I very early learned to take disillusionment in stride. By the time the luxurious indolence posited by Row Row Row your Boat was displaced, one day in kindergarten, by the frantic excitement of singing the song as a round, and the premise of life-as-a-dream was dashed in a clamor of “rows” and “gentlys” and “streams,” forcing the mind to focus on words as sounds, sans meaning, I already was resigned to having to endure what promised to be a never-ending series of shattered certainties.
On a Hegelian level, every negation is meant to have its corresponding new and happy actuality. Most of the time, I had a hard time discovering what that was. Not so, however, with the canonic antithesis to the lovely barcarolle of the solitary oarsman. The overturning of the appealing individualism of row your boat merrily, life is but a dream, by the rigid totalitarianism of the canon form was more than compensated for by the pleasure of participating in a cooperative effort to create something beautiful, something merrily beautiful. The deeper meaning of the song may have been lost, but knowing what my duty was (not to begin singing until the children over there had sung “stream” and the children over there had sung “boat” and not to get mixed up) gave a surprising new Aristotelian slant to existence.
There was one problem with Row Row Row your Boat sung as a round: despite its admirable formal structure, it lacked a satisfying dénouement. Either a finis was arbitrarily imposed by gestures from our teacher who, since after all we were only five-year-olds, was never able to coordinate us into a coda that was not ragged and disorderly, or our singing simply petered out as the more easily diverted lost interest.
Here was the other side of dialectic, a hint of the chaos that lay in wait if a synthesis were to fail. It was a fascinating refinement of the dichotomy of form and content that I had discovered in Mairzy Doats.