The Need to Impose Order on the Chaos of the Poem
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1848
In the history of literature, no writer was apparently more “sane” than Lewis Carroll, one of the most beloved children’s authors in the world. On the surface, at least, Carroll struck his contemporaries as the paradigm of the rational, “adjusted” gentleman, one who was prized for his unflagging support of—and contributions to—British society in the Victorian era. Indeed, the numerous biographies and critical studies on Carroll all agree that unlike many poets in literary history, who either directly challenged the social order of the day or at least sought to live outside the accepted order, Carroll was very much an “insider” who would have considered upsetting the established order a foolhardy venture and perhaps even a gross, punishable offense. Here was no literary rebel à la French symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, American experimental poet e. e. cummings, or Marxist poet Pablo Neruda of Chile, but a committed acolyte of the status quo. To undermine the order and structure of Victorian society would have been unthinkable to Carroll. And yet, underneath that surface of manners and propriety, deep within the recesses of his subconscious mind, a repressed irrationality kept demanding expression, kept demanding to be let out. His great nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” reveals this to be true, as do such absurd Carroll creations as the Mad Hatter and the hookah-smoking Caterpillar from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). More than perhaps any writer in history, Carroll stands as a testament to the fact that things aren’t always what they seem.
The theme of reality versus appearance has long been a staple of literature. Prime examples of works using this theme include Oedipus the King by Greek tragedy writer Sophocles, Othello by English playwright William Shakespeare, and The Red Badge of Courage by American novelist Stephen Crane. For a fantacist such as Carroll, this theme is essential grist for the creative mill. After all, a world in which anything is possible, such as Carroll’s Wonderland, turns everything topsy-turvy in such a way that the visible world (appearance) seems merely a flimsy veil that, when lifted, uncovers the absolute truth of things (reality). Here’s another way of “looking” at this idea: when you stare into a mirror, you are not seeing the truth or the reality of yourself, only how you appear on the outside to yourself and others. The mirror is like the skin of your body, revealing only that which can be seen (i.e., perceived), but if you could peer beneath your skin or through the mirror, thus piercing the veil of the visible world, you would see the absolute reality behind all things and know the truth. Is it any wonder, then, that Carroll chose a mirror in Through the Looking-Glass (1872) to return his Alice to that other, hidden world where the truth resides, where, as in dreams, we see things for what they really are?
Behind that mirror, behind that skin of glass, exists a land of infinite wonder, a world where the ordinary becomes wondrous and the extraordinary becomes commonplace. Like our dreams, this world seems chaotic and insane at first, but a certain logic almost always manifests itself, a symbolic logic that eventually takes control of the dream and demands allegiance from the dreamer. A dream will often present a jumble of images early on, but usually some type of pattern will emerge before the dreamer awakens. Similarly, in Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll imposes order upon the chaos in the form of a giant chessboard, bringing rules and regulations to a land where none seemingly exist. Rationality and orderliness were of paramount importance to Carroll (his complaints about the unruliness of his young male students at Christ Church in Oxford, where he was a mathematical lecturer for many years, are legendary), and time and again throughout his body of work, Carroll creates situations where things seem to be wildly irrational and disorderly and then tries to impose order on the chaos. “Jabberwocky”—which first appeared in Through the Looking-Glass (1872), the book in which Carroll most tried to bring order to an ostensibly insane world—is no exception.
