Lines 1–4: Carroll explicitly defined certain words when the first stanza of this poem was published as a poem in its own right as “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” He provided a glossary, or list of meanings, for some of the unfamiliar words; this list was later incorporated into Humpty Dumpty’s explica- tion in Alice in Wonderland. The first line begins with the now archaic English contraction for “It was” and contains the noun “brillig” which Carroll says comes from the broiling or grilling done in the early evening (br + ill + i[n]g) in preparation for dinner. “Toves” are supposedly badger-like creatures, and the adjective “slithy” is a portmanteau made up of “lithe” and “slimy.” The definition offered for “gyre” in the second line is “to scratch”; “gimble” is defined as “to bore holes.” Carroll has directed us to pronounce these both with a hard “g.” However, in American English “gyre” is pronounced with the soft sound of the “j” in “june.” Furthermore, “gyre” as a noun in its own right means “to circle,” so it makes sense that its use as a verb might have that same meaning. “Gimble” is said to be associated with the noun “gimlet,” “a small tool for boring holes.” “Wabe” is defined by Carroll as “the side of a hill,” but the explanation proposed by Alice as a portmanteau of “way + before/ behind” seems much more helpful. Thus, the line can be read, quite poetically, as “Did spin and spike in the way beyond.” The second line ends with a semi-colon in some versions of the poem, but with a colon in the last version edited by Carroll. A semi-colon would indicate a lesser break than a period, establishing two independent thoughts connected into one sentence. A colon suggests a further amplification of, or elaboration on, what has already been said, and in fact in this case the colon might stand for a break plus the word “however”: “It was evening and the toves were having a great time [; however,] the borogoves weren’t very happy and the raths felt so bad they cried.” “Mimsy” in line 3 is made up of “flimsy” and “miserable,” and the “borogoves” which it describes are said to be parrots. The “raths” of line 4 are defined as turtles, and Carroll offers an interesting etymology, or word history, for the adjective “mome” as being related to “solemn,” which he suggests comes from an earlier (imaginary) word “solemome.” The verb that ends the stanza is said to derive from a word meaning “to shriek,” although Humpty Dumpty is more explicit, indicating that it is something “between bellowing and whistling,” which suggests a sobbing, crying kind of sound, and which coupled with the sound of “outgrabe,” perhaps might come close to being a past tense form for “outgrieve,” or “grieve out[loud].” Carroll’s original intention of the alliteration of the hard “g” for “gyre” and “gimble” in line 2 is lost with the American pronunciation of the soft “j” beginning “gyre.” However, the assonance between the vowel sounds in “slithy” and “gyre” in lines 1 and 2 remains to emphasize the musicality of the poem, as does the assonance of the short “i” in “brillig,” “gimble,” and “mimsy” in lines 1, 2, and 3, respectively, and the long “o” sounds in “borogoves” and “mome” in lines 3 and 4. The stanza containing lines 1–4 establishes the setting for the story about to be told. Carroll has offered a literal English translation of the passage:
It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side: all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out. There were probably sun-dials on the top of the hill, and the “borogoves” were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of “raths,” which ran out, squeaking with fear, on hearing the “toves” scratching outside. This is an obscure, but deeply-affecting, relic of ancient Poetry.
The first two lines set a scene of lighthearted happiness in which all seems well, but the last two hint at impending doom.
Lines 5–8: The first proper noun in this stanza is related to the title of the poem itself, and so bears some serious consideration in both its form as the thing, the “Jabberwock,” and the activity of the thing, “Jabberwocky.” The first part of either word is “jabber,” and a synonym for this is “babble,” a word that brings up immediately an association with the biblical tower erected in the city of Babel. “Babble” thus refers to the sounds that resulted from God’s confusion of the supposed one original human language into many so that people could no longer understand each other and cooperate to build the tower to heaven. “-Wock” or “-wocky” may refer to an old Scottish word for “voice.” Hence, the “Jabberwock” could be called a “Babble-Voice,” and “Jabberwocky” might be “Babblement.” The central idea is that a father is warning his son against a creature whose sounds are without meaning.
The father’s warning becomes explicit in the sixth line about the dangers inherent in the Jabberwock’s jaws and claws. In the seventh line he extends the warning to include a second important creature: the Jubjub bird. Since sound is such a significant feature of this poem, it seems justified to take the sound of “jubjub” as being close to the word “jujube,” a candy named for a fruit tree, and to assume an association with the sticky sweetness of the fruit the bird eats. Furthermore, in Carroll’s later book-length poem The Hunting of the Snark it is made clear that the Jubjub bird sings songs that are attractive to the Jabberwock, so that one would likely find the Jabberwock in close proximity to the Jubjub bird.
“Frumious” in the eighth line is a portmanteau explained at length in Carroll’s preface to The Hunting of the Snark (which he says “is to some extent connected with “Jabberwocky”). In short, to simply have two words packed together as, for example, “fuming-furious,” does not have the poetic effect of “frumious,” for it stresses the one over the other. Thus, “if you have … a perfectly balanced mind, you will say ‘frumious.’” This gives the full effect of both meanings in a familiar-sounding adjective structure that is much more efficient than a hyphenated word.
Also in the eighth line, the third proper noun, “Bandersnatch,” has two parts, which appear readily comprehensible: “Bander-” and “-snatch.” The “snatch” would of course refer to something which “snatches” or takes, as a “snitch” is one who...
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