Joseph Ritson, who commissioned William Blake to create the engravings for the Collection of English Songs (1784), had the previous year collected the material for Gammer Gurton’s Garland or Nursery Parnassus, published by Joseph Johnson, who also employed Blake as an engraver. The book is subtitled ‘A choice collection of pretty songs and verses’, and contains several traditional nursery rhymes.
Children’s rhymes had been for decades published as chapbooks, small and cheap books which had no obvious moral messages within them, in contrast to the moralising favoured by Sarah Trimmer and Isaac Watts and other children’s writers directed at the middle classes. Until this period the ordinary nursery rhymes and folk tales were seen as having little or no literary merit. Many adults preferred tales that would instil moral behaviour in their children; the fantastical nature of the rhymes in the chapbooks held no apparent ‘meaning’.
Some writers, among them Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, and William Wordsworth, felt that these rhymes and tales were more appropriate for young people than morally educational stories. Johnson believed that they fed children’s natural curiosity, and anyway could be safely contained within ideas of archaic or imagined cultures.