As noted by scholar Richard Kelly in Lewis Carroll, Carroll possessed three “qualities of mind— meticulousness, logicality, and orderliness—that made him “the genius of nonsense.” Kelly goes on to say that in his nonsense writing, Carroll “implicitly acknowledges the terrifying absurdity and chaos of reality and proceeds to deal with it as if it were capable of control.” This strategy is executed symbolically in “Jabberwocky” when the boy slays the frightening Jabberwock, a wild beast that, like Grendel in Beowulf, represents the dark forces of chaos and irrationality. By slaying the Jabberwock, whose name itself connotes mindless disorder, the boy (and, by extension, Carroll himself) brings the “chaos of reality” under control in a fashion. Viewed on another level, Carroll attempts to bring the irrational side of language under control as well, for the Jabberwock (emphasis on “jabber”?) represents not only the disorderly side of life on Earth but also the capacity of words to create irrational associations. This is what makes Carroll’s choice of the title “Jabberwocky” so appropriate for the poem. Broken down into its constituent parts, the word suggests both the ability to jabber (i.e., mindless chattering) and that which is wacky, establishing a provocative synthesis that equates language (or at least its capacity for creating confusion and disorder) with the irrational mind. Seen in this light, then, the Jabberwock represents more than just the “chaos of reality”; it also represents the inherent chaos of language, a chaos that Carroll—as do other poets in their poems, nonsense or otherwise—wants to bring under control, to fit into logical patterns. In a sense, Carroll slays the Jabberwock of language in his nonsense classic, ensuring that control wins out over chaos in the end. Or does it?
In his examination of “Jabberwocky” in Lewis Carroll, Kelly cogently points out that the poem’s “central interest … is not in its story line but in its language.” While the mock-heroic battle between good and evil is fun in its own right, this aspect of the poem deals with the known, with the familiar, and as such is unremarkable. Ultimately, it is the unknown, the unfamiliar, that really sparks the reader’s imagination in “Jabberwocky” and that places this piece in the pantheon of nonsense verse. What it all boils down to is music, the universal language, and Carroll has not been given nearly enough credit over the decades for this component of his poetic writings. In the case of “Jabberwocky,” almost all of the critical attention has been focused on Carroll’s clever creation of so-called portmanteau words, in which two words are synthesized into a new one. The example from “Jabberwocky” used most often to illustrate this technique is slithy, which, according to no less a literary authority than Humpty Dumpty, is a synthesis of lithe and slimy. Another portmanteau word, as suggested earlier in this essay, is the poem’s title, a synthesis of jabber, wacky, and perhaps a dash of mock thrown in for good measure. This is all eye-catching in its cleverness and playfulness, but it’s the very sounds of the words themselves—along with the syntactical and metrical patterns in which Carroll places them—that truly make “Jabberwocky” a memorable reading experience. More likely than not, it isn’t the boy’s heroic quest for the Jabberwock that young readers most recall but that incredible first stanza, so perfect in its nonsensical power that Carroll couldn’t help repeating it as the poem’s final stanza:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.
Aside from its loose iambic tetrameter structure (four beats of short-long stresses), this quatrain masterfully integrates a number of sonic and tonal elements crucial to good poetry. Among them are assonance (e.g., the soft “i” tone of “brillig,” “Did,” “gimble,” and “mimsy”); consonance (e.g., the repeating “b” in “brillig,” “gimble,” “wabe,” “borogoves,” and “outgrabe” and the repeating “g” in “brillig,” “gimble,” “borogoves,” and “outgrabe”); and alliteration (e.g., “’Twas” and “toves,” “wabe” and “were,” and “mimsy” and “mome”). Together, these elements create a highly kinetic fabric of sound and tonality, and without this most musical quatrain, it is difficult to imagine “Jabberwocky” gaining the popularity it has over time. True, “Jabberwocky” offers other memorable words and sound patterns, such as “burbled” and “O frabjous day!” However, they are nestled in a more understandable context (stanzas 2–6, where Carroll incorporates a greater number of common words to recount the boy’s heroic quest) and thus lack the dense wallop of the first/last stanzas, which sacrifice nearly all meaning to pure sound. Today, as in the past, learning institutions encourage readers of poetry to look for meaning first and to subordinate all else to this investigation. In “Jabberwocky,” Carroll playfully reminds us that, first and foremost, poetry is about the music—sound, rhythm, meter, tonality—of language and that meaning should always be a secondary consideration (“A poem should not mean / But be”—Archibald Macleish). After all, good poems have multiple meanings, and besides, if meaning were the be-all and end-all of poetry, how could nonsense verse even exist, let alone thrive?
