The curious origins of a famous rhyme – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
Humpty Dumpty was originally a drink, then he became an egg in a nursery rhyme. Quite how this happened, nobody seems to know, but it did. The name ‘Humpty-dumpty’ was given to a drink of boiled ale and brandy in 1698, and that’s only the first known reference in print – the name is probably considerably older. By 1785, as Francis Grose recorded in his fascinating collection of contemporary slang, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the rhyming term had been applied to people, and was used specifically to describe a ‘short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person’ and, by extension, a clumsy person. But the words ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ mean one thing and one thing alone to most readers: an egg in the famous nursery rhyme which begins, ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’. What is the meaning of this little rhyme, and what are its origins?
First, before we attempt an analysis of this curious nursery rhyme, here’s a reminder of the words:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
This rhyme didn’t appear until the early nineteenth century, according to Iona and Peter Opie in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), when it was included in a manuscript that was mysteriously added to a printed 1803 copy of Mother Goose’s Melody. Since the Opies compiled their dictionary in the early 1950s, the rhyme has been traced back to an earlier source, Samuel Arnold’s 1797 work Juvenile Amusements:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.
According to the Opies, there was a girls’ game called Humpty Dumpty, which was popular in America and involved the players sitting down and holding their skirts, before throwing themselves backwards, with the aim being to recover their balance without letting go of their skirts. The idea of regaining one’s balance after falling clearly suggests a link with the nursery rhyme, and Lina Eckenstein, in Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes (1906), surmised that the game predated the rhyme. Was the nursery rhyme of ‘Humpty Dumpty’, like ‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’, designed to accompany a children’s game?
The Opies add their own cautious speculation to the debate, suggesting that the rhyme may have originally been about not literal eggs, but children playing a game similar to the one described in nineteenth-century American accounts. ‘Eggs do not sit on walls’, the Opies helpfully point out; ‘but the verse becomes intelligible if it describes human beings who are personating eggs.’
By the time Lewis Carroll created his nonsense mirror-world of Through the Looking-Glass (1871), the rhyme had become firmly established – like the earlier rhyme about Tweedledum and Tweedledee – and Carroll’s looking-glass fantasy world took the character and gave him a new lease of life as a rather uppity egg who uses words however he wishes to, without worrying that nobody else will understand him. In John Tenniel’s accompanying illustration, Humpty Dumpty is clearly an egg – albeit one in clothes – so by the 1870s the idea that the nursery rhyme was about an actual egg must have been solidly entrenched. It’s possible that the nursery rhyme was supposed to be a riddle, to which ‘egg’ was the answer, thus explaining why the king’s horses and the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.
But the truth is, we just don’t know for sure. What seems most likely is that the rhyme may have been sung as an accompaniment to the nineteenth-century game outlined above. In the various versions of ‘Humpty Dumpty’ in circulation, he is sometimes sitting on a wall but sometimes elsewhere: in a ‘beck’, for instance (a brook or stream, that is). So the link with the game may not be as far-fetched as some of the other interpretations offered.
What does seem unlikely is the persistent myth that Humpty Dumpty was the name of a cannon used in the English Civil War. During the 1648 siege of Colchester, the story goes, the Royalist cannon nicknamed Humpty Dumpty was shot off a wall by Parliamentarian forces. Unfortunately, even if a Royalist cannon was nicknamed Humpty Dumpty (and there is no evidence for this), that wouldn’t prove the story about the fallen cannon was true. All it would prove is that we could add cannons to the list of other things (brandy drinks, clumsy people, eggs) which have been linked with the words ‘Humpty Dumpty’. In the last analysis, the rhyme’s true origins and meaning remain unknown, though we would be tentatively inclined to see the verse as a song sung by children while playing a game. War, no; games, possibly.
And now, time for some ale and a large brandy.
Discover the stories behind more classic nursery rhymes with our analysis of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’, our commentary on the Little Bo Peep rhyme, and our post delving into the history of the ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ nursery rhyme.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Illustration of Humpty Dumpty by William Wallace Denslow (1902), via Wikimedia Commons.