One of the most joyful of nursery rhymes, and a personal favorite, is this brilliant piece of poetry:
Draw the latch.
Sit by the fire and spin.
Take a cup,
And drink it up.
Then call the neighbors in.
The clicky rhymes and jaunty meter are undeniably beautiful -- and there's much more complexity than first meets the eye.
In the first triad, a "crosspatch," -- a "cross or ill-tempered person, usually a girl or woman"-- is at work, spinning; in the second triad, she's exhorted to drink and also to invite her neighbors "in" -- presumably into the room, or just as likely, the tiny cottage-- where she lives alone. In the first strophe, the theme is isolation, but in the second, isolation is challenged by the calls of society and by the hope of a more satisfactory and convivial life.
What can we know about the surly individual addressed by the evocative designation, "crosspatch?" The first element in the name --"cross"-- implies not only sourness, but also resistance, as in "cross-grained." The second element--"patch"-- suggests that the crosspatch's discontent is not without cause. We can infer that she's poor because she's a person whose garments are either assembled from various rescued materials, as in "patchwork," or that her clothes are, in another sense of the word patch, repaired. In addition, it's possible that ill health has caused her skin to become "patchy." But "patch" also signals a degree of mental stress, as in Shakespeare's "patched fool." In this signification, patch derives from Italian pazzo, crazy. The crosspatch is therefore disabled physically, socially and psychologically.
At the outset of the poem, our "crosspatch" sits glowering, impoverished, perhaps muttering indistinctly, friendless, without family, her youth blighted by poverty, huddled against the last embers of her dying fire. What is it that she is spinning? No doubt she ekes out a meagre living in the impersonal mercantilist "putting-out" system. Some exploitative proto-capitalist venturer has delivered to her lonely door a quantity of unspun wool or cotton; her job is to return the material to him in the processed form that will then be passed on to an equally poor weaver, then to a tailor, etc. She works alone and never sees the fruits of her labor except for the occasional, paltry farthing that allows her a bare subsistence. No wonder she is slightly barmy and has "drawn the latch" -- closed herself off from her fellows. But then, suddenly, comes the antistrophe, and in a series of importunate injunctives the crosspatch is solicited to rejoin the company of humanity. "Take a cup,/ And drink it up,/ Then call the neighbors in." What's in the cup? Spiritous liquors, no doubt, which, though designed to dull the pain of wage-slavery, also act to augment the revelry with which the poem climaxes. The wine is not sipped, but it is drained to the lees. And once the door is unlatched, and the neighbors -- neighbors of both sexes, no doubt,-- are called "in," why then, let the libations and the wild rumpus begin! Alienated labor is suddenly set aside and replaced by the natural bonds of one human being to another, and the stasis of the opening lines of the poem transforms in a flash into a wildly kinetic bacchanal. Emotional weakness transmutes into healthy liberated pleasure. Dour Puritanism, with its punishing work ethic, yields to the spirit of holiday and to pagan, perhaps even dionysian, excess. Here, in miniature, is the essence of the comic vision. In a few powerful lines, freedom, good humor, and natural appetite triumph over bondage, artificiality, social constriction and repression; the justifiably sullen crosspatch, in a burst of energy, reintegrates herself into the social nexus from which she has been banished.
Whether or not the crosspatch can permanently liberate herself from the oppressions of industrial capitalism, or whether the anodyne and spurious relief of alcohol is a merely transient solution is left unresolved. To ask a short poem, however dense with meaning, to answer so difficult a question would, just possibly, be to ask too much of it and, perhaps, to push the evidence the merest tad too far.