And thrive it has, thanks in no small measure to Carroll. His influence can be seen in such twentieth- century poets as e. e. cummings (another master fabricator of new words), Gertrude Stein (who often stressed sound, rhythm, and repetition over meaning), and such committed Dadaists as Tristan Tzara who, in the years around World War I, wrote absurdist, nonsensical poems to reflect what they saw as the apparent meaninglessness of life on Planet Earth. Cummings, Tzara, and others like them saw themselves as literary rebels, questioning everything around them, from government and industry to the arts and religion. Frankly, these poets would have shocked Carroll, that standardbearer of the status quo. Carroll would have undoubtedly seen their verbal attacks on the social order as “bad form.” Of course, much transpired between 1872 (the year “Jabberwocky” was published and a relatively tranquil year for England) and World War I, when all hell broke loose around the world, when the many transgressions of Western civilization at the time became too blatant to ignore. For Carroll, though, Western civilization, guided over by the then-powerful Britain, made all the “sense” in the world. Which makes a poem like “Jabberwocky” even more remarkable. In his poem, Carroll may have tried to bring the irrational Jabberwock under rational control, but at poem’s end, those “slithy toves” are still gyrating and gimbling “in the wabe,” suggesting that at least subconsciously, even Carroll knew that the irrational side of life is too strong and constant to be fully controlled. Perhaps he even secretly wished that it would never be.
Source: Cliff Saunders, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Saunders teaches writing and literature in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, area and has published six chapbooks of poetry.
Relationship Between Sense and Nonsense
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3065
What is one to make of Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”? As Alice herself remarks in Through the Looking-Glass after reading the poem for the first time, “It seems very pretty … but it’s rather hard to understand! … Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
Anyone who has read this masterpiece of nonsense verse, which has mystified, amused, and inspired generations of children and adults, can sympathize with Alice’s reaction. “Jabberwocky” rarely fails to inspire equal measures of puzzlement, anxiety, and delight in any but the dullest of readers. Indeed, these qualities seem to mutually reinforce each other, so that the less a reader understands exactly what the poem is about, in a traditional sense, the more he or she enjoys it. The more a reader enjoys it, the more he or she is driven to understand it, to devise (in the manner of Humpty Dumpty) rational explanations not only for its content but for its stimulating effect on the senses and the intellect. These explanations, however ingenious (or tedious), are always more or less failures, however, and the cycle begins anew. The result can be an enchantment that lasts a lifetime. Some of the greatest artists and writers of the twentieth century have acknowledged a debt to “Jabberwocky” and the other creative works of Carroll, among them James Joyce (whose masterpiece Finnegans Wake is rich in Car- rollian allusions) and Vladimir Nabokov (author of Lolita, who translated Alice in Wonderland into his native Russian). Carroll’s influence is evident in the Surrealist and Dadaist movements of the 1920s and 30s and has even been detected in the Cubist style of painting developed by the artists Picasso and Braque. (“Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance,” Humpty Dumpty helpfully suggests to Alice in Through the Looking- Glass.) After World War II, writer and artist Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, brought the anarchic spirit of Carrollian nonsense back into the realm of children’s books, and in the 1960s, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking- Glass became a kind of Bible—old testament and new—to elements of the counterculture. At present, Carroll’s creative imagination has permeated every nook and cranny of popular culture, from music to movies to advertising. In fact, it has been estimated that only Shakespeare and the Bible are quoted more frequently than Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the shy and stammering Oxford mathematician and logician who wrote under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll.
If every explanation of “Jabberwocky” is doomed to be more or less a flop, then why bother to write (or, more to the point, read) an essay about it? While it’s true that the poem cannot be fully explained or neatly pigeonholed (and few good poems can be), that needn’t be the aim of an essay … and it’s certainly not the aim of this one. But how to talk about what writer and critic Joyce Carol Oates, in her essay “First Loves: From ‘Jabberwocky’ to ‘After Apple-Picking,’” has called “the greatest nonsense poem in English”?
