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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