Lewis Carroll Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6800

The name of Lewis Carroll is now almost synonymous with “nonsense.” Carroll did not invent nonsense verse, for it is as old as children’s games and nursery rhymes. With Carroll, however, it grows up and becomes something more than nonsense as that term is usually defined. The term refers to...

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The name of Lewis Carroll is now almost synonymous with “nonsense.” Carroll did not invent nonsense verse, for it is as old as children’s games and nursery rhymes. With Carroll, however, it grows up and becomes something more than nonsense as that term is usually defined. The term refers to humorous verse that does not make sense, which in turn suggests a kind of nonpoetry, verse with all the surface characteristics of poetry—rhyme, meter, and figures of speech—but without meaning. As the title of Carroll’s Rhyme? and Reason? implies, it is sound gone berserk and completely overtaking sense. Superficially, this definition fits his “Jabberwocky,” which seems to have the authentic ring of a brilliant poem in a foreign language that does not exist. As such nonsense, “Jabberwocky” is a piece of ingenuity but little more. The reader’s appreciation of Carroll’s poetry is far more complex than the term will admit, however, as the enduring popularity of “Jabberwocky” suggests.

The fact that Carroll, a mathematician and logician, felt most alive when playing or inventing games, puzzles, stories, and rhymes with children leads to the uncommon meaning of his nonsense. As his life seems to show (and in an analogy suggested by Kathleen Blake and Carroll critic Richard Kelly), he viewed the world as a vast puzzle that could never be solved but which must be worked to the end, for the sake of the game itself. Through wordplay of all sorts, from conundrums and acrostics to parodies and paradoxes, Carroll’s poetry engages the reader in that game. His nonsensical poetry is like that unsolvable puzzle of the world in inviting and resisting interpretation simultaneously. To solve it or extract a meaning would be to end the game and destroy the poem.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

As quirky as Carroll might seem, his development as a poet follows a common pattern: He began writing what is predominantly parody, in his juvenilia and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and moved on to poems that are complete in themselves, “Jabberwocky” and The Hunting of the Snark. Most of the poems of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are parodies of popular verses and songs that Victorian children were taught and often called on to recite. In Wonderland, where the world is out of joint, these are consistently misquoted, either by the Wonderland characters, who are all mad, or Alice, whose verbal memory is understandably deranged.

Soon after falling down a rabbit hole and experiencing sudden and strange changes in size, Alice attempts to remember who she is, trying out the names of various friends. As a final effort to regain her identity, she tries to recite Isaac Watts’s “Against Idleness and Mischief,” which begins “How doth the little busy bee,” the bee providing nature’s model of virtuous industry. The resulting parody is “How doth the little crocodile,” which turns Watts’s pathetic fallacy into a sadistic one. The crocodile’s work, in contrast to the bee’s, consists of floating passively with “gently smiling jaws” open to welcome “little fishes in.” In place of Watts’s cozy wholesomeness, Alice seems to have constructed a Darwinian world of “Nature red in tooth and claw” or a Freudian one of oral aggression.

To extract “Eat or be eaten” as Carroll’s moral would be missing the point, however, even though this theme arises in almost every parody and episode in the book. In Wonderland, as in slapstick comedy, violence is the rule, but it remains, with emotions, on a purely verbal level, as in the case of the Queen of Hearts’s universal panacea, “Off with your head!” Although Carroll juxtaposes the law of the jungle against the tea-and-bread-and-butter decorum of the Victorian nursery, the point is to disrupt the normal or preconceived order. Even the trauma of Alice’s loss of identity is short-lived. After misquoting the poem, she cries a pool of tears that becomes an ingenious obstacle course for the next episode.

The parodied poems are easy targets, insipid and platitudinous doggerel, and the parodies themselves are part of a larger satire on Victorian children’s literature and spoon-fed education, as suggested elsewhere in the Mock Turtle’s curriculum of “Reeling and Writhing” and “Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.” Carroll’s parody tends to get broader, as satire on specific children’s literature diffuses into satire on education and moral instruction in general, and then into wordplay that does violence on language itself and all its rules. In the parodies as a whole, the target is didacticism, but the main reason for reading is to engage in a game of transformation that surprises and stimulates.

