The Darker Meaning Behind the Famous Childhood Poem – Ring of Roses

Nursery rhymes are always a symbol of innocence and sweetness. Children run around in circles singing the ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ rhyme all over the world, enjoying the singing and hopping. Different versions of the same rhyme have enthralled educators too. If you have children, you may have taught them or heard them singing nursery rhymes from tradition or modern ones. There is something catchy about the nursery rhymes that kids love. The little tunes work as soothing lines even to babies and are also used to play games. However, not everything is as sweet and innocent as it seems.

The nursery rhymes that are most-loved have sinister sub-texts. You may or not believe, but they speak about disease, death, religious persecution, and much more. Modern parents are exposing their children to vintage nursery rhymes, hoping to engage with the tradition of the old times. In truth, the dark stories beyond these rhymes are often ignored. Behind the verses, are meanings that have never been picked apart by the modern parent. In fact, most of the rhymes relate to religious violence, spies, illness, sex, murder, dirty clerical politics, and traitors.

The Rhyme’s Darker Meaning

The well-known rhyme ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’, Pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes,

 We all fall down’ is one of the wicked ones.

  • This rhyme was about the Great Plague of London in 1665, and the ‘Rosie’ refers to the rash that appeared on the skin owing to the plague sufferers, while the disgusting odour was concealed with a ‘pocket full of posies’. The plague ended killing almost 15% of Britain’s population, and this is depicted by the last line that says ‘atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down’ — referring to being attacked by the plague and all the victims becoming ashes and falling down dead.
  • It had another reference to 1347 when The Black Death in Europe appeared on the body as black sores. This event also led people to stuff their pockets with poises so that the dead bodies did not emit a bad smell, while they were getting piled up everywhere. The dead bodies were burned so that the infection did not spread and hence refers to the ‘ashes’. These deaths cleared around 20% of the world’s population signifying the verse ‘we all fall down’. 
  • Another theory says that the origin of the rhyme was dated to Europe in the medieval period. Many scholars say that the “ring around the Rosie” was the red circular rash formed by the plague. They also associated the poises to the herbs held in the pockets were to provide immunity against the epidemic. The eventual death of the victim was associated with ashes and falling down corresponding to the other theories. Recently, scholars have been arguing about the ‘red ring’ not being a common plague symptom. They also say that if the rhyme were during the 13th-century era, the lyrics would not be the way it is.

Though scholars haven’t been able to decide on the meaning, the available versions in various languages do have something to tell. The German version talks about a bush, the Dutch, Italian and Swiss version also talk about a rose bush. Well in that case maybe the rhyme is in fact about a simple rosebush! We will never really know.