The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Jabberwocky,” possibly the most famous of all nonsense poems, consists of seven stanzas, each of four lines, each line having eight syllables. The orthodox form and the fixed rhythm provide a framework whose rigidity further emphasizes the nonsensical quality of each individual line. Because the final stanza is an exact repetition of the first, these two units, unrelated in content to the remainder, perform a parenthetical function. The five stanzas thus bracketed contain a consecutive narrative in which a young man, having received a series of warnings, rides away to find and kill the monstrous Jabberwock and then returns to his delighted father.
When the first stanza appeared separately it was represented as a “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” and all the unfamiliar words were footnoted as if they were medieval terms whose meanings had been rendered obsolete or lost. In the interests of maintaining this parodic imposture, three of the key words were rendered “bryllyg,” “slythy,” and “gymble,” but Carroll reverted to more orthodox spellings when he introduced the lines into a different context.
Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The original version of the first stanza is a humorous pastiche of scholarly versions of Old English poems such as Beowulf (sixth century). Carroll’s notes are an exercise in etymological slapstick, according to which “bryllyg” is derived from the verb “to bryl or broil” and thus refers to the time of broiling dinner, or the late afternoon. “Slythy” is a compound of slimy and lithe, meaning “smooth and active”; “tove” is a species of badger with horns like a stag, which lived chiefly on cheese. “Gyre” is derived from “giaour”—here said to mean “dog,” although it actually means “infidel” and had acquired more sinister implications by way of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s poem “The Giaour”—and means “to scratch like a dog.”
“Gymble” means “to screw holes” and is the alleged origin of “gimblet” (gimlet); “wabe” is derived from the verb “to swab or soak” and refers, by casually mysterious means, to the side of a hill; “mimsy” means unhappy, and thus provides the root, via “mimserable,” of “miserable.” “Borogove” is an extinct species of parrot, which was wingless, possessed of an upturned beak, nested under sundials and lived on veal; “mome”—from which evolved “solemome,” “solemone,” and ultimately “solemn”—means “grave.” “Rath” is a species of land turtle that had a mouth like a shark, walked on its knees, and lived on swallows and oysters; “outgrabe,” the past tense of the verb “to outgribe,” is related to several words, including “grike,” “shrike,” “shriek,” and “creak,” and thus means “squeaked.”
Some of these meanings are retained when the version of the stanza used in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is explained in chapter 6 by...
(The entire section is 749 words.)