The dramatic situation, in which Alice is called on to recite and invariably delivers a parody, itself becomes a game, especially for Victorian readers, who immediately recognized the parodied poems and appreciated the play of the parody against the original. The episode in which Alice is told to recite “Father William” by the hookah-smoking caterpillar must have further delighted children who could share her cool upward glance at the adult world, with its arbitrary orders and rules. Her recitation, “wrong from beginning to end,” as the Caterpillar comments condescendingly afterward, begins as Robert Southey’s “The Old Man’s Comforts,” a strenuously righteous portrait of old age: “In the days of my youth I remember’d my God/ And He hath not forgotten my age.” Carroll’s Father William is a slapstick character; eccentrically and wonderfully athletic, he maintains his strength by standing on his head or balancing eels on his nose. He is also voracious, eating a goose with “the bones and the beak,” and short tempered: The poem ends as he shouts at his son, “’Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs.’”

In this and the next parody, also on the subject of that Victorian shibboleth, the home and family, Carroll’s antididacticism is at its wildest. The Duchess’s lullaby is a parody of G. W. Langford’s morbidly sentimental “Speak gently to the little child!/ . . . It may not long remain.” Carroll inverts this advice (rule by love rather than by fear) into the loudly comic violence of “Speak roughly to your little boy,/ And beat him when he sneezes.” The onomatopoeic chorus of “Wow! Wow! Wow!” is a cacophonous child-pleaser. One feels no sympathy for the Duchess’s baby, to whom this advice is applied, because his feelings, like the parodied poem, are turned into a sound effect. As soon as Alice takes pity on him, he turns into a pig.

By the mad tea party episode, at which point in the narrative most of the foundations of Alice’s normal, above-ground order have been destroyed, the parodies get broader and more irrelevantly playful. The Mad Hatter’s song is a misquotation of Jane Taylor’s “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” but it surprises and entertains as a piece of sheer incongruity. Arbitrarily, it seems, the Hatter substitutes “bat” for “star” and “tea-tray” for “diamond,” producing “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!/ How I wonder what you’re at!/ Up above the world you fly,/ Like a tea-tray in the sky.” The images surprise by failing to relate, either to reality or to one another. Not only do bats fail to “twinkle,” but also they have nothing in common with tea-trays. Much as the Duchess’s baby is turned into a thing—a sound effect and then a pig—the potential simile is neutralized, its images turning back into discrete, therefore unpoetic and senseless, objects.

Surprise and laughter are nonsense’s equivalent of poetic emotion. Its “sense” is more difficult to explain. The Mad Hatter’s song, however, makes Wonderland sense in several ways. As a mad inversion of a sentimental song, it corresponds with the mad tea party as the counterpart of Victorian high tea. It is also the perfect expression of the Mad Hatter, who challenges Alice’s sense of time, logic, and decorum. The tea tray in the sky is the appropriate marker in the Hatter’s world of eternal teatime, and the indecorous but twinkling little bat fits in with his tea-drinking companions, the March Hare and, especially, the Dormouse, who tells a story of little girls who live at the bottom of a treacle well (“well in”) and draw things beginning with “M.” The meaning of the Hatter’s song is like that of his riddle with no answer, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” Through arbitrary or nonsense correspondences, the words take the reader on an exhilarating trip to nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

The Mock Turtle’s two songs, which come just before the book’s conclusion in the trial scene, are more playfully nonsensical, musical, and complete than the previous poems, and so prevent one’s reading any moral into Wonderland. The songs also prepare for Alice’s awakening, precipitated by her “Stuff and nonsense!” response to the increasingly irrational court, which, as she suddenly realizes, is “nothing but a pack of cards.”

The first song upsets the previously established pattern by turning a sadistic poem into harmless play. It parodies the meter and obvious dramatic situation of Mary Howitt’s “The Spider and the Fly,” in which the spider invites the fly into her “prettiest little parlour.” Carroll adapts Howitt’s inappropriately rollicking rhythm to a fittingly gay song and dance, the “Lobster Quadrille.” “Will you walk a little faster?” says a whiting to a snail, who is then exhorted to join in a“delightful” experience. Lest the snail, like the fly, fear danger—indeed, the dance involves being thrown out to sea—he is told to be adventurous and reminded that “The further off from England the nearer is to France—.” The song ends jollily enough as the invitation extends to Alice and the reader: “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?”

