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.
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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...
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Surely one of the most appealing factors in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is the sheer timelessness of the poem’s setting. The boy’s encounter with the mysterious Jabberwock beast has no specific reference point in history. This factor boosts the poem’s universal appeal, for “Jabberwocky” is capable of captivating readers of any era—Elizabethan, Victorian, Industrial, Computer, or otherwise. Although the poem was written and published at the height of Victorian England, no special knowledge of that era is required in order to understand and enjoy the poem. Similarly, a reasonable facsimile of “Jabberwocky” could have been penned in any number of historical eras, given that the poem contains no noticeable references to Carroll, his life, or his times. A Roman scribe in Pompeii named Barnacus Frabjus could have written a “Jabberwocky” -like poem (and indeed, his readership, given its receptivity to the wildly fantastical creatures embedded in its mythology, would have eaten the thing up), as could have some beatnik bard given to opium-induced excursions on the page circa 1960. The point is, “Jabberwocky” transcends notions of time and history, and in having done so, the poem continues to increase its readership yearly by the thousands, if not millions.
Clearly, Carroll wanted his poem’s narrative element (i.e., the boy’s search for and encounter with...
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Any song that tells a story is a ballad. Originally intended for singing, ballads became “poetry” when the English poet Sir Walter Scott began collecting them to write down so they would not be forgotten. This is a typical form for stories about knights, which “Jabberwocky” purports to be, although it is considered a literary ballad, to be read rather than sung.
The ballad-stanza is usually four lines rhymed abcb, in which the lines have a syllable pattern of 8, 6, 8, 6. Note how the third, fifth, and sixth stanzas of the poem follow this rhyme scheme, with the others rhyming abab.
Carroll also plays with the syllable pattern, with each of the first three lines of a stanza having eight syllables and the last line six, except in the third stanza, where it might be said that the third line “borrows” a syllable from the last line. The effect of the 8, 8, 8, 6 pattern is that the shortest last line gives a sense of separateness to each of the actions described in the stanza, whereas the typical ballad syllable pattern creates a sense of anticipation that carries through each stanza to the end of the ballad.
A further structural characteristic of “Jabberwocky” is the use of what Humpty Dumpty in his explication calls “portmanteau” words, which are two words “packed up into one.” Examples of these are “slithy” and “mimsy” from the first four stanzas. The sound of words, rather than meaning,...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1871: At the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Germany becomes newly unified under the Imperial Proclamation. King Wilhelm I of Prussia is crowned emperor of Germany, establishing the Second Reich. Germany’s sudden emergence as a national power is perceived in Britain as a potential threat to that country’s political and economic interests.
1945: The Third Reich established under Adolf Hitler is crushed by the Allied Forces in World War II. Soon Germany is cleaved into two parts, with communist Russia dominating East Germany and Western democracies overseeing West Germany. This partition creates the so-called Cold War, which will last over forty years.
1990: Forty-five years after the end of World War II, the two Germanies are finally reunited into one country. Under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Germany establishes itself as a global economic power.
1903: Just five years after Lewis Carroll’s death, the first of many film versions of Alice in Wonderland is made by English film producer Cecil Hepworth. Primitive by today’s standards, the ten-minute-long film is later preserved by The British Film Institute, though the film has noticeably faded in parts.1999: A lavish new version of Alice in Wonderland (with segments from Through the Looking-Glass) airs on television. The production features many stars and remarkable special effects, with Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat and Ben...
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Topics for Further Study
Compare “Jabberwocky” with Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse, on Turning up Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.” Discuss how reading the made-up language in Carroll’s poem can help you read the unfamiliar Scottish dialect that Burns uses.
How does this poem’s structure—the abab rhyme scheme, the repetition of the first stanza at the end—make you accept it as a poem? Does anything with a poetic form qualify as a “poem”? What if, like “Jabberwocky,” it tells a story from beginning to end. What is poetry?
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In 1966, a television production called Alice Through the Looking Glass was aired. Those in the cast included the Smothers Brothers as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Jimmy Durante as Humpty Dumpty, and Jack Palance as the Jabberwock.
Jan Svankmajer has long been considered one of the world’s most original and clever animators. His amusing (and somewhat disturbing) take on “Jabberwocky” was made in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), released in 1971, and runs thirteen minutes.
Donovan, a British pop star who had several hits in the 1960s, has song versions of both “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” on his album H. M. S. Donovan. The album was originally released in 1971 on the Dawn Records label and was re-released in 1998 on Beat Goes On Records.
Another musical version of “Jabberwocky” appears on Marianne Faithfull’s 1965 album Come My Way, released on the Decca label.
A videocassette entitled The Hunting of the Snark [and] Jabberwocky was released in 1999 by First Run Features. Although sections of “Snark” have been omitted, “Jabberwocky” has been included in its entirety.
A CD-Rom entitled Lewis Carroll—Selected Writings with Illustrations and Readings has been released by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. It contains Through the Looking-Glass and other major works by Carroll, as well as biographical material and readings...
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What Do I Read Next?
Several of the characters in “Jabberwocky” make a return visit in Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (1876). Like “Jabberwocky,” The Hunting of the Snark is considered a masterpiece of nonsense verse.
Published toward the end of his life, Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and its sequel, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), have not enjoyed nearly the popularity that the two Alice books have. Still, these somewhat neglected books abound in fantasy and nonsense elements and offer some pleasurable reading.
Carroll, a lecturer in Mathematics at Christ Church in Oxford for many years, was as fascinated with logic as he was with fantasy and nonsense verse. For a look into this side of the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, his book Symbolic Logic (1896) makes for a thought-provoking read.
Although Carroll and his great nonsense-verse contemporary, Edward Lear (1812–1888), never met, it is widely believed that Carroll was greatly influenced by Lear’s nonsense verse. An excellent choice for encountering Lear’s equally zany world is The Book of Nonsense, originally published in 1846.
For a time, Carroll maintained a friendship and correspondence with the great English poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). Carroll, an early buff in the dawning age of photography, even took some photos of Tennyson and his family. For a...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Alkalay-Gut, Karen, “Carroll’s JABBERWOCKY,” in The Explicator, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 27–31.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Lewis Carroll, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Brown, Lesley, ed., The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, 1993.
Ciardi, John, ed., How Does a Poem Mean?, Houghton Mifflin, 1960; revised and enlarged by John Ciardi and Miller Williams, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
Clark, Anne, Lewis Carroll: A Biography, Schocken Books, 1979.
Empson, William, “‘Alice in Wonderland,’” in Some Versions of Pastoral, New Directions, 1935, pp. 253–94.
Goldfarb, Nancy, “Carroll’s JABBERWOCKY,” in The Explicator, Vol. 57, No. 2, Winter, 1999, pp. 86–88.
Holmes, Roger W., “The Philosopher’s ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” in Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics’ Looking-Glasses, 1865–1971, edited by Robert Phillips, Vanguard, 1971, pp. 159–74.
Holquist, Michael, “What Is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism,” in Alice In Wonderland, A Norton Critical Edition, 2d ed., edited by Donald Gray, W. W. Norton & Company, 1971, p. 390.
Hudson, Derek, Lewis Carroll, Greenwood Press, 1972.
Kelly, Richard, Lewis Carroll: Revised Edition, Twayne Publishers, 1990.
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