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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

by Lewis Carroll

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They Told Me You Had Been To Her Meaning

What linguistic/language features does the poet use to create meaning in "They told me you had been to her" by Lewis Carroll?


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I think that oddly enough the language features that Lewis Carroll uses in this poem are designed to obfuscate any meaning rather than create it. It is, after all, meant to be a nonsensical poem.

For example, the poem is dense with a range of pronouns (e.g., they, me, you, her, him, she) which are deliberately piled one of top of the other to make it very difficult, if not impossible, to tell with any clarity or confidence exactly who each pronoun refers to and what the relationships might be between all these people. There are four different pronouns in the very first line. That's an indication from Carroll that anybody hoping to make sense of the rest of the poem should abandon all hope. Indeed, Alice exclaims, upon hearing the poem, "I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it."

There is also in the poem quite a strict rhyme scheme, with alternating end-rhymes throughout the whole poem ("her/him/character/swim") and also a regular syllabic meter, with every odd numbered line having eight syllables, and every even numbered line having six syllables. These features create a strong rhythm, which in turn lends to the language of the poem a repetitive, sing-song tone, compounding the impression that the language itself is childish nonsense.

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This poem certainly relies heavily on indefinite pronouns. It also relies on an ABAB rhyme scheme, or an alternate rhyme scheme (in each stanza, the first and third lines rhyme, and the second and fourth lines rhyme), and quatrains (4-line stanzas).

The alternate rhyme scheme is one of the most common rhyme schemes in poetry. It involves a sing-song rhythm. This sing-song rhythm creates the illusion of logic and a problem and resolution pattern; the first two lines of each quatrain set up a "problem," and the rhyming last two lines make us feel as though this problem is resolved. However, the rhyme scheme is very sneaky in this poem because, while it seems like something is happening, nothing concrete is actually happening in the poem! Or, at the very least, whether or not something is actually happening is called into question. 

The poem's last two lines speak to the secretive, elusive nature of the poem ("A secret, kept from all the rest, / Between yourself and me"), perhaps telling us that the indefinite pronouns and the sneaky rhyme scheme are meant to trick us and keep the poem's actual meaning secretive and hidden.

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This poem is the letter the Knave of Hearts writes (though he denies it) about stealing the tarts from the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. This letter, reproduced in the poem, essentially makes no sense. Alice says, "I don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it."

What is so confusing about this poem is that the poet relies on the literary and linguistic device of using unclear pronoun references. The poem begins with the pronouns "they," "you," and "her." To whom or what these...

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pronouns refer is never clarified, confusing the reader. Though it might be assumed that "I" refers to the Knave of Hearts, the other pronouns are never clarified. As the poem goes on, it requires greater knowledge of who these pronouns refer to if the reader is to understand the poem. In addition, the poet uses additional confusing references such as "one" or "two" without sufficient references or explanation, though the poem is clearly presenting a kind of explanation or narrative. Therefore, the linguistic device of using unclear pronouns and other references makes the entire account incomprehensible and provokes a sense of confusion in the reader.

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