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Off the Wall
1.24.2004 by Sarah.

[Author'ss Note: I've been sick lately, a sudden bronchial illness that confined me to my bed for the better part of a week. The tissues in the trash bin next to my bed passed a referendum to pursue independent statehood, though I have as yet to recognize them officially. I am on heavy medication.

I got sick after I walked for a half hour in -40F winds (a detail I include for the benefit of my readers who live in balmier climes, such as Tennessee, and therefore do not know what pain is) only to sit for three hours in an unheated bar called Casa del Popolo. Our Heroine was there, of course, though rather bundled up in a Fairisle sweater and a live mink stole that bit me when I tried to scratch behind its ears. Neither of us drank that evening because it was too damn cold to take our hands out of our pockets. Too. Goddamn. Cold.

Anyway. Our Heroine told me what I promise will be the last of the essentially British conspiracies that I will relate to you for many weeks, because I'm sick of hearing about the Brits. I asked her some pointed questions about bento boxes that I think have turned her attention to the Far East for a while, but we'll see. This one contains a Nursery Rhyme and a Bog.]

The conspiracies that interest me the most, as I think I've told you before, are those that are hidden in plain sight. Nursery rhymes, for example. Everyone knows the standard ones by heart, yet rarely consider their significance. Not just their historical background-- everyone knows that "Ring Around the Rosy"is about scarlet fever, after all--but the strange bits that don't make any sense, and people know, deep down don't make any sense, but don't devote much mental energy to them nevertheless.

Ok, I have one example of this phenomenon; the rhyme "Humpty Dumpty." Most people recite it:

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 Dumpty back together again.

Great poetry this is not. The last line is a mess, of course; the meter doesn't fit with the rest of the verse. Here's another version:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
Threescore men and threescore more
Cannot place Humpty-Dumpty as he was before.

Well that's certainly no better. Not only does the last line sound awkward, but the third line does not scan with the opening couplet. We may disregard this version entirely.

Neither, of course, is the original version of the rhyme. The last line, the REAL last line, was purposely suppressed. The poem originally went:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses and all the King's men
Took off their trousers and jumped in the fen.

There we go. Much better, isn't it? You see, Humpty Dumpty was the nickname given to the cannon that sat atop St. Mary's Wall Church in Colchester, England. During the English Civil War of 1642-1649, the town of Colchester was a Parliamentarian stronghold. When the Royalists took the town, Cromwell's army turned its weapons against it, and against the walls of the church that served as the town's chief defense. After a siege lasting eleven weeks, the cannon fire toppled the walls of the town and Humpty Dumpty tumbled. Charles I's Royalist army--all the King's horses and all the King's men--fled to the cover of the nearby marshlands.

The war ended, Cromwell won and lost, and Charles II restored the monarchy. Artists, writers, politicians of the revolutionary era swung from the gallows. Some remnants of parliamentary spirit remained. The rabble of the city street and the closet dissenters in the drawing room relived the Royalists' defeat at Colchester in rhyme. The King, of course, knew and was furious. What could he do about it? Over tea and biscuits, Charles II and his ruffled advisors debated different courses of action.

It was clear that they could not make the rhyme disappear. But they could change it by introducing a new version, a slightly less offensive, less embarrassing version. In the pubs of the cities secret agents of the crown disseminated the new rhyme with pints and quarts of beer. Anonymous editorials in the papers appeared. It was even worked into a popular Restoration Comedy. Charles II was not, however, a literary man. He came up with the new rhyme himself; his effort is the adaptation that we recite to our children today.

Still worried that his new rhyme would not catch on and that the army's shameful retreat to the bogs during the battle of Colchester would persist in popular memory to the detriment of future military endeavors, Charles II followed up on a project, proposed before the war, to drain the fens of England. Under the direction of Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, dykes appeared throughout the country, undermining traditional English families that had relied for centuries on the traditional fen products, like eels. The English country gentlemen had to learn to live with the dykes; the new landscape proved far more hostile than before. The fen had been a part of these English gentlemen's sense of Englishness, their identity. With all the new dykes, they felt that they had lost part of their manhood. I've read, though, that English gentlewomen adapted more easily to dykehood.

I have nothing more to say about the nursery rhyme, except to mention that the idea of Humpty Dumpty as a giant egg derives from Lewis Carroll's classic children's book "Through the Looking Glass."

I'm cold. I think I'll go home now. Come, minky.

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