A critical analysis of Humpty Dumpty. Original poem, audio commentary and accompanying notes below.
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!
(Click below to listen to the audio commentary)
One short stanza consisting of four short lines suggests that this poem could be aimed at a young, unsophisticated audience, but we shouldn’t assume that is strictly the case purely on the basis that we know this poem to be a ‘nursery rhyme’. The form is simple and almost aggressively direct, possibly targeted at the widest possible audience – perhaps of limited literacy. Whatever the purpose of this poem is, its author is keen to deliver it as quickly and with as little fuss as possible.
Four short lines and two neat stanzas, roughly of equal length, offer a stability and overall sense of cohesion. The reader is given a narrative that is not only easy to follow, but regimented. That said, the problematic third line stands out as longer than the others, suggesting a climax in action or complication of some description. By the fourth line, a resolution has been reached, reinforced by the return to a line similar in length to the opening couplet.
Save the unusual name of the titular character, the poem offers a notably simple vocabulary. Again, this could be in order to appeal to an unsophisticated audience and appeal to as wide a readership as possible. The opening couplet consists of mono-syllabic words that are impossible to misinterpret, creating a direct, focussed narrative. The end of the first couplet introduces a complication with the adjective ‘great’, which states that Humpty Dumpty’s fall is noteworthty.
The second couplet introduces semantic fields of monarchy and the military, with the repetition of ‘King’s’ met with ‘horses’ and ‘men’. In all, this gives the poem sense of grandeur and importance – simple words with grand connotations. On this note, repetition serves to emphasise key features in the poem, particularly in its (problematic) third line. Whatever is going on, the reader is made patently aware that ‘all’ of the king’s subjects are involved.
Simple couplets create a direct and satisfying rhyme scheme. Such direct rhyme suggests a level of control and authority from the author, able to state a series of events in perfect, full rhyme. The linking of ‘wall’ and ‘fall’ in the first couplet could be symbolic as well as aural – perhaps you can’t have one without the other; a relationship that is detailed with simplicity in the poem’s opening lines.
‘Humpty Dumpty’ as a proper noun is lyrical and freewheeling, and a comical irreverence is created by assonance and internal rhyme. The relative strangeness of this name contrasts significantly to the dry, uncomplicated language in the rest of the poem. This contrast highlights the titular character and invites us to mock him/ it (or at least find mirth in its predicament).
Divorced from context and hearsay, there is nothing to suggest that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ is an egg. The initial image put forward in the first line is one of peace and stability – Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. An immediate shift in image is thrown at the reader in the next line in which Humpty ‘had a great fall’. The contrast is dramatic and immediate; a movement from tranquillity to trauma within one couplet. The poem’s imagery continues to shift dramatically moving into the second half of the poem. Its (problematic) third line presents us with a scene of absolute chaos, in which ‘all’ of the king’s horses and men are in action, simultaneously. The image created is beyond the personal trauma of the opening couplet into something far greater, almost beyond comprehension.
By the end of the poem we are left with an image of unchecked chaos in which Humpty is destroyed beyond repair. Of note here is the striking contrast between the first and last lines of the poem – complete stability and calm to absolute chaos in only four lines. The poet has taken us on a wildly fluctuating journey – a complete narrative detailed with vivid, imagery (achieved through quite understated language).
The trochaic (trochee = strong/ weak syllabic stress), jaunty rhythm of ‘Humpty dumpty’ immediately gives way to a stuttering, staccato peppering of mono-syllabic words. This gives the opening couplet a natural rhythm that is ostensibly jaunty. The third line abandons the trochaic rhythm of ‘Humpty Dumpty’ for pure staccato, which achieves a rhythm that could be interpreted as violent, or at least regimented – possibly reflecting the content of the line (horses and men = military agents). This rhythm continues into the climax of the poem, building into a crescendo of excitement. From the middle of the poem onwards the poet makes sure we are gripped by a volley of syllables. Frantic.
The poem speeds up considerably after the first couplet. Caesura is used to slow the pace of the poem in the first two lines, but once the action picks up and we have the chaos of ‘all the King’s’ charges trying to resolve the crisis, enjambment ensures that the poem rushes ahead towards is dramatic (!) conclusion. That said, the comma in the middle of the third line does ask us to pause and organise the scene of horses and men in crisis.
As stated earlier (see Imagery) we have a series of shifts in the poem that reflect changes in mood as well as scene. The tranquillity of the first line gives way to trauma and ultimately panic, as highlighted by the final, closing exclamation mark. The poet chooses to end the opening stanza with a full stop as opposed to any exclamation, creating a serious, if not reflective tone. In this, we are invited to treat Humpty’s fall as an emotionless event. The facts are presented, unadorned.
The introduction of regal elements works to create a degree of gravitas, particularly when ‘all’ the king’s horses and men are being referenced. Even if the construction of the poem is ‘fun’, the content becomes serious. We sit up and take notice when the king is mentioned, reinforced by the poem’s military rhythm (see Rhythm).
While the rhyme scheme creates a sense of fun and playfulness, the narrative is more tense at a basic level of plot. By the end of the poem a problem has been presented that is left completely unresolved; the exclamation suggests panic and stress. However, the comical connotations of the name ‘Humpty Dumpty’ could be an invitation to mock the subject of the poem and, in this regard, the exclamation mark may simply mark excitement/ humour – almost akin to a punchline.
So what is this poem about? Superficially, it tells the story of a person or thing with a comical nickname who suffers a fall and cannot be helped by all the agents of the ruling monarch. Taking previous conclusions into account, more subtle conclusions can be drawn. The poem works to highlight the perils of rising to power, the sitting on a wall symbolic of attaining a position of influence. The fact that Humpty can only, once on the wall, go in one direction serves as a moral warning. No matter how stable you are, a ‘great’ fall will leave you in a state of disrepair.
The fact that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ is such a naturally silly name could reflect the author’s subversive attitude toward monarchy. Maybe ‘Humpty dumpty’ is a nickname for some grand, regal agent? Maybe an allegory for class division? The regal element of the poem bolsters this view. Whatever ‘Humpty dumpty’ is, it is important enough for the king to despatch ‘all’ of his resources to attempt to help. But not even all of the king’s might can help. On a moral level, the poem underlines the fact that a fall from grace cannot be reversed by man or king. Or horse.