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