Similarly, “Turtle Soup” teases the reader with hints of danger and opportunities for morals, only to cancel them out. The situation reeks with dramatic irony: The Mock Turtle sings about his destiny as food and sobs all the while. However, the verbal connection between Mock Turtle and turtle soup that makes the irony possible has a fallacy embedded in it. A mock turtle cannot be made into turtle soup—or any soup, for that matter. Realizing that the implied relationship is pure wordplay, the reader is reminded that, as his name suggests, the character and indeed the whole book is a fiction. “Mock” also suggests fakery and underscores the character’s sentimentality, another level of unreality. “Mock” additionally suggests ridicule, and this turtle’s song is a parody of James Sayles’s treacley “Star of the Evening,” with lowly and also rather sloppy soup substituted for the star. Finally, riddled with too many ironies and puns of which to make sense, “Turtle Soup” turns, like the previous song, into an invitation—to eat, slurp, and sing: “Beau—ootiful Soo—oop!/ Soo—oop of the e—e—evening,/ Beautiful, beauti—FUL SOUP!”

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There

Carroll’s parody becomes a sustained and sophisticated art, and perhaps something more than parody, in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, but only once, in the White Knight’s ballad, which adapts the rhyme and meter of Thomas Moore’s “My Heart and Lute” to the content of William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence.” In its comment on Wordsworth’s profoundly serious treatment of an experience that can strike one as less than edifying, the story shows Carroll’s keen sense of the absurd. Wordsworth’s narrator meets an old man on the moor, comments on the fine day, and asks him his occupation. As the old man feebly and wanderingly answers, his words, compared to a stream, flow into one another, and his interrogator gets lost in elevated meditation. When, after further interrogation, the message finally comes through, it is merely that he wanders and gathers leeches and makes do. The leech-gatherer then becomes a symbol of independence and sanity to comfort the narrator in anxious times.

So summarized, the poem sounds like a non sequitur, an effect that Carroll intensifies through sustained nonsensical dialogue and slapstick. When Carroll’s “aged, aged man,” sitting precariously on a gate, mumbles so incoherently that his words trickle away “like water through a sieve,” his interrogator repeatedly shouts “How is it that you live?” and thumps him on the head. Wordsworth’s symbol of sanity turns into Carroll’s decidedly eccentric inventor of such things as mutton pies made of butterflies and waistcoat buttons out of haddocks’ eyes. Like Wordsworth’s, Carroll’s speaker is moved to emotional recollection of the aged man, but in moments of clumsiness rather than tranquillity—when he drops something on his toe or shoves “a right-hand foot” into a “left-hand shoe.” In the buffo finale, Carroll maintains one rhyme for twelve lines to create an unforgettable impression of that old man he “used to know,” whose “look was mild, whose speech was slow,” who “muttered mumblingly and low/ As if his mouth were full of dough.”

In the early and more hostile 1856 version entitled“Upon the Lonely Moor,” the parody’s targets were sentimentality and Wordsworth. In Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, the parody becomes a joke on the White Knight and then, through a hierarchy of analogies, on Carroll himself. The poem is about an eccentric inventor whom the speaker cannot forget. The White Knight is a similar eccentric inventor whom Alice cannot forget, and the quixotic White Knight is often seen as a caricature of Carroll (in life as well as in art, an eccentric inventor) who hopes Alice Liddell will not forget him. Carroll was fond of reversals and regressions such as this series, which works like a mirror reflecting the mirror reflection of an object ad infinitum. This reversal turns a hilarious but rather mean parody into a self-referential joke. Finally, it turns that joke into a poem, as the leech-gatherer, Wordsworth, the “aged, aged man,” the White Knight, and Carroll become an unfolding series of mild and mumbling quixotic inventors who hope to stumble onto the key to the treasure of the universe. The poem comments on itself as poetry, for each of these figures is a poet in some questionable sense, beginning with the leech-gatherer whose feeble words transcend themselves and on through the White Knight and Carroll (both of whom, as Alice detects, got the “tune” from somebody else). By reflecting backward and forward, the parody inverts itself into a poetically suggestive surface.

As a rule, the poems of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There are not parodies or, like the White Knight’s ballad, become something else through the reflective magic of the mirror—its main structural principle as well as the device behind the “logic” of its poetry. The book begins by reversing Wonderland’s premises. Instead of a spring day’s dream about falling down a rabbit hole, the sequel is a logically constructed game of “Let’s pretend” that takes place indoors on a November afternoon. Though Wonderland is chaos, the universe behind the Looking Glass is determined, artificial, and abstract. The mirror principle means that everything goes backward, and reversal extends to the relationship between words and reality.

