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Mary, Quite Contrary

July 15, 2011

By Professor Gleason A. Gumby

“Mary had a little lamb”

All of us are familiar with this line from childhood. Many may recall seeing pictures of a little girl with a prancing pet lamb at her feet. You may not be able to hear these word, even now, without that mental image in your mind. As charming as the iconic scene may be, this is simply not what the poem is about.

Th poem was first published in Boston in 1830. It is essential, then, to understand that it is an ancient New England (ANE) text, and needs to be interpreted in that milieu. The ANE world was not in the least interested in the activities of small children, and social interaction with livestock was not at all their concern. Rather the focus of the age was on health and hygiene. The now-familiar Graham cracker was invented in this era as a health food, for example.

What has emerged as the traditional view, then, is based on a significant genre misidentification. The “little girl with a pet” interpretation has become widespread.

A Better Way?

With the correct understanding of its historical setting, reading the text on its own terms we see that in fact it has to do with menu choices at lunch. See how comprehending the proper context makes the meaning clear:

1. Bob took a good sized Porterhouse.

2. Jane ate her fill of lasagna.

3. Mary had a little lamb.

The claim is frequently made that the second verse gives evidence for the traditional interpretation:

“Whose fleece was white as snow”

A close reading will show that this error is based on the mistaken assumption that “whose” refers back to “lamb.” This simplistic supposition is based on the belief that the antecedent must be the nearest noun. Yet the word “who” is personal. The impersonal equivalent is “which.” The antecedent of “whose” then is clearly the only person mentioned in the first line, Mary.

The fleece, then, is simply her hair. Literalists attempt to counter this understanding with the claim that the word “fleece” never refers to human hair. A contemporary version of The Three Bears, however, contains the phrase “tresses of fleecy gold” in reference to Goldilocks. There can be no question but that luxuriant and curly human hair is in view here.

Note also that it is described as “white as snow.” Undoubtedly, this is not the hair of a little girl. Mary, as we now see, is an elderly woman.

We are now able to grasp the import of the first two lines. The author is extolling the benefits of wholesome, lean protein, consumed in moderation, as conducive to human longevity.

The two lines that follow continue the them and supply additional information.

“And everywhere that Mary went

The lamb was sure to go.”

In contrast to foodstuffs that are quickly eliminated from the body, tender ovine protein is recommended as something that “sticks with you.” This ancient wisdom accords amazingly well with modern nutrition science, which has discovered that lamb is highly digestible and hypoallergenic.

What about the “other stanzas”?

Fundamentalists, Seventh Day Adventists, Rosicrucians, Bilderburgers, Opus Dei, and most people you don’t like point to the supposed second and following stanzas as proof of the traditional interpretation:

“It followed her to school one day

Which was against the rules.

It made the children laugh and play,

To see a lamb at school.”

That this so-called “second stanza” is a later interpolation is evident. It was completely unknown until at least 1900. Furthermore, it obviously is based on the fallacious “little girl” interpretation, as we may gather from the reference to “school” and “children.” Hence it cannot be a genuine part of the original text, which evidence shows refers to a person of mature age.

In conclusion, a valid interpretation of the poem, in accord with what we know from modern science, is a valuable guide for making salubrious choices in diet and lifestyle.

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