As I Was Going to St Ives is a fun nursery rhyme and also a tricky riddle that has sent generations of listeners and readers on a mathematical goose chase. It may be about a journey to a fishing village, called St. Ives, on the Cornish coast of England, or it may be about a trip to the village of St. Ives in Cambridgeshire.
For the listener, the experience of the rhyme begins visually as wives, sacks, cats, and kits blossom in the mind’s eye. The trick question, at the rhyme’s end, however, is perhaps most enjoyed by the tellers, who watch as their audiences try to multiply exponentially in their heads. The teller knows, of course, the secret simple answer.
Because the poem begins,?As I was going to St. Ives,? we can see that only one person was headed for St. Ives, so? one? would be the correct answer. However, if we look at the whole question that is being asked,?Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, How many are going to St. Ives?? then the correct answer could be interpreted as ? zero? or ? none.? Early versions of the poem show the answer as ?none. support this interpretation.
Since the person in the poem is not identified as being either male or female, however, the possibility exists that the traveler could be a woman, and therefore a wife, putting the answer back to one. The correct answer, therefore, may be either zero or one, depending on the textual variation or interpretation. The list of characters at the beginning of the question serves as an extension of the trick of the riddle by keeping the listener focused on every character except the traveler. The answer to the question is definitely not 2800! (Seven wives, forty-nine sacks, three hundred and forty-three cats, and two thousand, four hundred and one kittens.)
While the characters and structure of the rhyme remain fairly consistent in different versions, there is some variation in the number of wives. A version from around 1730, uses nine wives, sacks, cats, and kits instead of the traditional seven. Although this variation may test different multiplication skills, it does not affect the key elements of the rhyme, which is the trick answer.
As I Was Going to St Ives Lyrics
As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
Each sack had seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, wives
How many were going to St Ives?