Why Did Humpty Dumpty Have a Terrible Tumble

What are the origins of ‘Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall’, and what do the lyrics mean?
What are the origins of ‘Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall’, and what do the lyrics mean? Picture: Alamy

We’re diving into the roots, past events, and significance of one of the most beloved nursery rhymes in English-speaking countries. Humpty Dumpty sitting on the wall is an enduringly popular children’s song that has captured the hearts of generations.

Unearthing the Origins of ‘Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall’

In 1870, James William Elliott gathered a collection of English nursery rhymes and songs, adding “Humpty Dumpty” to the mix. These rhymes were set to enchanting melodies and published in a volume called “Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs Set to Music,” with beautiful engravings by The Brothers Dalziel, prominent London engravers. However, the origins of this four-line poem can be traced back to the 18th century, with variations in lyrics recorded over time. The original author remains unknown.

Unveiling the Identity of Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty is the central character in the English nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall.” To emphasize his vulnerability, he is often depicted as an egg. This portrayal was popularized by actor George L. Fox in his Broadway pantomime adaptation of Humpty Dumpty and by Lewis Carroll in his whimsical masterpiece, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Unlocking the Meaning Behind the Nursery Rhyme

Several interpretations surround the meaning of “Humpty Dumpty.” Some historians believe that Humpty Dumpty serves as a metaphor for fragile things. Others suggest that Humpty Dumpty symbolizes King Richard III of England, who was believed to be hunchbacked and met his downfall at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. In this interpretation, the wall represents the king’s reign and his struggle to maintain power, with the fall representing his defeat. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men” refer to the failed army that couldn’t restore his authority.

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Another fascinating theory proposes that Humpty Dumpty is actually a cannon. During the English Civil War, a one-eyed gunner named Thompson reportedly positioned a cannon, humorously dubbed “Humpty Dumpty,” atop St Mary at the Walls church tower. From there, the cannon wreaked havoc on the opposing forces until counter fire dislodged both Thompson and the cannon, resulting in the memorable “great fall.”

Alice meets Humpty Dumpty
Alice meets Humpty Dumpty. Picture: Alamy

Notably, Professor David Daube introduced a fourth theory in 1956. He hypothesized that “Humpty Dumpty” referenced an armored siege engine deployed during the unsuccessful 1643 Siege of Gloucester in the English Civil War. Though academics dismissed this theory as a light-hearted spoof, it inspired English composer Richard Rodney Bennett to adapt the concept for his children’s opera, “All the King’s Men.”

Adding another layer to the mystery, Francis Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, equivalent to today’s Urban Dictionary, defines “Humpty Dumpty” as “a short clumsy person of either sex; also, ale boiled with brandy.” Hence, the nursery rhyme could have originated from either interpretation.

Amusingly, we find ourselves facing a “chicken or the egg” conundrum: Which came first, “Humpty Dumpty” as a clumsy person or “Humpty Dumpty” as an egg? Take a closer look at the lyrics and draw your own conclusion.

Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall – Full Lyrics

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.

Oldest-known Lyrics of Humpty Dumpty (1797)

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.

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