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Who wrote "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"?

"Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is one of the world's best-known and most-loved poems. Millions of English-speaking people can recite the first verse from childhood memory, but few know who wrote it.

The charming nursery rhyme, often wrongly thought to be a folk story, was composed almost 200 years ago by London-born sisters Jane and Ann Taylor, and was first published in 1806 as "The Star." Perhaps the neglected authors will receive long-overdue credit in 2006.

"The beautiful words ... have been immortalised in the poem and music has been added, thus increasing its popularity," says Surrey historian Linda Alchin. "The lyrics draw a comparison of the twinkling of the star to the shutting or blinking of the eye providing a perfect illustration of clever imagery and excellent use of the English language."

Many people think that Mozart wrote the music, but that too is incorrect. Mozart composed 12 variations on a folk melody which was popular in Europe long before the Taylor sisters wrote their poem.

Jane was born in her parents' home in Red Lion Street, Holborn, London, on September 23, 1783. Her father, Isaac Taylor, was an engraver, artist and preacher, and their mother was a professional writer who raised a large family (her first six children were born within seven years).

Shortly before Jane's third birthday the family moved to Lavenham, Suffolk, and later to Colchester, Essex.

"Even from her third or fourth year, the child inhabited a fairy land, and was perpetually occupied with the imaginary interests of her teeming fancy," the girls' mother wrote.

She recalled that years later, Ann had written "I can remember that Jane was always the saucy, lively, entertaining little thing — the amusement and the favourite of all that knew her. At the baker's shop she used to be placed on the kneading-board, in order to recite, preach, narrate — to the great entertainment of his many visitors; and at Mr. Blackadder's she was the life and fun of the farmer's hearth.

"Her plays, from the earliest that I can recollect, were deeply imaginative, and I think that in `Moll and Bet', 'The Miss Parks', 'The Miss Sisters', 'The Miss Bandboxes', and 'Aunt and Niece', which I believe is the entire catalogue of them, she lived in a world wholly of her own creation, with as deep a feeling of reality as life itself could afford."

The girls' brother, one of four generations of writers named Isaac Taylor, wrote a lengthy and very readable memoir that reads like a Jane Austen novel. In it, he recalled:

In this garden the sisters were, at a very early age, companions in song; and they were wont, before the eldest was six years old, to pace up and down the green walks, hand in hand, lisping a simple couplet of their joint composition... It appears to have been written when she was nine years of age.

To be a poetess I don't aspire;
From such a title humbly I retire;
But now and then a line I try to write;
Though bad they are — not worthy human sight.

Sometimes into my hand I take a pen,
Without the hope of aught but mere chagrin
I scribble, then leave off in sad despair,
And make a blot in spite of all my care.

I laugh and talk, and preach a sermon well;
Go about begging, and your fortune tell
As to my poetry, indeed 'tis all
As good, and worse by far, than none at all.

Have patience yet I pray, peruse my book;
Although you smile when on it you do look
I know that in't there's many a shocking failure
But that forgive — the author is JANE TAYLOR.

It was perhaps a year later that she addressed to her father the following:


Ah dear papa! did you but know
The trouble of your Jane,
I'm sure you would relieve me now,
And ease me of my pain.

Although your garden is but small,
And more indeed you crave,
There's one small bit, not used at all,
And this I wish to have.

A pretty garden I would make,
That you would like I know;
Then pray, papa, for pity's sake,
This bit of ground bestow.

For whether now I plant or sow,
The chickens eat it all;
I'd fain my sorrows let you know,
But for the tears that fall.

My garden then should be your lot
I've often heard you say,
There useful trees you wish to put,
But mine were in the way.

The first piece of Jane's which appeared in print was a contribution in the Minor's Pocket Book, for the year 1804... Her sister Ann had contributed to the same publication for several preceding years, and had gained notice.

The little pieces which they had sent to the Minor's Pocket Book, induced the publisher to inquire who the authors were: he then applied to them for any pieces they might possess. These they collected and sent, receiving ten pounds for them, and afterwards five, with a promise of fifteen more for a second volume. The arrival of the first sum was an interesting and memorable event.

The little volume of Original Poems for Infant Minds, “by several young persons”, was found to be highly acceptable to children, and so useful in the business of early education, that, in a very short time, it obtained an extensive circulation.

