Lewis Carroll

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Lewis Carroll World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In his serious poetry, collected in Phantasmagoria and Three Sunsets, and Other Poems, Carroll reveals some of his heartfelt emotions of grief, anxiety, and love, but not without maintaining a firm control over those emotions. By writing in conventional poetic forms, alluding to established poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and modeling his poems upon theirs, and by adopting an accepted sentimental tone, Carroll carefully modulated and refined the raw emotions that threatened his sense of order and psychological integrity, making them socially agreeable to his audience and to himself. He was especially attracted to and influenced by such poems as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans merci” (1820), and Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) and “Mariana” (1830), all of which dwell upon such disturbing themes as guilt, depression, or sexual temptation. In short, Carroll attempted to shape his anxieties within a poetic tradition and to guard them against the riotous swirl of fear, chaos, and despair.

Carroll’s nonsense verse, on the other hand, is much more complex and paradoxical than his serious poetry. Much as he relaxed and allowed his imagination to blossom in the presence of his young girlfriends, Carroll ignored and even challenged some of the conventional literary constraints in writing his comic poetry. The poetry in the two Alice books, such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat,” “Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy,” “Beautiful Soup,” “Jabberwocky,” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” are rebellious in the way that children are. These poems are visceral, instinctive, and free in their confrontation of authority and convention. While they assume the poetic forms and meters of traditional English poetry, they undermine that tradition by their comic tone, bizarre logic, and unsettling assumptions. Carroll’s nonsense verse embodies his primal feelings about the possible meaninglessness of life, his repressed violence and sexuality, and his growing awareness that order and meaning within the context of a poem do not necessarily reflect a corresponding order in the terrifying void of cosmic reality.

Carroll’s long poem The Hunting of the Snark is his comic defense against the unthinkable idea of the meaninglessness of life and his fear of annihilation after death. Under the leadership of the Bellman, a madcap crew sets forth to hunt the Snark. The hero of this mock epic is the Baker, who has been warned that he will be annihilated if the Snark is a Boojum. As the center of authority and truth, the Bellman constantly rings his bell (which is depicted in every illustration), reminding the crew of the passage of time and of their mortality. He defines truth by announcing at the outset that whatever he repeats three times is true. Carroll’s questers, therefore, design their own world, for that is all they have. The mythical Snark is actually a booby trap, and the Baker vanishes away forever, thus destroying all order, hope, and meaning.

Carroll’s strong Christian faith, however, would never allow him consciously to think along these lines. There was a God, a clear purpose in life, and an afterlife awaiting the righteous. Yet even as the Snark hunters manufactured some form of order as a buffer against madness, Carroll created a comic ballad with the bravado of an English adventurer in order to contain his greatest fear.

Carroll’s sense of the absurd anticipates the work of the existentialists and Surrealists. The trial of the Knave of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, points to Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937). The decapitating Queen calls for the Knave of Hearts to be sentenced before the jury submits its verdict. The only evidence brought against him for stealing the tarts is a nonsense poem that is impervious to interpretation. In The Hunting of the Snark , Carroll presents another...

(The entire section is 2,049 words.)