You know, of course, that that’s (meaning) not quite what I’m after. It’s not that I don’t do meaning at all, but I tend to treat meaning as secondary. Form and construction, that’s my game. Still, meaning is what literary criticism is about – and this IS a literary text, albeit one of modest scope and wide renown and dating back at least to the sixteenth century (Wikipedia) – so let’s start there.
A minimal reading
Let’s start with what Attridge and Staton call a minimal reading (The Craft of Poetry, 2015). Set aside symbolic and hidden meanings. What’s this poem conjure up before the mind’s eyes and ears?
Hey, diddle, diddle,The cat and the fiddle,The cow jumped over the moon;The little dog laughedTo see such sport,And the dish ran away with the spoon.
The first line consists of the exclamation, “hey”, which is often used as a greeting, followed by two repetitions of “diddle”. What’s “diddle” mean? That’s tricky. According to the Oxford online dictionary it can mean cheat or swindle, but that requires an object. It can also mean “pass time aimlessly or unproductively”, but that’s North American usage, and we’ve got an earlier version of this rhyme 1765 in London (Wikipedia). It is also slang for “have intercourse with”, but that requires an object. Fortunately the Wiktionary tells us that it can also be “a meaningless word used when singing a tune or indicating a rhythm.” Bingo! That’s what I thought.
So, our first line would seem to be just a greeting. To whom? No one is references. Perhaps to anyone listening.
On the second line, why the cat and the fiddle? My first thought was that fiddles are strung with catgut. Which is true, but apparently catgut in that sense doesn’t come from cats; it’s generally made from sheep or goat intestines (Wikipedia). “Cat and Fiddle” is also a common name for inns and is a common image in early medieval illuminated manuscripts (Wikipedia). But why? My best guess would be that unskilled fiddle playing sounds a bit like meowing. Let’s go with that.
But how do we get from the first line to the second, what’s the connection? Well, yes, there’s the rhyme, but that doesn’t mean anything, it’s just, you know, sound.
And where’d the cow and the moon come from in the third line? And what’s the literal meaning? Are we being asked to imagine a cow jumping a quarter million miles into space, rounding the moon, and returning back to earth? I suppose we could note that the image was in use a long time before anyone knew the distance, but even when they didn’t know the distance they knew perfectly well that the moon was so far away that no cow could possibly jump that high.
On the other hand, one can imagine that if you were very close to the ground while the moon was low in the sky, well then it’s just barely conceivable that an energetic and athletic cow might appear to rise above the moon in a mad dash of some sort. That’s certainly the kind of visual image the line conjures up (though without the mad dash) and that’s what you (more or less) see if you google “cow jumped over the moon” and look at the images. Moreover the fourth and fifth lines inform us that a little dog (therefore low to the ground) got a chuckle out seeing that, that is, a cow over the moon.
So, that’s what it is. I don’t see that pose any particular problems – yeah! a laughing dog, right – which leaves us with the last line. It’s perfectly straight forward. One can imagine it easily enough – the folks who made animated cartoons for the rhyme certainly did. It just doesn’t make any sense. Dishes and spoons are inanimate objects. They can’t run anywhere, either alone or together. To assert as much is to make a category mistake. Dishes and spoons can’t run and ideas can’t be green, much less colorless green, nor can they sleep, much less sleep furiously.
So, what have we got? The opening line greets someone and the marks time for four syllables. Then we have a cat and a fiddle, together, perhaps screeching in (dis)harmony. What that has to do with the delicious image of a cow jumping over the moon, I surely don’t know. But the dog thought it was funny enough. Perhaps the moon was a distraction so the dish and the spoon could run off without being observed by the dog.
Perhaps they’re running off to, you know, canoodle, perhaps as a prelude to diddling, in the vulgar sense. But this is a nursery rhyme, though there’s no reason a nursery rhyme can’t have meaning for the nurse that’s invisible to the child. But we’re looking for a minimal reading here, and that rules out hidden meanings.
But how does it work?
And yet this little bit of nonsense works, and works very well, otherwise it wouldn’t have stuck around across the centuries.
How does it work? That’s surely the question to ask. I’m asking it all the time. Asking is one thing, answering is another. But if we don’t ask, we’ll never get any answers, will we?
