Saturday, November 26, 2011


Ever since we got our three little foster kittens, Mom has been thinking about an old nursery rhyme that her mother read to her when she was a little girl.  This rhyme was about  three kittens who lost their mittens, but Mom couldn't really remember how the poem went because Mom is so incredibly old and forgetful, like I told you before.  But she thought and thought, and after a while, she decided maybe the poem went like this:

Three little kittens lost their mittens
And didn't know where to find them.
Leave them alone, and they will come home,
Wagging their tails behind them!

I told Mom that this was a stupid poem, and it didn't make sense because everyone knows that mittens don't have tails.  Mom had to agree with me on this, and then she said maybe it was meant to be "Wagging their thumbs behind them!"  But this doesn't make much sense either, so Mom admitted that she might be getting the Three Little Kittens poem mixed up with the Little Bo Peep poem, because Little Bo Peep lost her sheep, and sheep really do have tails that wag behind them.  We're not sure why all these people in nursery rhymes keep losing things, but for some reason they do.

Anyway, I finally went and looked up Three Little Kittens on the internet to see how it really goes.  Mom and I were surprised to find out that this poem is much longer than Mom remembered it.  Also it has a melody, so you can sing it, if you want to, but Mom never sang the song when she was a kid, and she didn't know the melody until we played it on Wikipedia and then on YouTube, and now it is stuck in our heads.  But here is the whole story of the three kittens:

Three little kittens they lost their mittens, 
And they began to cry,
"Oh mother dear, we sadly fear 
That we have lost our mittens."
"What! Lost your mittens, you naughty kittens!
Then you shall have no pie."
"Meeow, meeow, meeow, 
Now we shall have no pie."
The three little kittens they found their mittens,
And they began to cry,
"Oh mother dear, see here, see here
For we have found our mittens."
"Put on your mittens, you silly kittens
And you shall have some pie."
"Meeow, meeow, meeow,
Now let us have some pie."
The three little kittens put on their mittens
And soon ate up the pie,
"Oh mother dear, we greatly fear
That we have soiled our mittens."
"What! soiled your mittens, you naughty kittens!"
Then they began to cry, 
"Meeow, meeow, meeow"
Then they began to sigh.
The three little kittens they washed their mittens
And hung them out to dry,
"Oh mother dear, do you not hear
That we have washed our mittens."
"What! washed your mittens, you are good kittens."
But I smell a rat close by,
"Meeow, meeow, meeow" 
We smell a rat close by.

There are several important literary questions that need to be asked about this poem, and here they are: 

(1)  What kind of pie was the mama cat serving to her kittens?  It must have been a very yummy type of pie because it inspired them to find their mittens, so I think the pie might have been made of mice or tuna or maybe canaries.  Clearly, the pie is a symbol of the mother's love, which she withholds when her babies are naughty.  But since a mother's love is supposed to be unconditional, this cat must be a bad mother!

(2)  Why did the mama cat make the kittens put on their mittens before eating the pie?  This was a dumb thing to do, since it resulted in soiled mittens, which they got scolded about and then had to wash.  Are the kittens symbolically washing the pie (which stand for their mother's love) off of themselves so that they will someday be ready to go out in the world as adult cats?

(3)  Why is "meeow" spelled that way instead of "meow"?  

(4)  What does the rat have to do with anything, and why does this character not come into the story until the last three lines?  When the mother cat says she smells a rat, does she mean this literally?  Like, is she saying to her kittens that they are now responsible enough, after the mitten incident, that they can learn to hunt rats, like an adult cat?  Or does the mother cat mean that she suspects some evil plan is afoot when she says she "smells a rat"?  Another possibility for the late addition of the rat is that the poet needed one more word that rhymes with "cry" and "pie" to finish the poem, and so she came up with this "rat close by" solution, which is sort of lame, if you ask me.

(5)  Why does the mother cat in this picture
have two sets of hind feet? 

Anyway, nobody knows totally for sure where this poem came from, but it was first printed in Only True Mother Goose Melodies in 1843.  Usually, the writer is listed as Eliza Lee Cabot Follen, an American poet who lived from 1787 to 1860.  But what probably happened was that Mrs. Follen took an old English folk verse and made it into a more sophisticated poem, instead of writing the whole thing from scratch.

Before the time when the Three Little Kittens nursery rhyme was published, poetry for children was all about teaching moral lessons, but this poem is mostly just fun because it makes the kittens seem like children, and when you read the poem, you get to say "meeow" a whole bunch of times.  And if you don't think about all the symbolic meanings of the poem, and about how sadistic the mother cat is, you can probably enjoy reading or singing it.

So now that I found out what all the words and music for Three Little Kittens are, maybe I will tell Jacen to sing the song to our foster kitties.  I think he should be the one to do it because I have much more important things to do myself!


  1. Debbie Gay WakefieldNovember 26, 2011 at 5:31 PM

    My maternal grandmother knew all the verses to lots of folk songs no one else seems to know. In fact, when I was a teenager, a researcher trying to find "lost" American folk songs interviewed her and taped her singing. The one I remember most was "Froggie Went a'Courtin'" and she knew so many verses of it that it went on forever and ever. Great fun! She did share the kitten-mitten story with us and she drew out the "e" in "meow," so maybe that's why it's spelled that way.

  2. Dear Aunt Debbie,
    My mom says that her mom used to sing "Froggie Went a-Courtin'" to her, and she remembers that there were a lot of verses. Your grandma probably knew even more verses, though. You're right about the first syllable of "mee-ow" being drawn out when the "Three Little Kittens" song is sung, so I guess that's why it's spelled in that incorrect way. Ha!

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