A logical place to start would seem to be the word “nonsense” itself. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines “nonsense” as “[t]hat which is not sense or which differs from sense; absurd or meaningless words or ideas …” But this is not quite as helpful as might have been hoped; it seems that to understand what is meant by “nonsense,” we must first understand what is meant by “sense.” Another trip to the Shorter Oxford yields “[m]eaning, signification …. The meaning of a word or phrase; … the way a word etc. is to be understood within a particular context …” as well as “[t]he mental faculties in a state of sanity; one’s reason or wits.” Now we have something to work with. Sense has to do with meaning and signification— that is, with words, which signify or stand for things, and whose meanings coincide with the things they signify. Equally important for our purposes is the linguistic connection between sanity and the meaning and signification of words. Consider the word “chair,” for instance. Everyone knows what a chair is and what the word signifies. Using the word “chair” to signify the object in which people sit is not only, as the saying goes, to talk sense, it’s also preeminently sane; it reflects the speaker’s acceptance of and participation in a cultural system in which certain rules are followed in speech and action to facilitate understanding between large numbers of people. What if, however, someone comes along who uses the word “chair” to refer to a different object, or to many different objects interchangeably, or as a verb or adjective instead of a noun, and calls the thing people sit in by another name entirely, such as “bathtub,” or even a made-up word like “wubble”? Such an individual would be said to be “talking nonsense” and might even be labeled insane, perhaps with good reason. But setting such behavior and its unpleasant consequences aside, what if one were simply to repeat the word “chair” over and over again to oneself? What could be the harm in that? Try it and see. A curious phenomenon occurs in which the signifier (the word “chair”) becomes separated from the signified (the object used by people to sit in), with an existentially dizzying and discomfiting result. A certain arbitrariness is revealed at the heart of language, which we normally use almost as thoughtlessly as we breathe air and take as much for granted as the earth beneath our feet. Viewed this way, the authority of a dictionary like the Shorter Oxford is undermined; this cornerstone of sensibility and rationality, on which the edifice of comprehensible language, and hence civilization itself, depends, seems not quite so firmly cemented in place as it once had. Indeed, the closer one looks, the more shaky the whole construction seems, as if the mere act of inquiring into the meaning and signification of words and language renders them increasingly unstable, and what we’d always comfortably assumed to be a fortress of sense turns out to be—to have always been—a Tower of Babble. Better, perhaps, not to look at all!
Carroll was not the first to discover (or rediscover, rather, for children instinctively know it) this strange and strangely alarming property of words not only to construct but to deconstruct reality, often simultaneously, but he was the first to apply the insight in literature in a systematic, consciously subversive (in other words, modern) way. This is what elevates Carroll’s work above that of lesser but more prolific artists like Edward Lear; charming as Lear’s nonsense verse (such as “The Owl and the Pussycat”) undoubtedly can be, he is not in Carroll’s league by a long shot. In “Jabberwocky” and other works, Carroll playfully reminded his readers (who, it should be remembered, were the children of the middle and upper classes of Victorian England, a society which enshrined concepts of good sense and rational order among its chief virtues) that at the very heart of sense lies nonsense, that order can tip into disorder at any time, and that sanity is very much in the eye, or mind, of the beholder. “You may call it ‘nonsense’ if you like,” remarks the Red Queen to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, “but I’ve heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!” Indeed. Or, as the Cheshire Cat laconically puts it in Alice in Wonderland, “[W]e’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
In the best of Carroll’s fiction and poetry, nonsense and madness (qualities as closely linked as Tweedledum and Tweedledee) are not characterized so much by an absence of sense and sanity as by their abundance, if not super-abundance. In his essay “What is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism,” critic Michael Holquist observes that “nonsense, in the writings of Lewis Carroll, at any rate, does not mean gibberish; it is not chaos, but the opposite of chaos. It is a closed field of language in which the meaning of any unit is dependent on its relationship to the system of the other constituents.” Critic Elizabeth Sewell expresses the idea more plainly, and less restrictively, in her essay “The Balance of Brillig”: “Nonsense is a game with words.” Few writers have played the nonsense game as skillfully as Lewis Carroll, and Carroll himself never played it as purely as he did in “Jabberwocky.”
