Little Jack Horner sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”
Your childhood probably included this “nursery rhyme.” But it provokes many questions: If Jack Horner really was a “good boy,” why was he sitting in a corner, which even today is normally considered a punishment? And it would be even worse at Christmas, when everybody else would be merrily gathered at a big festive table. (At least he was sitting — it would have been harder still to be made to stand.)
Then there is the mystery of the plum. The traditional English Christmas Pie (or Pudding), which is often called Plum Pudding, has a wide variety of ingredients. Martha Stewart’s recipe contains many fruit bits or extracts, including currants, raisins, kumquats, orange and lemon peel — but no plums! One is tempted to think that Jack Horner’s plum is there, only to rhyme with his “thumb.”
Which, however, only raises the question: Even if a plum were there, how could Jack Horner pull it out with his thumb? Some other digit must have been involved, to which no credit is given. (I’ll overlook the sanitary question.)
And of course, we must then ask, how does this entire performance (unless he had some kind of audience, which is unlikely, considering his position in a corner) in any way make Jack a “good boy”?
One must sadly conclude that there may have been “something wrong,” mentally, with Jack, and, instead of being excluded from the festivities altogether, he was kindly placed in a corner, so that he would not disrupt the proceedings with any strange behavior.
We know nothing of the circumstances in which this whole incident took place. But we do know that Jack Horner was “little.” Indeed, that word is the first thing we’re told about him, as if it were of particular significance. It might simply convey that he was a child — but it might also indicate some bodily impairment. (Perhaps that explains why he had to use his thumb.) Or it could be that he was a physically small person, possibly a member of that vast tribe of homeless “waifs and strays” who for centuries populated the streets of London and other parts of England, and whom some of the more prosperous families might, out of pity, take into their homes at Christmas time, in order at least to share their holiday dinner?
But sitting and eating Christmas pie is not the only thing our vernacular allows to be done in corners. Indeed, we have the strange case of a “ring” which has four corners — and of course, I mean a boxing ring, which was originally circular, but somehow evolved into a square, with two opposite corners occupied by the fighters and their helpers, and the other two considered “neutral.” And, when you assure someone that “I’m always in your corner,” it means that I’m behind you in any conflict.
And among other round things which are also somehow endowed with corners is the Earth itself. Usually, the idea is of a division into quarters, giving us four corners. But Shakespeare, interestingly enough, conceived of three. In the concluding speech of his play King John, he has it declared with royal defiance:
“This England never did, nor never shall
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror. . .
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them.”
In the United States, however, there’s one point at which the borderlines of four States (Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado) intersect. At some time in the last century, someone had the bright idea of turning this “Four Corners” phenomenon into a “monument” and a tourist attraction, although located in a truly remote spot, with no facilities. But it’s considered fun to be able to put your hands and feet in four states at the same time.
There are, of course, many ways in which corners have featured in our speech. Herbert Hoover, who presided over the Great Depression, was widely ridiculed for assuring the country that “prosperity is just around the corner.”
“And so it was,” says one writer, “as long as you measured in decades.” (And Hoover lived to see it!)
And we too have turned the final corner of this piece. (Good thing too, because I’ve noticed your attention wandering sometimes — out of the corner of my eye.)