The mirror world corresponds roughly with philosophical idealism; thus, Alice becomes a figment of a dream of the Red King, who plays George Berkeley’s God. Similarly, language and art shape life, and poems can make things happen. Nature imitates art in comical ways when imported nursery-rhyme characters must act out their lines. Egghead Humpty-Dumpty persists in sitting on his wall; Tweedledum and Tweedledee periodically take up arms over a rattle. Looking-Glass insects are like concrete poems, as the Bread-and-Butterfly and the Rocking-horse Fly are materialized words. Trees bark by saying “Bough-wough.” Poetry is part of the logician’s demonstration of how language can create self-contained worlds.

“Jabberwocky”

Shortly after Alice steps through the mirror, she discovers a book that appears to be in a foreign language, but she soon realizes that it is a Looking-Glass book. Holding it to the mirror, she reads the poem “Jabberwocky.” Carroll originally planned to print the entire poem in reverse, which would have made reading it a visual joke, an infinite regression of text within text. Even when read in normal order, “Jabberwocky” works according to the rule of the world behind the mirror. The meanings one derives from it refer one back to its surface, obliterating the usual distinctions between form and content. As the title suggests, “Jabberwocky” is gibberish about the Jabberwock, which is identified with the same gibberish. As a poetry of surfaces, this nonsense works much like abstract painting or music; the play of patterns, textures, and sounds is the point.

The first quatrain, like all of Carroll’s poetry, has a deceptive simplicity; it is a common ballad stanza in clear English syntax. Therefore ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” seems to say something but does not—quite. Later on in the book, Carroll has Humpty-Dumpty provide an elaborate interpretation—made suspect from the beginning by his assertion that he can explain all poems, even those that “haven’t been invented.” Defining some of the coinages as “portmanteau” words—two words combined to make a new one—he seems to clear up “mimsy” (miserable and flimsy) and “slithy” (slimy and lithe), but the principle fails with “toves” as a fusion of badger, lizard, and corkscrew, and “brillig” as the time “when you begin broiling things for dinner.” If one takes Humpty-Dumpty’s analysis in all seriousness, one ends up with another Mad Hatter’s song composed of disparate objects such as bats and tea-trays. Its main purpose is to combine insights with false leads and so lure the reader into the game.

The puzzling first quatrain made its first appearance in 1855 in Mischmasch, the last of the family periodicals, in a quaint, archaic-looking script, under the heading “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” Evidently, from the beginning Carroll wanted a mock-medieval effect. To turn it into “Jabberwocky,” he added five middle stanzas—with a motif deriving, perhaps, from Beowulf (c. 1000) and from Saint George—and framed them with the repeated first stanza, thus turned into a refrain. To genre and structure, Carroll has applied the portmanteau principle, creating a clever mishmash of epic and ballad—a mock-epic ballad.

Thus identified, the poem does mean something—or, at least, it provides at strategic points just enough to lead the reader on. As Alice says, it gives its readers ideas, even though they “don’t know exactly what they are!” The story line, starting with the second stanza, is easy to follow, having a beginning, middle, and end, as Alice perceives when she says that “somebody killed something.” A young man is warned by his father of the Jabberwock, goes off and kills it, and returns to the praises of his father. The elements of the epic are also present, abstracted and compressed into a balladlike miniature, a toy. Carroll uses the mock-heroic for the “pure” purpose of reducing content to patterns or game structures with which to play.

The poem includes the ominous warning of the seer; the chimerical beast and its familiars, the Jubjub and the Bandersnatch; the quest, with its dark night of the soul by the Tumtum tree; the confrontation, battle, and victory; and the glorification of the hero. In good nonsense fashion, Carroll understates motivation—for example, the hero’s object in killing the creature—reducing it to the simplest of elements: He is a subject, and it is the direct object. Carroll also foreshortens significant episodes with humorous effect. The interminable quest is dismissed in a mechanically efficient line, “Long time the manxome foe he sought—” and the Jabberwock’s appearance and slaying are anticlimactic. Its “eyes of flame” are stereotypical dragon paraphernalia, and it comes “whiffling” and “burbling” asthmatically rather than horrifically. The battle takes all of two lines, and it is as easy as “One, two! One, two! And through and/ through”—so easy that the only sound comes from the final, decapitating blow: “snicker-snack!”

