recess radio program

10/29/03
"Mary Had a Little Lamb"
    by Rita Smith

Sarah Josepha Hale was born on a New Hampshire farm in 1788. She operated a school for seven years before marrying a lawyer and giving birth to five children. Her husband died in 1822 and Hale became a writer in order to support her family. Her first novel, Northwood, published in 1827, met with considerable success. She was hired as editor of a magazine for women, and later, in 1846, hired to serve as editor of Godey's Ladies Book, one of the most popular women's periodicals in the 19th century. In 1879, two years after retiring from Godey's, she died at the age of 91, having spent her life championing the education and development of women through her writing and editorships.

So what does Sarah Josepha Hale have to do with children's literature? From 1834 to 1836 she worked on a children's periodical, Juvenile Miscellany, and she was the first editor to print the stories of Frances Hodgson Burnett, who later wrote such children's classics as The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, but Hale's primary contribution to children's literature is the poem she wrote which was published in the September, 1830, issue of Juvenile Miscellany, which E.V. Lucas, an editor and writer of children's books, proclaimed the "best known four-lined verses in the English language."1

The poem is "Mary's Lamb," a nursery rhyme better known today as "Mary Had a Little Lamb." A number of people claimed to be its author or the original Mary, but Hale said it was based on an incident from her farm childhood which was only 'partly true.'2 (Oxford) and in a letter written shortly before her death she pointed out that "the incident of an adopted lamb following a child to school has probably occurred many times." 3(Oxford.) We have known these verses from before we can remember; here they are again, the "best known four-line verses in the English language." All together now:

Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day,
That was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.

And so the Teacher turned him out,
But still he lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear:

And then he ran to her, and laid
His head upon her arm,
As if he said, "I'm not afraid,
You'll save me from all harm."

"What makes the lamb love Mary so?"
The little children cry-
"O Mary loves the lamb, you know,"
The teacher did reply:

"And you each gentle animal
In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call,
If you are always kind."4

Notes:
1. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Peter and Iona Opie, eds., p. 300.
2.Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Hale, Sarah J., "Mary's Lamb," in The Juvenile Miscellany,September/October, 1830, p. 64.

Copyright 2003 Rita Smith

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