mine because it goes on and on with increasing complexity but, nonetheless, it is a fascinating example of what is known as a cumulative tale. Unlike many rhymes it doesn’t tell us much about Jack or his house but shows how the house was linked indirectly to other events and characters, including the man all tattered and torn and the maiden all forlorn.
The most common version of the rhyme begins as follows: “This is the house that Jack built/ This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built/ This is the rat that ate the malt/ that lay in the house that Jack built./ This is the cat that killed the rat/ That ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built…et cetera ad nauseam.
It didn’t appear in print until 1755 when it was included in Nurse Truelove’s New Year’s Gift, alternatively known as the Book of Books for Children, although it is almost certain to pre-date that. It featured in numerous collections of rhymes in the late 18th and 19th centuries, which may attest to its popularity or, alternatively, be a sign of publishers desperate for copy to fill their pages!
The inevitable questions that need to be addressed are who was Jack and where was the house that he built. We have seen before, vide Jack and Jill, that the name Jack was often used to indicate a man in general rather than one in particular and, frankly, there is no reason to suppose that Jack here is used any differently. The imagery built up by the rhyme of malt, rats, cats, dogs, cows and all the activities of rural life suggest that it alludes to what may have been everyday, commonplace events in the countryside rather than anything specific. And there is nothing wrong with that.
Some have pressed the claims of Cherrington Manor or, possibly, the malt house which stands behind it, as the original house that Jack built. The attribution cannot be substantiated and we should perhaps leave the good folk of east Shropshire to their delusions!
What is more interesting is the form of the rhyme. Each sentence in the rhyme contributes to the creation of a complex hierarchy of subordinate clauses. Without knowledge of the earlier sentences the listener (or reader) may have difficulty in untangling the meaning. And it becomes a bit of a tongue-twister for the narrator, although the formulaic nature of the verse, continuously repeating earlier subordinate clauses in the same reverse order may make it easier to remember.
Those of you who used to listen to Junior Choice on the steam radio may recall Burl Ives’ ditty, There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly, which is a more recent version of the form and, of course, the Christmas Carol, On The Twelfth Night Of Christmas is a familiar example.
But the form has a long and global pedigree. A Jewish midrash dating from around the 6th century CE uses the form to chronicle the philosophical debate between Abraham and King Nimrod in which the prophet continually tops one thing with something more powerful. In Sanskrit literature, the Panchatantra features a tale in which a mouse which has been turned into a maid is introduced successively to the sun, the cloud, the wind and the mountain, the latest in the sequence being superior to its immediate predecessor. Stories bearing this structure can be found in Japanese literature too.