Sunday, 15 May 2011

Contented John

The poem "Contented John" appears in Whitnash Parish Magazine, in 1863, and this is from May.

If reprinted today, it is usually presented as a "traditional nursery rhyme", but in fact it was written by Jane Taylor for the book ""Original Poems for Infant Minds", written by Jane Taylor and Ann Taylor.

It rapidly became very popular, as it appeared in the "Third book of reading lessons" of the Canadian series of school books", which was authorized by the Council of Public Instruction For Ontario in 1867, and in America, in the "The Confederate First Reader: Containing Selections in Prose and Poetry, as Reading Exercises for the Younger Children in the Schools and Families of the Confederate States", published in 1864.

Who was Jane Taylor? Jane Taylor (23 September 1783 - 13 April 1824), was an English poet and novelist, living in Suffolk. When she was twenty-three, she wrote the words for the poem - as it was then - "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (1806) - the music came later. Her authorship is usually forgotten, and like "Contented John", this has become another "traditional rhyme"! The music came from the French song "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman" of 1774, which is definitely not a nursery rhyme - here's the first verse translated:

Ah! I tell you, Mama,
What causes my torment?
Since I saw Sylvander
Look at me with a tender air,
My heart says at any time:
Can you live without a lover?

John's occupation is a "a hedger and ditcher", but in some later versions becomes "a digger and ditcher". The original phrase also occurs in the folk song (which also featured in BBC's Lark Rise to Candleford)

My father's a hedger and ditcher
my mother does nothing but spin
They say I'm a pretty young girl
but the money comes slowly in

A ditcher is "A person who makes and repairs ditches.". The word first appears in 1430 and is also mentioned in Shakespeare, in Hamlet: "There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers and grave-makers; they hold up Adam's profession. " (Hamlet, Act 5. Scene 1)

A hedger here is "One who makes, repairs, or trims hedges." The word first appears in 1518, and is also mentioned in Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791) - "A pair of large gloves, such as hedgers use.". Both terms are mentioned by John Stuart Mill in his "Principles of political economy, with some of their applications to social philosophy" (1848)

Besides materials for industry to employ itself on, and implements to aid it, provision must be made to prevent its operations from being disturbed, and its products injured, either by the destroying agencies of nature, or by the violence or rapacity of men. This gives rise to another mode in which labour not employed directly about the product itself, is instrumental to its production; namely, when employed for the protection of industry. Such is the object of all buildings for industrial purposes; all manufactories, warehouses, docks, granaries, barns, farm-buildings devoted to cattle, or to the operations of agricultural labour... The herdsman has little other occupation than to protect the cattle from harm: the positive agencies concerned in the realization of the product, go on nearly of themselves. I have already mentioned the labour of the hedger and ditcher, of the builder of walls or dykes.

And here's contented John:

Contented John

One honest John Tomkins, a hedger and ditcher,
Although he was poor, did not want to be richer;
For all such vain wishes in him were prevented
By a fortunate habit of being contented.

Though cold was the weather, or dear was the food,
John never was found in a murmuring mood;
For this he was constantly heard to declare,
What he could not prevent he would cheerfully bear.

"For why should I grumble and murmur?" he said;
"If I cannot get meat, I can surely get bread;
And, though fretting may make my calamities deeper,
It can never cause bread and cheese to be cheaper."

If John was afflicted with sickness or pain,
He wished himself better, but did not complain,
Nor lie down and fret in despondence and sorrow,
But said that he hoped to be better tomorrow.

If any one wronged him or treated him ill,
Why, John was good natured and sociable still;
For he said that revenging the injury done
Would be making two rogues when there need be but one.

And thus honest John, though his station was humble,
Passed through this world without even a grumble;
And I wish that some folks, who are greater and richer,
Would copy John Tomkins, the hedger and ditcher.


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