A Summary and Analysis of the ‘Monday’s Child’ Poem

Literature



By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Monday’s Child’ is the title sometimes given to a short children’s rhyme, which has been popular for several centuries. Lines such as ‘Monday’s child is fair of face’ and ‘Wednesday’s child is full of woe’ have become well-known; but what was the purpose of this song or poem?

Perhaps we should say ‘purposes’, plural. Because it appears that the ‘Monday’s Child’ rhyme may have had two purposes: one pragmatic, the other more surprising.

Let’s take a closer look at the words of this rhyme.
Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for his living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

The wording given above is from Iona and Peter Opie’s excellent The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), although often ‘for his living’ in the sixth line is altered to the gender-neutral ‘for a living’, and ‘good and gay’ is sometimes given as ‘good and wise’ (although this, it must be said, destroys the rhyming couplet structure of the poem).

Summary

Let’s go through the poem, line by line – or rather, couplet by couplet.

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,

The poem has a simple structure, in keeping with most children’s rhymes. The anonymous author uses rhyming couplets. If we want to get technical, the metre (or rhythmical ground plan) for the poem is trochaic tetrameter catalectic, which means that the lines generally contain four trochees each. A trochee is a metrical feet comprising a heavy stress followed by a light one, so ‘MON-day’s, ‘CHILD is’, and so on.

The term ‘catalectic’, meanwhile, refers to the fact that the fourth and final trochee in each line is missing its second half, so we get seven syllables per line rather than eight. The word ‘catalectic’ is from the ancient Greek meaning ‘to leave off’, because the second half of the final foot in each line is, indeed, left off.

Anyway, you can see that a child born on a Monday is supposed to grow up to be beautiful or pretty, while Tuesday’s child is graceful (the word ‘grace’ here referring not just to elegance but to a kind of divine, inner goodness).

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,

Wednesday’s child fares somewhat less well, as does Thursday’s: a child born on Wednesday is destined to be miserable, while a child born on a Thursday will need to work hard to get where they need to be in life.

One person who heeded the rhyme and bore the line ‘Wednesday’s child is full of woe’ firmly in mind was Charles Addams, the creator of the popular Addams Family cartoon. He named the daughter of the family Wednesday Addams because she was supposed to be full of woe. Wednesday’s Child was also the name of a 1934 play by Leopold L. Atlas.

Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for his living,

Friday’s child, by contrast, is a selfless and caring soul, while a child born on Saturday will be destined to grow up to be hard-working and diligent.

And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

The child born on Sunday, or ‘Sabbath day’ (in Christianity, this is a Sunday, of course: the day of rest), gets all of the best qualities that Monday’s, Tuesday’s, and Friday’s children possessed: good, happy, and beautiful. It’s as if, simply by virtue of being born on a Sunday, the child is already blessed by God.

Analysis

How old is the ‘Monday’s Child’ rhyme? This particular poem was first recorded in A. E. Bray’s Traditions of Devonshire in 1838, but as is so often the case with oral traditions, the actual rhyme is likely to be considerably older.

Indeed, the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe recalled stories told to children in Suffolk in the 1570s, including ‘what luck eurie [every] one should have by the day of the weeke he was borne on’. Although, in fairness, Nashe also recorded which days people trimmed their nails on.

The Opies report a curious incident surrounding the birth of Prince Charles, later to become King Charles III of the United Kingdom.

In The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), they note that the First Lord of the Admiralty, Viscount Hall, announced in the House of Lords, on 16 November 1948, the birth of a son to Princess Elizabeth (as she then was, four years before she became Queen Elizabeth II).

When Viscount Hall noted that Prince Charles was a ‘Sunday’s child’, and quoted lines from the ‘Monday’s Child’ rhyme, the Bishop of London responded by observing that ‘Sunday’s child is full of grace’. When this was reported in the media, a ‘national controversy’ was sparked, as the Opies observe, concerning the correct wording of the rhyme.

Indeed, this was nothing new: in 1893, an author known simply as ‘Frances’ published a novel, Friday’s Child, in which it is Friday’s child who is full of woe and Wednesday’s child who is loving and giving. This makes sense, in certain respects: after all, Friday has long been associated with bad luck or misfortune, as the tradition of Friday the 13th, and Good Friday being the day of the Crucifixion, attest.

The one thing that is always consistent in the numerous variants of the poem is that Sunday’s child always has a favourable outcome.

What was the purpose of this little rhyme? As well as being a supposed act of fortune telling, which predicts a child’s character or future, the rhyme was probably an aide memoire designed to help young children to remember the seven days of the week.

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