“Jabberwocky” appears in Through the Looking- Glass, first published in 1872, but its origins can be traced back to 1855. It was then that the twenty-three-year-old Charles Dodgson, in Misch- Masch, a magazine he wrote and illustrated for the amusement of his brothers and sisters, set down as a “curious fragment” of Anglo-Saxon poetry the opening stanza of what, seventeen years later, would become “Jabberwocky.” The two versions are almost identical, with only small differences in spelling: “bryllyg” for the later “brillig,” for example. As this essay will refer to the opening stanza of “Jabberwocky” in some detail, it seems a good idea to give it in its entirety:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.
In that 1855 issue of Misch-Masch, Dodgson thoughtfully appended a glossary for the edification of his siblings, and the meanings elaborated therein are also nearly identical to the explanations put forward by Humpty Dumpty for Alice’s edification in Through the Looking Glass. There are, however, some notable exceptions. The meaning of the verb “gyre,” for example, is given by Dodgson as to scratch like a dog, while Humpty Dumpty’s far more satisfying definition is to spin like a gyroscope. In the case of almost every difference, in fact, Humpty Dumpty’s explanations are the more successful as pure, inspired nonsense. But even if the younger Dodgson did not yet possess the mature creative imagination of his older alter ego, Carroll, he was no slouch in the nonsense department, as his literal English translation of the mock Anglo-Saxon verse, with its absurd echo of The Song of Solomon, demonstrates: “It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side; all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out.”
This is an attempt, however ridiculous and satirical, to link the nonsensical words of the “curious fragment” to the normal, everyday world inhabited by Dodgson and his siblings. Humpty Dumpty makes no such attempt. He offers Alice no literal translation, offers her no bridge back to the other side of the looking glass; he merely explains the meanings of individual words with little or no regard for the sense of the passage as a whole. Many but by no means all of his meanings are derived from the application of what might be called the portmanteau rule, a portmanteau being a kind of suitcase. Here is Humpty Dumpty explaining the adjective “slithy”: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as active. You see, it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” Another example of a portmanteau word, according to Humpty Dumpty, is “mimsy,” which he unpacks into “flimsy and miserable.” There is a peculiar dreamlike logic to this system, which contains in a nutshell, as it were, the foundations of Freudian psychoanalysis. In fact, so reasonable is this method that two of Carroll’s portmanteau words have entered into common usage and are now to be found in all English dictionaries: “chortle” and “galumph.” (Even odder, and more confusing, words that seem to be portmanteaus invented by Carroll, like “burble” and “whiffle,” have pedigrees long predating him.) Humpty Dumpty also derives meaning through the suggestiveness of sounds and/or spellings; thus, the already mentioned “gyre” / “gyroscope” explanation, and “mome,” which he tentatively suggests as being “short for ‘from home’—meaning that they’d lost their way, you know.” Here, too, there is some recognizable system at work (as well as an entirely characteristic note of melancholy and anxious distress whose shadowy presence in the Alice books has led hard-hearted, soft-headed moralists to proclaim them inappropriate for children). Finally, as with the noun “rath,” which Humpty Dumpty describes as “a sort of green pig,” there seems to be no easily identifiable system at work at all, but rather pure, unadulterated fancy.
