Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

“Jabberwocky,” the central poem in Through the Looking-Glass, is typically categorized as a non- sense poem. It has, however, been taken seriously by writers, as well as by scholars of literature, logic, and language. For example, the portmanteaus in “Jabberwocky” are a primary element of composition adopted by the Irish writer James Joyce for his modernist novel Finnegans Wake. Indeed, Martin Gardner draws a compelling parallel between the poem and the abstraction of the modernist painting of Picasso; however, his conclusion that Carroll is concerned with the sound of words over the sense of words indicates a lighthearted play that many logicians and linguists would deny. What Patricia Meyer Spacks says about the seriousness of Through the Looking-Glass is typically categorized as a nonsense poem. It is specifically true of “Jabberwocky”: that Carroll’s singular gift is the ease with which he conceals the significance of the logic of his work, so that the amusing wordplay is simultaneously its profound logical center.

Carroll was himself a philosopher and logician. The prevailing opinion, nevertheless, is that his best logic appears in the Alice books. As the English critic Edmund Wilson has noted, the poetry and logic in Carroll’s work are inextricably linked. Roger W. Holmes points out, further, that Carroll not only explores the very history of the English language in the nonsense word constructions of “Jabberwocky,” but also examines how words come to have meaning. And in fact, English poet and critic William Empson has proposed that words may acquire meaning when, as in “Jabberwocky,” they are so pleasurable to say and to listen to that they thus seem to make their own sense simply by their sounds.

John Ciardi, an American poet and critic, explores this phenomenon in How Does a Poem Mean?, declaring that words are not the only means by which we communicate; in fact, there is a musical force in language developed from the sounds of words. The most important of Ciardi’s observations on “Jabberwocky” develops the notion that there is a dance to the music of the sounds of words going on beneath the meanings of words. This dance invokes image, mood, and gesture as a fundamental component of what he refers to as “the poetic performance” of a poem. For Ciardi the typical reading or “performance” of “Jabberwocky” as nonsense belies the meaningful comment it makes on a recognizable topic. He interprets Carroll’s comic treatment of the hero and ballad in the poem as an allegory about the pretentious and stuffy Victorian times during which Carroll wrote. Clearly, there is validity in reading the poem as such a commentary, and in fact there have been several widely ranging allegorical explications offered for this poem. However, as Ciardi says, no poem is constructed of words by themselves, and individual associations of image, mood, and gesture will dance with the meanings of words to create varying interpretations of what any poem “means.” Carroll’s inventive wordplay in “Jabberwocky” has left room for interpretation of the poem along the spectrum from nonsense poem to highly specific allegory.

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Essays and Criticism