While many readers will view the above verse as the perfect addition to any collection of “Little Willie” rhymes, there is one significant problem: it was not intended to be funny.
In fact, it is a bit of rhyme used (from as early as 1861 through as late as 1875) in mortuary notices for children. The piece appears to have originated in the Philadelphia Public Ledger (1861), but was also found in the Maryland Sun (1875).
Some instances added this second verse:
Go, little loved one, go,
Your parents’ heart can tell,
And none but they can full know
How hard to say farewell.
Are these verses a precursor to the naughty Little Willie poems? It’s possible, perhaps even plausible, but before jumping too deeply into that conclusion, understand that this was a “fill in the deceased’s name” poem. You’ll find the parents of “Little Johnny” and “Little Mary” had the identical verse (where only the name was changed) in the obituaries of their beloved children.
There were occasional variations. In fact, clod that I am, the modified closing line of one version made me chuckle. In 1864, the Annapolis Gazette’s changed the closing line of little Anna Wilson’s obituary poem from “For soon she slept and died” to “For soon she drooped and died.”
“Drooped” is always funnier than “slept.”