As a “silly” epic in miniature, these five stanzas make perfect sense. The nonsense words, most of them adjectives, nouns, or onomatopoeic verbs, are coined and arranged to produce a single impression. It is difficult not to see the “beamish” hero who has “uffish” thoughts and “gallumphs” as a high-spirited boy, because the “new” words are close enough to real ones suggestive of emotional states (gruff, beaming, and gallop). He is left as merely an impression, moreover, as one means of conveying the playful spirit in which the poem is intended to be read. Similarly, the Jabberwock is reduced from a monster to a sound machine producing wonderful gibberish: whiffles, burbles, and ultimately, of course, jabberwocky. “Snicker-snack” is thus the appropriate blow for finishing it off. Not only is it a toylike sound, but also it is no more than a sound. The monster is thus reduced to a noise destroyed by a sound that “snickers” in gleeful triumph. Similarly, the story line ends in the father’s joyous “chortle” (chuckle and snort).

As in the parodies, Carroll neutralizes potentially disturbing events and forces the reader’s attention on the patterns and words. In doing so, he opens worlds of experience shut off from Victorian readers accustomed to a literary climate of “high seriousness” and utilitarian purpose. “Jabberwocky” thus had the effect of renewing poetry and language. It continues to do so each time it is read. Even through mock Anglo-Saxon, it brings back the feel of the incantatory power of oral alliterative verse and the liberation of a primal lyrical utterance. Indeed, the mockery, the fact that it contains words that remain “foreign,” makes it more magical, for what “gibberish” there is in the poem offers the child in every reader the experience of creating his own inner language. In reading the coined words, and regardless of whether they translate as portmanteaus, one makes old sounds and meanings into new ones, re-creating language in one’s own image. So the reader is allowed to return momentarily to that purest creative experience, the act of uttering, naming, and making worlds out of words.

The notion that “Jabberwocky” is a meaningless poem is thus both false and true. Its “nonsense” is perhaps best thought of as pure or uncommon sense. Carroll, moreover, structured his ballad to ensure that no moral or theme could be derived from it other than an experiencing of the primacy of the word. At precisely the point in the poem at which one expects the emergence of a theme, when the Jabberwock is conquered and the father rejoices, one is back where one started—with “’Twas brillig” leading further back through the “borogroves” to the pure nowhere of “the mome raths outgrabe.” For those who continue to play the game, content keeps leading back to the verbal surface, the Jabberwock to Jabberwocky, ad infinitum. As with a Möbius strip, neither side is up. Because it behaves so much like the Looking-Glass cake that must be handed around before it can be cut, whereupon it is no longer there, “Jabberwocky” might seem to make frustrating reading. By so resisting interpretation, paradoxically, the poem does teach a lesson—that a poem should not mean but be. Carroll’s nonsense at its best shows how poetry should be read as a linguistic artifact—a premise taken seriously by the modernist poets and the New Critics.

In the poetry of nonsensical double-talk, Carroll was preceded by Edward Lear and followed by the Dadaists, Surrealists, Italian Futurists, Gertrude Stein, and E. E. Cummings, among others. No one, including Carroll himself, has since achieved the artless perfection of “Jabberwocky.” One reason is that his followers were not playing; hyperconscious of having a serious theme to impart, they used nonsense in its various forms as a metaphor for meaninglessness in a fundamental philosophical sense. Carroll reduces, dehumanizes, and demystifies the content of his poem to make a toy or game out of it. Modernists such as T. S. Eliot used similar techniques, in the “Sweeney” poems or the game of chess in The Waste Land (1922) for example, to comment on the deracination of modern urban humans and the failure of communication in a world bereft of external standards of value. The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll’s longest and most elusive poem, is more problematic, however, and has perhaps justifiably invited comparison with modern literature of the absurd.

The Hunting of the Snark

In the preface to The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll hints playfully that his new poem is “to some extent” connected with “the lay of the Jabberwock” and thus is sheer nonsense. He also directs attention to Humpty-Dumpty’s portmanteau principle, suggesting that The Hunting of the Snark will be a sequel, a culmination of that delightful form of wordplay. Readers are likely to feel misled. The only new words are its principle terms, “Snark” (snail and shark, snarl and bark) and “Boojum” (boo, joke, and hokum?); the rest of the coined words are stale borrowings from “Jabberwocky.” In other important ways, the similarities that Carroll leads his readers to expect only set off the differences.

