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Louis MacNeice's poem "The Gardener" (1939) contains the lines:

He would talk to amuse the children,
Or the robin waiting for worms
Perched on the handle of the spade;
Would remember snatches of verse
From the elementary school
About a bee and a wasp
Or the cat by the barndoor spinning;
And would talk about himself forever—

What are these snatches of verse about a bee and a wasp, or about the cat by the barn door? Are they references to specific poems that might have been taught in an Irish elementary school?

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  • Other allusions in this poem, such as "And he used a simile of Homer // Watching the fallen leaves," allude to real things, so I assume the ones I'm asking about are, too.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented May 2 at 17:04

2 Answers 2

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Peter Shor has put forward "A Wasp and a Bee" by Jane Taylor as a candidate for the verse about the bee and the wasp. For the other verse mentioned, about "the cat by the barndoor spinning" I propose the nursery rhyme Three Little Mice:

Three little mice sat down to spin
Pussy came by and she peeped in
What are you doing my little friends?
We're making coats for gentlemen
May I come in and bite off your threads?
Oh no gentle pussy, you'd bite off our heads

Little mice you're very wise
I love your whiskers and big brown eyes
Your house is the prettiest house I've seen
I'm sure there is room for both you and for me
The mice were so pleased, they opened the door
And pussy, she left them all dead on the floor.

The rhyme thus involves a cat and spinning (although it's the mice doing the spinning rather than the cat). Some alternate versions have as the first line "Some little mice sat in a barn to spin", and so a barn is also mentioned. The rhyme dates from 1850, and so is roughly contemporary with "A Wasp and a Bee", making it plausible that the gardener could have encountered both verses.

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I found one of them.

It's called "A Wasp and a Bee", it's by Jane Taylor (see Rhymes for the Nursery, 1824, by Jane and Ann Taylor, in Google books), and it starts:

A wasp met a bee that was just buzzing by,
And he said, "Little cousin, can you tell me why
You are loved so much better by people than I

and ends

From this little story let people beware;
Because, like the wasp, if ill-natured they are,
They will never be loved if they're ever so fair.

I was unable to find the spinning cat poem, and since I'm not going to give my own answer a checkmark, if anybody finds that poem, they get the checkmark.

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  • I did wonder whether the other rhyme might be "Three little mice" - it involves a barn, a cat and spinning mamalisa.com/?t=es&p=4947 It's hard to be conclusive though. Commented May 7 at 20:39
  • @ClaraDiazSanchez: That's quite plausible ... it has a cat, spinning, and some versions have a barn door.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented May 7 at 20:48

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