The Hunting of the Snark

by Lewis Carroll

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The Poem

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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 odd contents. “Snark” might be a portmanteau word containing “to snag,” “snail,” and “shark,” for example. No one knows what a Snark is, although many readers suggest a symbolic meaning for the word.

When the Baker joins the crew in the first section, he brings with him forty-two boxes of luggage. Carroll was forty-two years old when he wrote these lines, and sometimes the Baker is thought to be a caricature of the author himself. The Baker is forgetful and cannot remember his own name, but he is obsessed with a single idea, “Snark.”

In “Fit of the Second, The Bellman’s Speech,” the companions arrive at an island wasteland of chasms and crags, where the Bellman delivers a speech, describing the Snark and warning the crew that some Snarks are Boojums. Readers may speculate that “Boojum” is a portmanteau word combining “boo,” “bogeyman,” and “fee, fi, fo, fum.”

In “Fit of the Third, The Baker’s Tale,” the Baker observes that his uncle told him once that if one catches a Snark that is a Boojum, one will vanish away into nothingness. “Fit of the Fourth, The Hunting” shows the members of the crew each making preparations for the hunt. In “Fit of the Fifth, The Beaver’s Lesson,” the Beaver and the Butcher plan separately to hunt the Snark in a desolate valley. As they enter the valley,...

(This entire section contains 911 words.)

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it grows narrower and narrower until they are marching side by side. Suddenly they hear the terrifying cry of the Jubjub bird. Through this frightening experience the Beaver and the Butcher become fast friends and return hand in hand to the crew.

“Fit of the Sixth, The Barrister’s Dream” is a mock commentary on the complications of the British legal system. The Barrister, a lawyer, dreams that he is in court observing the Snark play simultaneously the roles of advocate, judge, and jury in a case of a pig that is charged with desertion of its sty. The Snark finds the pig guilty and sentences it to be transported (presumably to a distant penal colony) and fined. Unfortunately, the pig cannot serve his sentence, for he has been dead for many years.

“Fit of the Seventh, The Banker’s Fate,” tells that the Banker has rushed ahead of the others in search of the Snark and has fallen into the clutches of a Bandersnatch. When the rest of the crew arrive, the Bandersnatch flees, but they find that the Banker was so frightened that his waistcoat has turned white, while his face has turned black. The Banker cannot speak properly and merely rattles a couple of bones.

“Fit of the Eighth, The Vanishing” begins by repeating the formula for hunting a Snark:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;  They pursued it with forks and hope;They threatened its life with a railway-share;  They charmed it with smiles and soap.

The Baker, rushing ahead of the others, cries that he has found the Snark. Then they hear him say that it is a “boo—” and there follows a long sigh that sounds like “jum.” He has vanished. The concluding line of the poem is, “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

Forms and Devices

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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.