It was quickly reprinted in America, and translated into the German and Dutch languages. What share of this success belongs to each of the contributors to the volume, could not be ascertained, even if to make the inquiry were of any importance. Jane, for her part, was ever forward to surrender all praise to others.

In 1808, four members of the family returned to Lavenham, because of fears that coastal Colchester would be invaded by French forces.. Brother Isaac wrote:

During the autumn and winter of the year 1808, the alarm of a French invasion (and it has since been ascertained that it was a well-founded alarm) prevailed throughout the country, and especially along the eastern and southern coasts.

Colchester was, at that time, a principal military station: the incessant movements, therefore, of a large body of troops, held always in a state of readiness to meet the expected enemy, tended of itself to keep alive a constant impression of the impending danger; besides this, the military persons who were in command of the station, took pains to excite the popular fears.

Every day some whispered intimation of immediate danger from "the best authority" was circulated through the town, till a strong and general impression prevailed that the immediate neighbourhood might, very probably, become the scene of the first conflict with the invaders.

In this state of public feeling, not a few of those of the inhabitants whose means allowed them to do so, either left the town for a time, or made such arrangements as should enable them to leave it at an hour's notice.

At this time the house which, as has been mentioned, my father owned at Lavenham, was without a tenant; this circumstance seemed to invite the step which the fears of the time suggested — that of removing a part of the family thither, where a home would be always in readiness for those who remained, should it be needed.

No material difficulty prevented the execution of this plan, and it was determined that Jane, with two of her brothers, and an infant sister, should remove to the vacant house. This separation of the family took place in the middle of October.

In 1811, the family moved once again, this time to Ongar, an ancient market town in Essex, 20 miles from London, the girls' father "having accepted an invitation of the dissenting congregation in that town to become their pastor."

Brother Isaac reported: "Jane was much from home. The winter was spent in London by the two sisters, and devoted to perfecting themselves in some of those lighter accomplishments which had hitherto been more or less neglected in their education." (They never attended a school, their father preferring to teach them at home).

Jane was a sickly child, and was in poor health all her life. She died on April 13, 1824, aged 41. "The interment took place in the burial-ground of the chapel at Ongar, where a simple monument has been erected to mark the spot," Isaac wrote.

["There is no memorial in Ongar, but the family is very well remembered in the town, particularly by the URC church (formerly Congregational church) where the Rev Isaac Taylor was minister," Essex historian Michael Leach told us. "Memorabilia of the family are regularly displayed at church events. Their gravestones are now under an extension of the church, but can be viewed by lifting a trapdoor in the floor."]

Ann had married the Rev. Joseph Gilbert, classical and mathematical tutor at the Congregational College, Masborough, near Rotherham, Yorkshire, in 1813. They later moved to Hull, and then to Nottingham, where Joseph Gilbert died in 1852. Ann remained in Nottingham. She died there on December 20, 1866.

The sisters wrote many poems, children's stories and hymns, but none of their work achieved the popularity of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."

"In literary excellence Mrs. Gilbert's hymns surpass those of her sister," commented Dr John Julian (1839-1913) editor of the Dictionary of Hymnology. "They are more elevated in style, ornate in character, broader in grasp and better adapted for adults .... Miss Taylor's hymns are marked by great simplicity and directness....Taken as a whole, the hymns of both sisters are somewhat depressing in tone. They lack brightness and tone."

Today, blue commemorative plaques are displayed on the Taylor houses in West Stockwell Street, Colchester and Shilling Street, Lavenham, and on the chapel wall at Ongar. The National Trust has a permanent exhibition of paintings, books and personal belongings in the Lavenham Guildhall. Isaac Taylor's excellent painting of his daughters Jane and Ann can be viewed at the National Portrait Gallery, or on the internet.

Many amusing parodies have been based on "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Lewis Carroll's is the best known. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written in 1865, the Mad Hatter recites:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat,
How I wonder what you're at.
Up above the world you fly,
Like a teatray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle little bat,
How I wonder what you're at.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and Sesame Street cartoon character Don Music quoted this parody by composer and lyricist Joe Raposo (1937-1989):

Whistle, whistle little bird,
Isn't eating crumbs absurd
Try a ham and cheese on rye
And a piece of cherry pie
If those crumbs are all you want
Don't come in my restaurant



Story first posted December 2005

Copyright © 2005

Eric Shackle

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