In the end, each of these systems of extracting meaning from words explains the poem equally well—which is to say, not at all. This is part of the game Carroll is playing with his readers, a game of nonsense that is also a practical joke (and like all practical jokes, a little bit cruel). He teases his readers with the perfectly sensible expectation that every puzzle has a solution, one which, when found, will explain everything, thus rewarding the effort made in searching it out in the first place. This expectation, sensible though may be, is also, as far as Carroll is concerned, dead wrong. The circumstances in which Alice first encounters the poem “Jabberwocky” are a perfect illustration of Carroll’s sly method. Soon after passing through the mirror and entering the world on the other side, Alice discovers a book filled with strange writing in a language she doesn’t know. It baffles her for a moment, “until at last a bright thought struck her. ‘Why, it’s a Looking-glass book, of course! And if I hold it up to a glass, the words will all go the right way again.’” Which of course is just what happens (“glass” being a synonym for “mirror”). Voila! The puzzle has been solved. Or has it? Although she can now read the words of “Jabberwocky” perfectly well, poor Alice can no more understand them than when they’d been written (from her perspective) backwards. Another practical joke along these lines is Carroll’s habit, already mentioned above, of mixing real words in with the made-up variety in such a way that they’re indistinguishable from each other. In Alice in Wonderland, the Duchess expounds to Alice: “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.” On the other side of the looking glass, the opposite rule holds true: take care of the sounds, and the sense will take care of itself. As Alice says, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.” But why is it clear?
To answer that question, let’s forget for a moment that “Jabberwocky” is part of a larger piece of fiction, Through the Looking-Glass, and consider it on its own, as a poem. It turns out that it’s a meticulously structured poem; a lot of craziness may be going on at the surface, but below the surface order reigns. To begin with, although the number of syllables per line in each of the seven fourline stanzas varies slightly from the average of 8, 8, 8, 6, the number of feet or stresses are an unvarying 4, 4, 4, 3 (the metrical pattern is iambic; an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable). There is something inherently heroic and bestirring about this metre: it is the same used by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to begin his visionary poetic fragment “Kubla Khan,” for example (with the minor difference that Coleridge uses five lines—of rhyme scheme a, b, a, a, b—to Carroll’s four). What else? The second and fourth lines of “Jabberwocky” invariably rhyme. The first and third lines rhyme as well in the first, second, fourth, and seventh stanzas, giving a rhyme scheme there of a, b, a, b. In the third, fifth, and sixth stanzas, the rhyme scheme is a, b, c, b; however, to make up for the missing rhyme between the first and third lines in these stanzas, Carroll has introduced an internal rhyme into the third line: “he” and “tree”; “dead” and “head”; “day” and “Calay!” The firm skeleton of “Jabberwocky” aids Alice’s understanding, and the reader’s, by providing the reassurance of an underlying structure that can be fleshed out with multiple meanings.
Equally if not more important is the careful balance of sense and nonsense words in the poem, and the use of nonsense words in ways that allow readers to ascribe to them if not meaning, then function. Even if we don’t know what the various words might mean, we can identify what parts of speech they are. For example, returning to the first stanza we find the unfamiliar words “brillig,” “slithy,” “toves,” “gyre,” “gimble,” “wabe,” “mimsy,” “borogoves,” “mome,” “raths,” and “outgrabe.” A lot of unfamiliar words to digest! But we know more valuable things about them than Humpty Dumpty can reveal with his various methodologies of meaning extraction. Because of the internal structure or grammar of the English language, we know that “brillig,” following the word “’Twas,” is a noun. Similarly, we know “slithy” is an adjective because of the “y” ending and because it is modifying “toves,” another noun. “Gyre” is a verb because it follows “did,” and so is “gimble,” while “wabe” is another noun. And so on. Joyce Carol Oates describes the operation of this process on young readers in “From ‘Jabberwocky’ to ‘After Apple-Picking’”: “For young children, whose brains are struggling to comprehend language, words are magical in any case; the magic of adults, utterly mysterious; no child can distinguish between ‘real’ words and nonsensical or ‘unreal’ words, and verse like Lewis Carroll’s brilliant ‘Jabberwocky’ has the effect of both arousing childish anxiety (what do these terrifying words mean?) and placating it (don’t worry: you can decode the meaning by the context).”
All of which is true enough, but too serious, perhaps. After all, “Jabberwocky” wasn’t written to educate children, but to amuse and entertain them. If anyone has been educated by “Jabberwocky,” it’s been the adults of the world, though one could certainly argue that not nearly enough of them have learned its uffish yet frabjous lessons.
