The Poem

The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson used the pseudonym Lewis Carroll when he published The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits. Although this work is often called “nonsense verse” or “children’s literature,” it is complex and dark. On a superficial reading it may seem a childish, laughter-filled romp, but it draws the thoughtful adult back to read it again and again as the laughter dies.

Carroll subtitles his poem An Agony in Eight Fits. The word “agony” derives from the Greek verb meaning “to act,” which is also the root of the word “protagonist” and “action.” The poem is divided into eight parts, which are quite properly called “fits,” for in Old English the word for divisions of a poem is “fitts.” Moreover, Carroll is suggesting that an “agony” suitably accompanies “fits,” perhaps convulsive fits of madness.

In “Fit of the First,” the captain of a ship gathers a band of companions for the venture. The captain is called the Bellman, perhaps because the life aboard a navy ship is governed by the ship’s bell, with each watch changing at eight bells, like the eight fits of this text. Perhaps, on the other hand, a bellman is like a bellwether, the sheep that wears a bell and leads a herd of animals. There are ten in the band of hunters: the Bellman (captain), Boots (a boot boy who shines shoes), a Bonnet-maker, a Barrister (lawyer), a Broker (stockbroker), a Billiard-marker (a man who keeps score in a billiards game), a Banker, a Beaver (a furry animal who, in this story, makes lace), a Baker, and a Butcher. All the comrades have names beginning with the letter B. As the alliterative accented syllables fall in the lines of the poem, the sound of that B “Bombastically Booms until it Boggles” the mind. This is a motley crew; no great kings or noble knights gather to hunt the Snark, merely ordinary folk, except for one anthropomorphic animal, the Beaver.

The Bellman leads his band on a voyage to hunt the Snark. Carroll used the term “portmanteau” to mean a single word that is a combination of several other words, like a portmanteau, the French word for “suitcase,” packed with...

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Forms and Devices

Carroll was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford University, and also a pioneer in the early stages of photography. He was a shy man who never married but from time to time formed close friendships with several young girls. The Hunting of the Snark begins with a dedication to such a young friend, Gertrude Chataway, whom Carroll had befriended at the beach on a summer vacation. The dedicatory poem is an anagram in which the first letter of each line, read from top to bottom of the text, spell out Gertrude Chataway’s name. Moreover, it is composed of four stanzas of four lines each, and the first syllables in each stanza also combine to make the name: “Girt,” “Rude,” “Chat,” “Away.” The dedication expresses the joy Carroll felt in the companionship of the beautiful child on a summer’s day at the seashore.

The dedication plus the eight “fits,” or parts, of The Hunting of the Snark are in ballad measure. This is the poetic form found in nursery rhymes, children’s game songs, Protestant hymns designated as common measure, or poems such as Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Carroll’s ballad measure in The Hunting of the Snark is constructed of four-line stanzas, rhymed abab.

Lines 1 and 3 of each stanza have four accented syllables. Lines 2 and 4 have three accented syllables and conclude with a full stop or musical rest. The accented syllables often alliterate or display similar sounds. The number of unaccented syllables per line is variable. This ballad measure is thought to be related to the metrical structure of Old English alliterative verse as used in the epic of Beowulf. It is time-based, like common measure hymns or popular ballads designed to be sung to music with a time signature.