Ring a Ring o’ Roses

Ring a Ring o’ Roses is a traditional nursery rhyme and singing game. It is believed to have originated in England in the 18th century. The rhyme describes a group of children holding hands and dancing in a circle, with the lyrics describing the various actions they perform as they go.

There has been much speculation regarding the origin of the Ring-a-ring o’ roses rhyme. A common theory is that the rhyme contains metaphorical references to either the Black Death of 1347 or the Great Plague of London in 1665. The roses that are mentioned in every version of the rhyme are alleged to represent the rash that was a symptom of the disease. The posies were said to be used to protect oneself from disease and to cover the smell of the dead. In some versions, the word “ashes” is used.

These ashes could represent the ash from the bodies that were burned during this time. In other variations, a sneezing noise such as “A-tishoo” was used. This can be viewed as another symptom of the disease. Finally, “we all fall down” supposedly represents the eventual death of the children.

Most scholars disagree with the above-mentioned theory. The most persuasive argument against the theory has to do with the documentation and time period of the rhyme. William Wells Newell recorded the first known version in 1790 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The first published version of Ring-a-ring-a-roses was by Kate Greenaway in 1881. There is a great lapse of time between the discovery of the rhyme and the outbreaks of the plagues. This suggests that it is unlikely that the rhyme represents the plague in any way. In addition, Kate Greenaway’s version was the first that used “we all fall down” and the earlier versions do little to suggest death. In fact, it can be theorized that Greenaway modeled her version after Newell’s in which the last lines are “The one stoops the last Shall tell whom she loves best”. It is purported that during this version, as well as others, the children courtesy. Young children may have indeed lost their balance causing them to fall over. Most scholars conclude that Ring-a-Ring o’Roses was likely a simple singsong game played by children. The dance could have been used to celebrate spring or just to pass the time.

Thus, most historical research contradicts the popular notion that Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses is a morbid poem about the plague. The image of children dancing around dead bodies is more exciting than the more probable explanation: that Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses was simply a nonsense song accompanied by a dance. The earliest recorded versions support this theory.

Ring a Ring o’ Roses Lyrics

Ring a ring o’ roses (Ring Around the Rosie}
A pocketful of posies
a-tishoo, a-tishoo
We all fall down.

The King has sent his daughter
To fetch a pail of water
a-tishoo, a-tishoo
We all fall down.

The bird upon the steeple
Sits high above the people
a-tishoo, a-tishoo
We all fall down.

The cows are in the meadow
Lying fast asleep
a-tishoo, a-tishoo
We all get up again.

Ring a Ring o’ Roses Music Sheet