Mother Hubbard’s Bone, Alexander Pope’s Tea

Alexander Pope (1688-1744), from crayon drawing by W. Hoare in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Poetry has its uses, even if your attitude toward poetry is like Hotspur’s in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1:

I had rather hear a brazen canstick turned,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axletree,
And that would set my teeth nothing an edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry.
’Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.

But if you shuffle through the landscape of earlier poetry, you can find fossils that show how words were once pronounced. It’s particularly evident in rhymes, where a rhyme that’s slant today may once upon a time have been perfect. This may well be the case with Mother Hubbard’s bone:

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To give the poor dog a bone;
When she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

Not only the rhyme but also the spelling suggests that bone and none were once pronounced alike. Since none is a contracted form already (from Old English ne + one), it’s the likely candidate for having had a different pronunciation long ago.

You’d have to look for more evidence to be sure about this. “Mother Hubbard” may be an old poem, but it was published in 1805, when none had its modern pronunciation.

There’s a richer lode of rhyming fossils in the poetry of Alexander Pope. Back in the early 18th century he wrote essays as well as stories, including translations of Homer, in precise and perfect “heroic couplets,” a form that in his day was considered the ultimate literary refinement.

Pope’s Essay on Criticism has some of the most famous advice on writing and literary criticism ever given, all expressed in heroic couplets. It provides more evidence for an older pronunciation of none:

’Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.

Still, Pope may have used the modern pronunciation:

But true Expression, like th’ unchanging Sun,
Clears, and improves whate’er it shines upon,
It gilds all Objects, but it alters none.

There is strong evidence that he said “jine” for join:

In Praise so just, let ev’ry Voice be join’d,
And fill the Gen’ral Chorus of Mankind!

While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,

And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,

And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,

Where Denham’s Strength, and Waller’s Sweetness join.

And there is very clear evidence for his pronouncing tea as “tay,” from his mock epic Rape of the Lock:

Soft yielding Minds to Water glide away,
And sip with Nymphs, their Elemental Tea. …

Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,
Dost sometimes Counsel take—and sometimes Tea.

Nevertheless, this post of mine is an amateur expedition, not a scholarly article, so take it with a grain of salt. As Pope says in the Essay on Criticism:

A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Here’s to drinking largely! Go on your own expedition and see what you can find.

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