Source: Paul Witcover, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Witcover’s fiction and critical essays appear regularly in magazines and online.
The Perfect Portmanteau Poem
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1562
Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” has long been categorized as a shining example of nonsense verse. Carroll employs what is called amphigory, which is, in essence, nonsense verse that appears to have meaning but in fact has none. This classification, however, should not be taken at face value to mean that the poem hasn’t any meaning. In fact, “Jabberwocky” is rife with meaning (and meanings, because of Carroll’s introduction of new words). It conveys not only a tale but also offers a commentary of sorts not only on Anglo-Saxon poetry but on the literature of the Victorian era in which Carroll created. It is a poem that works on two distinct levels, conveying different ideas, making it a portmanteau poem. “Jabberwocky” works in two distinct manners, first as a stand-alone poem with rich imagery and a compelling narrative that comes full circle. Secondly, it serves as a commentary on the English language and literature, sometimes celebratory, at other times mocking their conventions.
The beginnings, literally, of “Jabberwocky” first appeared in the appropriately named periodical put out by Carroll’s family, Misch-Masch in 1855 under the title “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” Carroll wrote and illustrated the issues of Misch-Masch almost exclusively for the purpose of amusing his younger siblings. What would become the very first stanza, then, of “Jabberwocky” appeared in the periodical as such:
“Twas bryllg, and ye slythy toves / did gyre and gymble in ye wabe: / All mimsy were ye borogoves; / And ye mome raths outgrabe.”
Carroll generously provided some interpretation of the lines for his relations. As the poem grew into its later incarnation of “Jabberwocky” as part of Through the Looking-Glass, he supplied readers with an interpretation by allowing Humpty Dumpty to explicate some of the more obscure words’ meanings. Of course, it has been long pointed out that Humpty Dumpty is a rather unreliable source. However, because of the manner in which Carroll used these new words (some of which are actually old words or variations thereof) which Humpty Dumpty deemed “portmanteau” words, it allowed readers to come to their own conclusions as to the meanings of the terms.
When used in Through the Looking-Glass, young Alice comes across the poem “Jabberwocky” in a book and can only read it when viewing its reflection in a mirror, or looking glass. Upon first perusal of it, Alice proclaims, “Somehow it fills my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate—.” When Humpty Dumpty offers his insight into the poem, he points out that the nonsensical words are “portmanteau” words; that is, two words placed together to form one word with a single meaning.
In its extended form, then, Carroll sets a rather idyllic scene, speaking of it being evening and talking of the creatures that inhabit the pastoral land- scape. A father warns his young son of a mythical creature known as the Jabberwock, which possesses “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch!” He makes mention too of the other dangerous creatures that are associated with the Jabberwock. The son, perhaps in part out of his naiveté, embarks on a journey to locate the monster, stopping along the way to collect his thoughts. Before the boy can find the beast, it finds him. From the monster’s noises, the boy realizes it is approaching and, using his sword, stabs and beheads the creature. He then returns home, triumphantly. The father is proud of his son’s heroic efforts. The poem then repeats the first stanza, coming full circle to reinforce the fact that the earlier peace had returned and all was as it should have been.
The reason the poem is considered a nonsense poem, primarily, is its use of these so-called portmanteau words. For example, Carroll refers to the evening as “brillig” (changed from its initial spelling of “bryllg”), which is a reference, according to Carroll himself, of the time of broiling things, i.e., dinner. Other portmanteau words are slithy (first published as “slythy”—a combination of slimy and lithe), mimsy (the marriage of flimsy and miserable). Other words are not portmanteau words but rather hearken back to old English, such as borogoves (an extinct kind of parrot) and toves (a type of badger). It should also be noted that, when Carroll offered his explanation of his “Stanza of Anglo- Saxon Poetry,” he referred to the entirety of the initial idyllic scene (in which the raths ran out of their nests in the hills, in particular) as “an obscure, but yet deeply-affecting relic of ancient Poetry.”
