Lewis Carroll Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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.


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...

(The entire section is 6800 words.)