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.
Note the poem’s nightmarish opening: this uncanny character—at once everyman and no-man, perhaps an egg though this is never stated—sits upon a wall. Where is this wall? How did Dumpty come to be sitting upon it? Surrounding this proclamation we see no answers, merely the barren whiteness of the page.
The directly declarative nature of the sentence suggests that Dumpty’s placement is somehow self-evident, a natural feature of the universe—a formal device that belies the strangeness of the scene. The couplet concludes, as it must, with the perfect rhyme fall. Again, the form of the poem suggests the inevitability of this fall: the fall follows naturally from the fact of the wall. Yet counteracting this sense of predestination is the vagueness of the article: this is not the wall but a wall—this wall is simply there, for no particular reason, and there are likely many other such walls with many other such precariously-balanced subjects atop them.
Great fall, with its echo of the Fall of Man, suggests a spiritual dimension to the piece—and tracing that logic back, we see the prelapsarian Egg-Man placed not in an Edenic garden but high atop a perilous wall, the great divide between—what? Further, what kind of Sovereign would place his creation in such a position—especially a creation whose very name signifies clumsiness?
The next couplet gives us a profoundly disturbing answer to the question: the King, for all his power, sends horses to fix the broken Dumpty. With no opposable thumbs or medical training, what could the horses possibly do except further damage him, trampling his broken body into ever-smaller shards? Power seems to be exercised for power’s sake; the deployment of the horses becomes mere theater, the performance of benevolence with no possibility of actual salvation. The King’s men are sent in only later, after the failure of the horses; one assumes they arrive to a scene of frenzied horses splattering sulfuric yolk.
Yet we are not told that the horses and men wouldn’t put Humpty back together, but rather that they couldn’t—implying that their intended mission was, in fact, his repair. Thus we learn that the King is not malevolent but simply inept: it makes no difference whether he intervenes or not; he is so far removed from the quotidian concerns of his subjects that his attempts to protect them (from himself and the Kingdom he orders) must inevitably fail. Thus the rhyme becomes perhaps the bleakest vision of our human condition ever produced. Humpty’s god is not Lear’s god: he kills us not for sport but simply because he does not know how not to kill us, how not to let his fundamentally absurd world destroy itself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California - Irvine. His poetry and prose appear in Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, Colorado Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. He is the Craft Essay Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor of Cleaver, and is at work on his first collection. Learn more about J.G. here.
ABOUT THE ARTIST:
Luke Ball’s artwork addresses ideas related to masculinity, social norms, American culture, and stability. Using objects that relate to his person narrative and interpretations of cultural masculinity to form a visual language, Luke creates masked narratives. He exploits the absurdity, yet theoretically plausibility of haphazardly built structures to create scenes of desolation with hints of humor. Primarily working with printmaking processes, he also often works with drawing, collage, and sculpture. Luke currently resides in Denton, TX and exhibits his work regularly both nationally and internationally. Find out more here.