“Jabberwocky” is quintessentially innocent wordplay; The Hunting of the Snark, appropriately subtitled An Agony in Eight Fits, is embedded with elaborately juxtaposed systems of rules, involving syllogistic logic, numerical and alphabetical sequences, equations, diagrams, paradoxes, acrostics, and puns, none of which is consistent with common sense, one another, or their own terms. All this is the stuff of Wonderland, but Alice’s mediating perspective is missing here. In Snarkland, the reader plays Alice’s role, which consists of searching for the rules of a game that defies logic. Reading the poem is like being at a Mad Hatter’s tea party culminating in a riddle with no answer, or worse—a joke at the reader’s expense.

In The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll has reversed the terms of “Jabberwocky.” It is a mad sea adventure and another mock-heroic quest in ballad form for an elusive monster that associates with the Bandersnatch and the Jubjub bird. However, while the Jabberwock is dispensed with promptly, the Snark is never even seen, unless by the nearest thing to a protagonist, the Baker, who vanishes before he can reveal what he has perhaps found. The search and the monomania inspiring it are the whole story until the very end, where the poem more or less self-destructs. In short, the Snark or, as it turns out to be, Boojum wins, and in a most disconcerting way.

The narrative begins in medias res as the Bellman lands his crew on an island that he swears three times is “just the place for a Snark,” reasoning backward that “what I tell you three times is true.” The reader learns that this sort of reasoning is typical, and not only of the Bellman: The chart he has provided for his approving crew, who scorn conventional signs, is an absolute blank, and his only “notion for crossing the ocean” is to tinkle his bell. Circular reasoning also seems to be behind the plot, which veers off into digressions and returns to confirm a course that it has arbitrarily taken. The reader finds that the Baker’s uncle has warned his nephew that some Snarks are Boojums, which if met with, make one “softly and suddenly vanish away.” The Baker sees a Snark, whereupon he “softly and suddenly vanishe[s] away” along with the Snark, who “was a Boojum, you see,” as the narrator smugly informs the reader. The tale is uniquely anticlimactic. The reader is not disappointed, satisfied, or surprised; one laughs partly in bewilderment. It is not only that the Snark—or Boojum—wins, but also one is never quite sure what it is other than the visible darkness that swallows the Baker, much less why it is. Carroll’s answer seems to be a mocking “why not?”

It is no wonder that some of its early critics found this agony in eight fits less than funny. Carroll, besieged with questions as to whether it contained a hidden moral, answered inconsistently, saying alternately that it was nonsense, that he did not know, and, in two letters of 1896, that it concerned the search for happiness. As his response suggests, the poem almost demands allegorization but resists it just as strongly. The problem is shown in the wide divergence and crankiness of the various attempts to explain the poem. One explanation of the poem is that it is an antivivisectionist tract, another idea is that it is a tragedy about a business slump; other suggestions have been that the poem is a satire on Hegelian philosophy, an Oedipal quest, or an existentialist piece.

If the poem is regarding a search for happiness, as Carroll suggested, then the existentialist reading (offered by Carroll scholar Martin Gardner) seems inevitable, for the threat of annihilation is an undercurrent in all Carroll’s major works. Accordingly, the search becomes life, the Snark an illusory goal, and the Boojum the absurd reward—the vanishing signifies nothingness, the void. If the poem has symbols, they certainly point in an absurd direction. The Bellman’s blank map suggests the human condition of knowing nothing, neither where humanity is nor where it is going. Because the bowsprit gets mixed with the rudder, the ship goes backward, and considering the entire absence of dimension or direction, it goes nowhere other than the route that is the Bellman’s arbitrary choice. The Baker, Everyman, dreams each night of a “delirious fight” with the Snark and thus exists in a state of eternal anxiety, dreading his inevitable extinction. He is so anxious, in fact, that he stammers, “It is this, it is this” three times before he can state precisely the “notion” that he “cannot endure.”

