Review: Mother Goose for English Majors, The Lamb Cycle: What the Great English Poets Would Have Written about Mary and Her Lamb, by David R. Ewbank, with illustrations by Kate Feiffer

If Shakespeare, instead of Mother Goose, had written “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” perhaps he would have penned a sonnet to take the young girl to task for abandoning “Thy pettish fond adorer, shaggy white.” Perhaps he would have reprimanded her for deciding to “slam the door on his enamored gaze.”

Or, if given the story to tell, John Keats might have focused on the bittersweet feeling of the lamb, both missing Mary and anticipating a reunion: “I’ve learned that teacher’s kick and Mary’s kiss/Can equally afflict./By mistress and by master am I taught/To ply the pangs of melancholy bliss.”

Or William Wordsworth might have told an after-story in which Mary refused to go into the schoolroom without her lamb and instead resolved “to study alfresco/Beside my wooly mate.”  A story with an unhappy ending as Mary fell into “direst poverty” and was abandoned by the lamb and ended up on welfare.

David R. Ewbank, a retired English literature professor at Kent State University, is a funny guy—for a particular sort of audience.

He is the author of The Lamb Cycle: What the Great English Poets Would Have Written about Mary and Her Lamb (Had They Thought of It First), published by Brandeis University Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press.  It is a book in which he writes the nursery rhyme from the point of view and in the style of 32 great English poets.

In a blurb on the book jacket, Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, praises Ewbank for “32 high-wire acts of poetic impersonation,” which honor the poets and have fun with the Mary story—“all to the delight of every reader’s inner English major.”

The Lamb Cycle is certainly a book for English majors. In fact, Ewbank writes in a preface that the first few poems were written to amuse some undergraduates on the last day of class one year.

Witty and Erudite

His Mary poems are witty and erudite, and they rise above parody inasmuch as they don’t aim to disparage the great poets but to exalt them, albeit in a humorous manner. James Engell, a Harvard University English professor, notes in a foreword that Ewbank’s project succeeds because of his “intimate, loving knowledge of these poets” and his ability to put himself inside the poet’s mind and style. “These poems,” writes Engell, “are successive triumphs of style, echoed and amplified by imagination.”

All of which is to say that, to fully enjoy The Lamb Cycle, the reader needs to be deeply familiar with the poetry of nearly three dozen English poets from the 16th to the 20th century. That means the core audience isn’t likely to threaten Ewbank’s book with bestsellerdom.

Nonetheless, even if you’re not an English major, you can find The Lamb Cycle fun for the way Ewbank, through his poet models, re-envisions the Mary story and brings in the rest of Mother Goose. 

For instance, Ewbank has John Dryden write about misrule in “Mother Goose’s zone,” such as “a canine starves/Because its mistress cannot find a bone” and “knavish thieves make off with fresh-baked tarts.”

And the cute rhyme of “There was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” becomes something much darker:

A down-at-heel, shoe-dwelling termagant,

Insensible of contraception’s use,

Provides her brook with meager nourishment

And then compounds neglect with child abuse.

The wordplay in that first line—“down-at-heel, shoe-dwelling”—shows up in other poems, often with atrocious puns.  For instance, Dante Gabriel Rossetti has Mary complain to the lamb that “in your fleece are several fleas.” Philip Larkin’s dark take on the young girl’s wayward after-school life states, “Mary (she never did) is now deceased.”

The most egregious pun, though, involves the oft-used poetic word “lambent,” which is another way to say “radiant.”  The pun occurs twice.  In a highly suggestive poem, Algernon Charles Swinburne writes in Mary’s voice how, after school, she and the lamb will “fidget and fritter and fribble and fondle in friendly-fierce fighting,” and how the lamb’s eyes are “lazy and lambent.”

That, though, is minor compared to the punning that happens when Ewbank has Emily Brontë, the author of Wuthering Heights, write of “the Maid with lamb-bent eyes.”  The poem ends, by the way, with the lamb saying, “She yearns, like me, fruitlessly/For blisses bleak and wuthering.”

“Time Fer Mutton Stew”

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Ewbank points out that Mother Goose isn’t the actual author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” since (a) there is not and never was a Mother Goose and (b) at least a couple actual human beings have been cited as authors.

Be that as it may, Ewbank’s T. S. Eliot poem references four English nursery rhymes, two of which are suitably obscure:

I never sailed with Shaftoe’s crew,

Neither, at Banbury cross, saw the ringed dame ride by,

Nor stuck my thumb in pie.

Never, on the fatal count of two,

Dared to buckle my shoe.

As I mentioned above, such high foolishness is great comedy for English major types, but I suspect that anyone familiar with “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” could find the Eliot verse fun.

And, really, anyone is likely to delight in the Kipling version called “Lamby” which features a Cockney-voiced lamb telling about being kept out of school: “a pukka muckamuck/Who sez, ‘I’ll not ‘ave beasts in ‘ere,’ so I’m out o’ school an’ luck.”

The lamb’s voice describes his life away from Mary, such as “But it’s ‘Come right ‘ere, you fuzzy dear” when it’s time fer shearin’ wool.’ ” And, then, more bleakly, “But it’s “Come right ‘ere, you chubby dear,’ when it’s time fer mutton stew.”

The Lamb Cycle: What the Great English Poets Would Have Written about Mary and Her Lamb (Had They Thought of It First) is a silly and high-minded book, an absolute barrel of laughs for those deeply into English lit and, I suspect, a bit of fun for any sort of reader.

The Lamb Cycle: What the Great English Poets Would Have Written about Mary and Her Lamb (Had They Thought of It First) is available at bookstores and through the University of Chicago Press' website.

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Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).