What happens in Jabberwocky?

In plain English, "Jabberwocky" translates to "Babblement," with "jabber" meaning to speak rapidly but with little sense and "wock" being an old Scottish word for "voice." Jabberwock literally means Babble-Voice, but in the context of this poem the Jabberwock is a fearsome enemy, like the Bandersnatch, who steals (snatches) meaning from words with useless banter ("bander").

  • In the first stanza, the speaker sets the time ("brillig," the broiling and grilling done in preparation for dinner) and the place (the "wabe," the side of a hill). It's on this hill that the speaker tells his son, "Beware the Jabberwock!" The Jabberwock here stands in for anyone who uses language senselessly.
  • The son unsheathes his "vorpal" sword. "Vorpal" is a portmanteau combining "verbal" and "voracious," making the "vorpal" sword a "voracious word-sword." In effect, the son is using his knowledge of language to fight those who would abuse the language. The Jabberwock approaches the son anyway.
  • The son runs the creature "through and through" with the vorpal blade. He brings the creature's head back to the speaker, who proclaims, "O, frabjous day!" and takes the boy in his arms. The poem ends with the speaker repeating the first stanza verbatim. 

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(Poetry for Students)

Lines 1–4: Carroll explicitly defined certain words when the first stanza of this poem was published as a poem in its own right as “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” He provided a glossary, or list of meanings, for some of the unfamiliar words; this list was later incorporated into Humpty Dumpty’s explica- tion in Alice in Wonderland . The first line begins with the now archaic English contraction for “It was” and contains the noun “brillig” which Carroll says comes from the broiling or grilling done in the early evening (br + ill + i[n]g) in preparation for dinner. “Toves” are supposedly badger-like creatures, and the adjective “slithy” is a portmanteau made up of “lithe” and “slimy.” The definition offered for “gyre” in the second line is “to scratch”; “gimble” is defined as “to bore holes.” Carroll has directed us to pronounce these both with a hard “g.” However, in American English “gyre” is pronounced with the soft sound of the “j” in “june.” Furthermore, “gyre” as a noun in its own right means “to circle,” so it makes sense that its use as a verb might have that same meaning. “Gimble” is said to be associated with the noun “gimlet,” “a small tool for boring holes.” “Wabe” is defined by Carroll as “the side of a hill,” but the explanation proposed by Alice as a portmanteau of “way + before/ behind” seems much more helpful. Thus, the line can be read, quite poetically, as “Did spin and spike in the way beyond.” The second line ends with a semi-colon in some versions of the poem, but with a colon in the last version edited by Carroll. A semi-colon would indicate a lesser break than a period, establishing two independent thoughts connected into one sentence. A colon suggests a further amplification of, or elaboration on, what has already been said, and in fact in this case the colon might stand for a break plus the word “however”: “It was evening and the toves were having a great time [; however,] the borogoves weren’t very happy and the raths felt so bad they cried.” “Mimsy” in line 3 is made up of “flimsy” and “miserable,” and the “borogoves” which it describes are said to be parrots. The “raths” of line 4 are defined as turtles, and Carroll offers an interesting etymology, or word history, for the adjective “mome” as being related to “solemn,” which he suggests comes from an earlier (imaginary) word “solemome.” The verb that ends the stanza is said to derive from a word meaning “to shriek,” although Humpty Dumpty is more explicit, indicating that it is something “between bellowing and whistling,” which suggests a sobbing, crying kind of...

(The entire section is 2,771 words.)