If you can’t trust an age-old nursery rhyme, what can you believe? Well, brace yourself: In the nursery rhyme text, Humpty Dumpty is never described as an egg, despite how he is depicted in Lewis Carroll’s 1872 classic Through the Looking Glass. Instead, "Humpty Dumpty" was the nickname of a cannon used by the Royalists during the English Civil War of 1642-1649. Perched on a wall surrounding the city of Colchester, the enemy blasted the wall to pieces, and the cannon fell to the ground, no longer operable.
All that most modern-day readers know about Humpty is from the first of the poem's three stanzas. The other two go on to make his wartime origins clear. Carroll’s portrayal of Humpty Dumpty involves Alice and Humpty discussing semantics and the power of words. Yet it is John Tenniel's iconic illustration of that scene that has cemented Humpty Dumpty's appearance as an egg in the public imagination.
Other rhymes from other times:
- “Jack and Jill,” a seemingly nonsensical rhyme about children rolling down a hill, originated in France and obliquely references King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, both of whom were beheaded.
- It’s thought that “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” was written about England's Queen Mary I and her penchant for executing Protestants. Her garden, apparently, refers to an ever-growing graveyard.
- “Georgie Porgie” apparently satirizes George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham, a bed-hopping cad who’s said to have courted royalty -- both men and women -- including King Charles I.