I can at least make some observations. The first two lines are connected by rhyme, diddle, fiddle. That is, they are connected by sound. And the conjunction in that second line is, by my conjunction above, about sound; scratching fiddling sounds like cats meowing.
The third and last line are likewise connected by sound, moon, spoon. The fourth and fifth lines, however, are not connected by sound to any other lines or to each other. How odd, how interesting. They seem, rather, to reinforce the obvious image one has from the third line. And, of course, the introduction of the dog gives us a third domestic animal after the cat and the cow. There are no animate beings in the last line, however. But we are told that these inanimate objects ran, that they are in fact animate.
I suppose I could continue with this line of inquiry, but I fear that I’d start repeating things I’ve already said. Surely there is more that needs to be said, but I don’t know how to say it. Yes, the text is playing with the difference between animate and inanimate. The animate cat is playing an inanimate fiddle. The animate cow is jumping over the inanimate moon. The animate dog is laughing at something it sees.
Now that’s interesting. In playing the fiddle the cat is expressing itself. Is the cow’s jump an expressive act as well? In laughing the dog is expressing ITSELF. But the dog is also seeing, a sensory verb. The first and only one. We’re playing around with things animate creatures can do. And then, and then we have that last line, with inanimate objects acting in an animate way. I can’t help but feeling that, in context, the effect is to foreground animacy, liveliness, IN-ITSELF.
And even if I could clarify what I mean by that, perhaps by reference to a paper Dave Hays and I wrote about metaphor some years ago , that still won’t make the connection to sound. For that’s what we’ve got to do.
In the brain there’s motor tissue and there’s sensory tissue. Internally they’re much the same. It’s their connections outside the brain, to muscles or sense organs, that give them different functions. With language we’ve got both sensory and motor action on the side of signifiers and signifieds. You move your vocal organs to say “diddle” and you hear it as you do so. Similarly, you use your muscles to jump while you see the world change as you move through the air; you observe someone else as they jump and feel their motion residually in your motor system.
What’s going on in this little rhyme is that all these things, all these neural flows, are part of one unified action, an action that’s unified in a sense deeper than simultaneity. In poetry sound and sense are part of the same neural flow rather than being two simultaneous neural flows as they are in ordinary speech. THAT’s what we’ve got to understand. THAT’s what rhyme and meter are about. THAT’s what connects diddle diddle (nonsense sound) with the (merely) implicit sound of the cat’s fiddling. But also with the (implicit) sound of dog’s laugh. And what of moon spoon?
What of the diddle fiddle moon spoon?
More later, much later.
Addendum: Hidden meanings (humph!)
I’ll give you the full Wikipedia entry under “Meaning”; it’s short:
An exercise for the readerThere are numerous theories about the origin of the rhyme, including: James Orchard Halliwell's suggestion that it was a corruption of ancient Greek, probably advanced as a result of a deliberate hoax; that it was connected with Hathor worship; that it refers to various constellations (Taurus, Canis Minor, etc.); that it describes the Flight from Egypt; that it depicts Elizabeth, Lady Katherine Grey, and her relationships with the earls of Hertford and Leicester; that it deals with anti-clerical feeling over injunctions by Catholic priests for harder work; that it describes Katherine of Aragon (Katherine la Fidèle); Catherine, the wife of Peter the Great; Canton de Fidèle, a supposed governor of Calais and the game of cat (trap-ball). This profusion of unsupported explanations was satirised by J.R.R. Tolkien in his fictional explanations of 'The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late'. Most scholarly commentators consider these to be unproven and state that the verse is probably meant to be simply nonsense.
In view of the current tizzy over so-called Sokal Squared or Sokol 2.0 you might want to compare and contrast the above analysis, which I regard as serious work, with the parody analysis I did of "In days of old, when knights were bold..." almost 50 years ago. I published that in the student newspaper at Johns Hopkins and, of course, the paper didn't identify it as a parody. When you read it now, if you do, you will of course know that it is not a piece of serious criticism even if, step by step, much of the reasoning seems plausible. But, if you didn't know, how could you tell?
 William Benzon and David Hays, Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process, The American Journal of Semiotics, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1987), 59-80, https://www.academia.edu/238608/Metaphor_Recognition_and_Neural_Process.