The most common modern version is:
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
It has been suggested that the song may have originally arisen out of American minstrelsy. The earliest printing of the song is from 1852, when the lyrics were published with similar lyrics to those used today, but with a very different tune. It was reprinted again two years later with the same lyrics and another tune. The modern tune was first recorded with the lyrics in 1881, mentioning Eliphalet Oram Lyte in The Franklin Square Song Collection but not making it clear whether he was the composer or adapter.
The lyrics have often been used as a metaphor for life's difficult choices, and many see the boat as referring to one's self or a group with which one identifies. Rowing is a skillful, if tedious, practice that takes perfection but also directs the vessel. When sung as a group, the act of rowing becomes a unifier, as oars should be in sync for the progression of a rowboat. The idea that human beings travel along a certain stream [time] and suggests boundaries in the path of choices and in free will. The third line recommends that challenges should be greeted in stride while open to joy with a smile. Some have questioned the song's implied necessity to row one's boat downstream. This may in fact be a commentary on the paradoxical nature of time's arrow with respect to man's free will in a universe of materialistic causality.The final line, "life is but a dream", is perhaps the most meaningful. With a religious point of view, life and the physical plane may be regarded as having equivalent value as that of a dream, such that troubles are seen in the context of a lesser reality once one has awakened.
Lewis Carroll, in his famous poem ending Through the Looking Glass used a variation of Row, Row, Row, Row Your Boat as the poem's central theme:
A BOAT beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear —
Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes....
The song has been used extensively in popular culture, often to reflect existential questions about reality. It was sung by Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock at the beginning and end of the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), reflecting issues about the need for self-discovery. In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), the song is used on the soundtrack and by Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) as they try to hide from the memory erasers, reflecting issues of the importance of memory to reality. In Fringe, the character Walter, whilst in a mental institute, remarks that he sometimes hears someone whistling the song but is not sure if it is in fact himself whistling. and later in the same episode refers to his time in the hospital as like being asleep. In March of 2013 on the "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" program. The song is sung by Jimmy Fallon, Justin Timberlake, and Michael McDonald. Fallon and Timberlake are dressed as McDonald, with white wigs and beards. The song is sung in a round, and then the segment is closed with a Row, Row, Row Your Boat jam.  It is also the main child song used in HBO's series such as Oz, Deadwood and Breaking Bad.