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Peter Peter pumpkin eater,
had a wife but couldn't keep her,
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.

Peter peter pumpkin eater,
Had another and didn't love her,
But the first one did so that was very convenient for all three.

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife but couldn't keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had another and didn't love her.
Peter learned to read and spell,
And then he loved her very well.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater is a rather odd children's rhyme that is only still part of our collective cultural literacy because it has traditionally been included in Mother Goose collections. This tradition appears to have started with the publication of the American Mother Goose’s Quarto, or Melodies Complete (Boston, Mass, c. 1825), making this one of the few American Mother Goose rhymes. Like many American cultural innovations, it was simply stolen from the British with a few key elements changed:


Heeper, Weeper, chimney-sweeper
Got a wife and couldn't keep her.
Got another, couldn't love her,
Heeper, weeper, chimney-sweeper.
- A contemporaneous children's rhyme from England.


The Americans added in the pumpkin to make it American and the reading and writing to make it a valuable moral lesson, and then called it a day. It is oft claimed -- with little evidence -- that this is about a specific man who killed his wife for cheating on him; there are even older versions of this rhyme that do indeed specify that he killed his wife -- stuffed up a chimney, or dropped down a well to be eaten by mice -- but it's a stretch to claim that this meaning has in any way been maintained through the many rewrites and changing rhyme schemes, any more than it would be sensible to claim that the Peter in the rhyme is the original Peter. That said, I have no good theory as to why this man is pumpkining his wife.

This rhyme is slowly fading from the public eye, and I suspect the average American, if they can recite it at all, can give no more than the first verse. Given that the only literary merit of this piece is in the pleasing meter, and the second verse does not maintain it well, this is quite appropriate. In recent decades the single line "cheater cheater pumpkin eater" has become popular among children, which is presumably derived from the nursery rhyme, and is considerably more useful.


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