Logic and language

Carroll would not have been able to endure such an allegory, however, for he had a slightly different notion of the absurd: the agonizing but strangely pleasing illogicality of language. Moreover, he consistently evaded or sublimated his existential concerns in the game of logic and language. Carroll was less Sartrean than Wittgensteinian, concerned less with the philosophical absurd, the fundamentals of being and nothingness, than with the epistemological absurd, the problem of how humankind knows and does not know, and knowledge’s fallacy-prone medium, language. His direction is indicated in what absorbs the reader’s attention, the poem’s labyrinth of nonsense structures. The title refers to the reader’s hunting of the Snark, and the Snark is the problem of the poem, its “hidden meaning” which “vanishes” or was a Boojum, nothing, all along.

The peculiar way the poem was composed—backward—suggests how it should be read, as a puzzle or riddle. The last line flashed into Carroll’s mind when he was out strolling. He wrote a stanza to fit the nonsense line and made up the poem to fit the stanza. In other words, he derived the poem’s premises (If the Snark is a Boojum, you will vanish away) from its conclusion: “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” The poem works much like the absurd syllogisms found in his Symbolic Logic: Part I, Elementary (1896). Its premises are fallacious, its conclusion a joke, and its terms absurd; a parody of systematic reasoning, it exists to be puzzled out.

Language is frequently the culprit, for it can generate systems that relate to nothing but themselves. The prefatory poem to Gertrude Chataway is a key to showing how language works in The Hunting of the Snark. The preface at first appears to be a nostalgic meditation on childhood, but on second reading it turns up an acrostic spelling Gertrude’s name, and on third reading a double acrostic: The first word of each quatrain spells out “Girt Rude Chat Away.” The surface poem has been generated from an arbitrary system, in a sense another language, imposed on it, and it exists primarily for the sake of the game, the search for correspondences. It means little more than the playful joke that it is.

Similarly, in The Hunting of the Snark, one tries to follow the arbitrary systems embedded in it to learn the rules of the game. The rules are not only made arbitrarily but also applied inconsistently, continuously bringing one back to the primary fact of the poem. The rule underlying the plot follows the Bellman’s example of going nowhere; the quest veers off into tales within the tale as the various crew members pursue their monomanias. The Butcher and Beaver cross paths and become diverted from the Snark hunt at first by what they take to be the “voice of the Jubjub,” then by the Butcher’s threefold mock-syllogistic proof that it is the voice of the Jubjub, then by his elaborately circular equation for proving his proof is threefold, and finally in a natural history lesson on the attributes of the Jubjub. The pair’s memory of the Jubjub’s song, the reader learns later, has cemented their friendship, but whether they heard it or whether it ever existed is impossible to know. “The Barrister’s Dream” turns the Snark hunt into another level of unreality and logical absurdity. It is about a Kafkaesque trial in which the Snark, the defending lawyer, takes over the functions of prosecution, jury, and judge, and pronounces the defendant, a pig who is already dead, guilty. In this sequence, as in the poem as a whole, the Snark symbol takes on so many potent meanings that it becomes meaningless.

As a dream and a tale within the tale, the mad trial is less bewildering than the “rule of three” motif with which the poem begins. Three is a teasing potential symbol, suggestive of the Trinity, but Carroll sets up the Bellman’s absurd rule of “What I tell you three times is true” as a parody of the syllogism, reducing it to a kind of ultimate question-begging. Not only does it fail logically, but also no one applies it the same way, so that no conclusions whatsoever can be drawn. The Baker is on the verge of confessing and thus effecting his ultimate fear of extinction when he stammers three times “It is this, it is this,” but never says what “It” is. The incident becomes a mock omen of sorts, but one that finally mocks the reader’s utter inability to establish a causal relation. Similarly, the Butcher applies the rule to prove that he hears the “voice of the Jubjub” but alters his terms to “note” and “song,” leaving the Jubjub somewhere between reality and fiction. The final absurdity is that the rule apparently works, if at all, only for the Bellman, who has said, “What I tell you three times is true” (italics added).

In Snarkland, classification is subordinate to the arbitrary principle of alphabetical priority. The normal impulse is to view the motley crew as a microcosm, the world satirized as a “ship of fools,” especially when the crew members are designated by their occupations: the Bellman, Baker, Barrister, Billiard-marker, Banker, Bonnet-maker, Broker, Boots, Butcher—and absurdly, the Beaver, who is a lacemaker designated by species. The Beaver’s inclusion signals that the whole crew “means” no more than the “rule of B.” Even the “rule of B” fails, however, when one applies it to characters in general—perhaps to conclude that the Snark was a Boojum by alphabetical priority. The Jubjub bird is the one exception. One is reminded of that other sea tale of the nursery, “Rub a dub dub,/ Three men in a tub,/ The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick-maker,” in which the characters exist for the sake of rhyme rather than reason.

