A Tisket, A Tasket – a Basketful of Pain

A-tisket, a-tasket

A green and yellow basket

I wrote a letter to my love

And on the way I dropped it

I dropped it

I dropped it

Yes, on the way I dropped it

A little boy he picked it up and put it in his pocket.


Most of us having heard these lyrics have reasonably assumed that the author here is no Casanova. He – most of us probably figured this was a dude – repeats himself four times in nine lines, opens with nonsense words and random basket imagery and goes on to stutteringly convey the bumbling sequence of events in which his letter was lost.

In a recent re-examination of this classic, however, some bits of this poem appear strikingly out of place. Even taking into account the author’s apparent flakiness, some things in his tale just don’t add up.

How, for example, does our narrator know that a little boy picked the letter up and put it in his pocket?

It’s conceivable that the writer doubled back on his trail once he realized he’d dropped his letter, arriving at the exact place where he happened to have let it go just as a little boy was picking it up. But then, why wouldn’t he have just notified the lad that the letter belonged to him and simply corrected the situation?   What the author describes is a rather more enigmatic scene – he drops a letter and watches in silence until a random boy finds it and puts it in his pocket.

It cannot be said that the letter’s author intended this course of events at the outset – he clearly states that it was on his way to delivering the letter when things began to fall apart. He did not intend to drop his letter. He did not intend for the little boy to pick it up. But something happened on the way to his destination – something that caused him to drop his dispatch and watch in apparent stupefaction, as a stranger picked it up and walked away.

Having been left no other clue, we must finally call into question the significance of that opening, nonsense image of a brightly-colored basket.

If at first we imagined the basket tucked under the arm of the poem’s narrator, we must now reconsider; if that had been the case, the devoted lover surely would have tucked the letter safely inside, where it would not have been dropped in the first place.

No – this basket belonged to someone else. Someone blocking our narrator’s way – someone our narrator was never able to pass. The tenor of the rhyme – stuttering, fraught with repetition and a fixation on the key sensory images including the colors of the stranger’s basket, and the whereabouts of his dropped letter – are most appropriately taken not as the chronic indicators of a foolish personality, but the situational response of a person under trauma.

What could have caused such intense duress in a writer delivering a love-letter? What could have caused him to drop that letter in the first place? What could have left him stunned and helpless to observe as a child came along and later pocketed his precious correspondence?

What was in that stranger’s basket?

The only thing a vibrantly colored basket can contain and still be seen as horrifying. The same thing kept today in brightly-colored coolers and thermal bags in medical units the world over.

Human.  Innards.

Tragically, it seems this dear ditty’s narrator stumbled into the hands of a black-market organ trafficker, who promptly attacked, ripped out his most marketable bits, and slung him into whatever shallow ditch or dale afforded him a view of his letter laying in the road. It is with helpless horror that he later observes the young child pick up the letter and carry it obliviously off, presumably into the same hands that finished off our narrator.

These lyrics can only be seen as the gasping last words of a lover struggling without being able to make sense of what has happened, to warn whoever it is that finally finds him – go back the way you came. There are merchants of death ahead.

Case regretfully closed.

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