Jabberwocky Analysis

  • Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" is a masterful celebration of linguistic invention. Carroll uses neologisms, portmanteaus, and nonsense words to create a vibrant, original work that has been captivating readers ever since it was first published in 1871.
  • The first stanza of "Jabberwocky" was published separately from the rest of the poem. In that first version, Lewis Carroll included footnotes with the etymologies of obscure and invented words, like "brillig" (the time of day when people begin broiling and grilling food for dinner). Carroll cut the footnotes when the poem was published as a whole.
  • Carroll alludes to "Jabberwocky" in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Humpty Dumpty explains that "toves" are "something like badgers" and then suggests that the words Carroll invented are in fact portmanteaus (e.g. "slimy" and "lithe" become "slithy").


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The original version of the first stanza is a humorous pastiche of scholarly versions of Old English poems such as Beowulf (sixth century). Carroll’s notes are an exercise in etymological slapstick, according to which “bryllyg” is derived from the verb “to bryl or broil” and thus refers to the time of broiling dinner, or the late afternoon. “Slythy” is a compound of slimy and lithe, meaning “smooth and active”; “tove” is a species of badger with horns like a stag, which lived chiefly on cheese. “Gyre” is derived from “giaour”—here said to mean “dog,” although it actually means “infidel” and had acquired more sinister implications by way of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s poem “The Giaour”—and means “to scratch like a dog.”

“Gymble” means “to screw holes” and is the alleged origin of “gimblet” (gimlet); “wabe” is derived from the verb “to swab or soak” and refers, by casually mysterious means, to the side of a hill; “mimsy” means unhappy, and thus provides the root, via “mimserable,” of “miserable.” “Borogove” is an extinct species of parrot, which was wingless, possessed of an upturned beak, nested under sundials and lived on veal; “mome”—from which evolved “solemome,” “solemone,” and ultimately “solemn”—means “grave.” “Rath” is a species of land turtle that had a mouth like a shark, walked on its knees, and lived on swallows and oysters; “outgrabe,” the past tense of the verb “to outgribe,” is related to several words, including “grike,” “shrike,” “shriek,” and “creak,” and thus means “squeaked.”

Some of these meanings are retained when the version of the stanza used in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is explained in chapter 6 by Humpty Dumpty,...

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Jabberwocky,” possibly the most famous of all nonsense poems, consists of seven stanzas, each of four lines, each line having eight syllables. The orthodox form and the fixed rhythm provide a framework whose rigidity further emphasizes the nonsensical quality of each individual line. Because the final stanza is an exact repetition of the first, these two units, unrelated in content to the remainder, perform a parenthetical function. The five stanzas thus bracketed contain a consecutive narrative in which a young man, having received a series of warnings, rides away to find and kill the monstrous Jabberwock and then returns to his delighted father.

When the first stanza appeared separately it was represented as a “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” and all the unfamiliar words were footnoted as if they were medieval terms whose meanings had been rendered obsolete or lost. In the interests of maintaining this parodic imposture, three of the key words were rendered “bryllyg,” “slythy,” and “gymble,” but Carroll reverted to more orthodox spellings when he introduced the lines into a different context.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Universal Appeal

Surely one of the most appealing factors in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is the sheer timelessness...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Any song that tells a story is a ballad. Originally intended for singing, ballads became “poetry” when the English poet Sir Walter Scott...

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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1871: At the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Germany becomes newly unified under the Imperial Proclamation. King Wilhelm I of...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Compare “Jabberwocky” with Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse, on Turning up Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.” Discuss how reading...

(The entire section is 89 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

In 1966, a television production called Alice Through the Looking Glass was aired. Those in the cast included the Smothers Brothers as...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Several of the characters in “Jabberwocky” make a return visit in Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits...

(The entire section is 307 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Alkalay-Gut, Karen, “Carroll’s JABBERWOCKY,” in The Explicator, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 27–31....

(The entire section is 570 words.)