In looking at the story that is unfolding underneath the surface of these nonsensical words that blur the overt meaning of the text, it is easy to understand why “Jabberwocky” might initially be dismissed as simply a jumble of nonsense itself as, the title implies, it will be gibberish about the Jabberwock. However, there is a clear and distinct narrative, as discussed above. Furthermore, the structure of the poem itself has its roots in some of the most classical forms of poetry. For example, because of the subject matter of the poem, it may be likened to an epic poem, also known as a heroic poem, similar to that of Beowulf, in which the main character journeys to slay uber-beast Grendl. “Jabberwocky” also possesses the characteristics of a ballad (which is usually a song) in that it tells a story, usually of heroic knights. In a sense, then, “Jabberwocky,” with its sing-song words, may be considered as something of a ballad. Also, the poem possesses some of the same qualities of the ballad in that certain stanzas contain rhyme schemes particular to the ballad (only the third, fifth, and sixth stanzas do this). On top of these devices, though, Carroll has added the element of mockery. This is evident in the fact that he injects seemingly absurd content into several classic forms of poetry, thus ridiculing the form and style of these types of poetry. Present too, according to some critics, is the device of allegory. An allegory refers to when symbolism is used to point to other things, thus infusing the poem with meaning on another level. Specifically, the poet John Ciardi, in his How Does a Poem Mean? posits that “Jabberwocky” is Carroll’s veiled commentary on the confinements of the standard style of writing during the Victorian era.
The second part of Carroll’s portmanteau poem is that it functions as a teaching manual not only for poetry in its references to established forms of poetry but in its treatment of language. While Carroll offers up explanations for several of the nonsense words in the poem, many can be discerned by simply deconstructing each stanza and looking at each nonsense word in the context of the part of speech it represents. Clearly, brillig is a noun and slithy is modifying the plural noun toves, who “were gyre[ing] and gimble[ing]”—both verbs—“in the wabe,” which, because of its placement must be a noun. “Jabberwocky,” in fact, is so famous for possessing this quality that contemporary teachers will use this fun, multidimensional poem as a way to introduce their students to the parts of speech.
Other important lessons of literature that may be imparted by a careful study of “Jabberwocky” include alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. Alliteration, which is the repetition of consonant sounds either in two (or more) words or syllables, is present in several ways. Carroll uses this device throughout the poem, specifically in referencing the “Tumtum tree,” “snicker-snack,” “beamish boy,” “Callooh! Callay?” Onomatopoeia, a term that refers to the sound of a word reflecting its meaning, is also put to extremely effective use, particularly with the portmanteau words. Nearly all of these hybrid words belie their meaning simply by their sounds. Galumphing seems to imply a sort of triumphant galloping on a horse. Other examples of words whose sounds point to their context include burbled, uffish, and whiffling. Assonance, which refers to words having similar sounds, is present in the phrases “raths outgrabe,” “vorpal sword,” and “manxome foe.”
“Jabberwocky,” then, with all of its seemingly swirling confusion actually makes perfect sense. Its presentation in Through the Looking Glass —that it must be read by viewing its contents in a mirror (which is something that usually renders things illegible) and its nonsensical elements, may cause it to appear upon first glance to be a throwaway poem, something that Carroll rifled off with nary a thought. Upon closer examination, though, this multi-layered poem is a shining example of a portmanteau. Clearly, the fact that Carroll first introduced the work in 1855 and revisited it again in Through the Looking Glass, published in 1882, is evidence, together with the poem’s complexities, that Carroll put much thought into constructing this famous verse. “Jabberwocky” works in two distinct manners, first as a stand-alone poem with rich imagery and a compelling narrative that comes full circle. Secondly, it serves as a commentary on the English language and literature, sometimes celebratory, at other times mocking their conventions. Elements and devices of literature are here aplenty and, thus, “Jabberwocky” can serve as a standalone entrée to poetry.
Source: Caroline M. Levchuck, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group 2001. Levchuck, a writer and editor, has published articles on literature along with nonfiction essays and children’s books.