The Baker, however, throws out classification altogether, for he is of the null class, Nobody. He can bake only bride-cake, for which there are no ingredients; therefore he is a nonbaker. He is distinguished for the number (forty-two) of items he has left behind upon boarding ship: his umbrella, watch, jewels, clothes—and, worst of all, his name. He is therefore called anything from “Thing-um-a-jig” to “Toasted-cheese.”

The Snark is the Baker in reverse in this respect; a hodgepodge of identities and attributes, it has five “unmistakable” marks: its hollow but crisp taste, its habit of rising late, its slowness in taking a jest, its fondness for bathing machines, and its ambition. The methods of hunting a snark are equally disparate and unrelated to its marks. One may seek it with thimbles, care, forks, hope, a railway-share, smiles, and soap. The final absurdity is that all this information fails to connect with the main problem, the Boojum—with one notable exception.

For those searching for a solution to the puzzle, Carroll ended the poem with a multileveled joke that refers back to the poem itself as a joke. The third characteristic of a snark is its “slowness in taking a jest.” Should “you happen to venture on one,/ It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed,” and it is particularly antagonized by a pun, at which it “looks grave.” The poem ends in a grand mock apocalypse except for the intrusion, between the sighting of the Snark and the vanishing, of a pun, the worst of all bad jokes, which appears to have been the fatal provocation. As the Baker ecstatically wags his head, accompanied by the cheers and laughter of the crew, the Butcher puns, “He was always a desperate wag.” The Baker then vanishes in the middle of the awful word, squeaking out “It’s a Boo—” before “jum” is absorbed into a sound that “some fancied” a vast “weary and wandering sigh.”

Carroll turns his mock-epic ballad into something like a conundrum, a riddle with an answer buried in an absurd pun. In so ending the hunt, he makes the poem dissolve like the Cheshire cat, leaving the reader with no more than the mocking terms of the last line: “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” The pun refers back through the poem, reverberating mockery. “Wag” reminds the reader that the Baker is a joker, a joke, and thus nobody, really. His annihilation therefore means nothing; he never was to begin with, except as a figment in the dream of Carroll, the “wag” desperate to end a “bad” joke. A conundrum that puns on its being a bad joke, The Hunting of the Snark is the most dazzling of Carroll’s infinite regressions. It regresses back into “Boojum,” a metaphor for nothing, specifically the nothing that the poem means other than what it sounds like: “Boo!” enunciated jokingly and with a little hokum tossed in.

Because the poem was, as the Bellman suggests in the second fit, “so to speak, ’snarked’” from the beginning, it also teaches a lesson in the illogic of language. If one “solves” the riddle in the planted conundrum, one commits an error of the post hoc variety, moreover resting the burden of proof on the arbitraryconnotations of language—puns on the “grave” look of the Snark and the purely speculative meanings of the “weary and wandering sigh” that “some fancied” they heard. The poem shows how language can seem to tell how and why the Boojum, happened but also tells nothing. This elaborate riddle is a metaphor for the impossibility of knowing final causes, and the Snark’s vanishing into a Boojum is the palpable unknown.

The Hunting of the Snark illustrates Carroll’s nonsense technique at its most complex, correlating fundamental philosophical paradoxes with semantic play. Here as elsewhere, he turns a “joke” into a poem by turning the joke on itself, thus making it embody the elusive thing that it is about. This antididactic “nonsense” has sometimes been seen as an evasion of the poem’s responsibility to mean—and an evasion of the issue of meaninglessness that it raises, as well.

Paradoxically, it is precisely because it is that evasion that the poem speaks so well to modern readers. By sublimating his anxiety in a logician’s “agony,” Carroll’s formal and semantic absurdities embody the urgent epistemological issues of the modern world. In another sense, then, Carroll’s humor is not an evasion but rather a metaphor for what everyone must do if they do not drop out: play the game. As such, Carroll’s point corresponds with that of James Joyce and the postmodern fabulators, who explore the absurd facility through which language creates reality and meaning.

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Lewis Carroll Long Fiction Analysis