THE GOOSEBERRY WIFE
You may find me in October when the berries are all gone –
Am I ghastly, am I grisly, am I grim to look upon?
Will I beat you, will I eat you, will I make your children sick?
No, I’ll stand here at attention and I’ll imitate a stick.
You may seek me in November when the leaves fall to the ground,
When the thorns are standing starkly, but I shall not be found.
Will I bite you, will I smite you, will I kill you with a sting?
No, I’ll hibernate in winter and I’ll not be seen ‘til spring.
You may look for me in May, by the warmth I am awoken,
Like the wand of a witch, like a twig that has been broken.
Will I flay you, will I slay you, will I batter or betray you?
No, I’ll hide amid the flowers, and pinch me not, I pray you.
When you search again in June, you will find that I have spun
A web of silken gossamer, its strands caught by the sun.
Will I blight you, will I slight you, will I bring your mum to grief?
No, I’ll hide inside my silken bed, the darkside of the leaf.
In the middle of July, with gooseberries growing round,
You must seek me with your lantern, a-fluttering around.
Will I rile you or beguile you, will I rob you of your life?
No, and you shall never recognise the gooseberry wife.
Source material: On the Isle of Wight, parents traditionally scare their children with stories of the “gooseberry wife”, a giant caterpillar which supposedly eats people alive. The gooseberry wife is a typical “nursery bogey”, designed to dissuade children from stealing the ripening fruit. This song is based on the assumption that, far from being the “hairy caterpillar” so often described in the legends, the original gooseberry wife might have been the larva of Uropteryx sambucata, the Swallow-Tail Moth, which, as Edward Newman, British Moths, p. 50, observes, “exactly resembles a twig”. It feeds on honeysuckle, elder, various herbaceous plants, and on gooseberry bushes, and it pupates inside a leaf suspended from the underside of a twig by silken cords. See also Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies, Harmondsworth, 1977, p. 196, and Margaret Baker, The Folklore of Plants, Princes Risborough, 1980, pp. 62-63.
Photo: Flower of wild gooseberry in woods on Ashdown estate, near Lambourn.