"Row Row Row Your Boat" Is A Totally Twisted Fucked Up SongFiled under Things People Don't Realize
Row, row, row your boat / Gently down the stream / Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily / Life is but a dream
“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” --- charming nursery rhyme or vain attempt to inoculate children against the existential meaninglessness of life? Hidden below the glossy surface of this beloved song is a dark and bitter commentary on the human condition. Let’s talk about it.
The most critical line is, of course, the final one. “Life is but a dream.” There’s just no way to pussyfoot around the implications of that lyric ---what we’re telling kids here is that life has no purpose. The song isn’t suggesting that life resembles a dream, ie: surreal, sometimes ideal and sometimes horrific. If it was, the line would be “Life is like a dream.” No, instead it’s suggesting that life is literally a dream, ie: non-real, an elaborate façade, a hallucination in which your actions are utterly inconsequential.
At first glance, “Life is but a dream” is just a confident embrace of solipsism, the theory that the self is all that can be known, for sure, to exist. Ah, if only it were that simple. Pay close attention to the word “but,” the most important word in the whole song. Now it’d be one thing to say, “Life is a dream.” Ok, fine, maybe life is a dream, maybe we are trapped in the Matrix, is that really so awful?
YES. That’s the song’s blunt reply to your question, via the word “but.” It’s a belittling “but,” hurling condescension at any hopes you may have for this pleasant fantasyland. If I were to say, “You are but an American” you wouldn’t think I had a very high opinion of your nationality, now would you? In the sick, twisted mind of the narrator, dreams are a sad sub-optimal reality, and “life” is no better.
So now what? Now that you’ve told your doe-eyed son or daughter that he/she may actually be the lone inhabitant of a pathetic little dream world, how do you suggest coping with that deeply unsettling realization? “Just keep rowing your fucking boat kid, and be happy about it. “
At last we can begin to appreciate the rhyme’s first three lines: a scathing critique of capitalism conveyed through the tragic hero of the boat-rower. “Rowing” represents man’s futile attempt to find purpose in an indifferent, meaningless universe. The boat-rower feels that he’s exercising his free will, choosing his own path in his own vehicle. That’s why he’s merry, even when confronted with the fact that life is “but a dream.”
But is he really free?
First of all, did the boat-rower really choose to row this boat, or was he coerced into tedious manual labor by the same sick son of a bitch who later reveals that reality is a big shitty hallucination? Doesn’t “Row, row, row” sound an awful lot like a command, an order even? The poor boatman can’t even choose how to row --- he has to do it merrily and gently (which is pretty difficult, by the way, since rowing requires a lot of physical exertion and is a violent motion). He’s not in control of his body or his mind, now that you’ve told him what to do, how to feel, and where to go.
Second of all, I hate to point out the obvious, but why the fuck would you row a boat downstream? You could just as easily let the current carry you. Sounds merrier to me. Rowing serves no purpose whatsoever. Whether you row or not, you will still arrive at the same destination, “down the stream,” which is clearly a euphemism for death (let’s not lose sight of the obvious literary allusion to the boatman of Greek mythology). What you're telling your kid here is that free will is an illusion meant to keep you busy, to keep you distracted from the inescapable meaningless of reality.
And all you’re really doing here is preparing your son or daughter for the capitalist rat race, for a lifetime of endless “rowing” (aka working) and forced contentment, despite the fact that nothing is in your control and life only exists in your head. Don't you see it? God, even the hypnotic melody of the rhyme is meant to lull you into complacency and disguise the nursery rhyme’s true message: that life isn’t a dream, it’s a nightmare.