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This report is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Jane Taylor’s Sweet Nothing John Clegg
Only the first stanza of Jane Taylor’s poem ‘The Star’ is remembered, and then anonymously and under another title: ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’. Oral tradition, as usual, has made a good selection, although the phrasing in the first lines of the second stanza is memorably strange:

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon…

The idea that when the sun has gone down he is still shining, but shining on nothing, is irresistible while being impossible to visualise: a nothing made tangible, as at the end of Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snowman’, who, ‘nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’. As with Stevens, the lines make their own way through dense philosophical or theological terrain; they have the air of working it out as they go along. ‘The Star’ first appeared in Rhymes for the Nursery (1806), co-written with Jane Taylor’s sister Ann, who would later praise her sister’s ‘inviting sweetness and naiveté’; as a poem, ‘The Star’, I suggest, is more interesting than that, neither so sweet nor so naive as a first reading might let on.

A lot of our attitude towards ‘The Star’ is conditioned by how we read the speaker: particularly, is the poem in the voice of a child? While orally-transmitted nursery rhymes in the voice of a child are unusual (the only example I can think of is ‘I had a little nut-tree’), Rhymes for the Nursery contains several unambiguous specimens – all of them, however, by ...

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