Lewis Carroll

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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...

(The entire section is 6,800 words.)