Lewis Carroll Carroll, Lewis (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Lewis Carroll 1832–1898

(Pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) English novelist, poet, satirist, and essayist.

Lewis Carroll was the author of the critically acclaimed "children's" stories Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Fascinating both children and adults, the Alice books and the verse contained within them have gained increasing critical interest in recent years. Today, Carroll is best remembered for his vivid imagination, the masterful parody of his nonsense poetry, and his depiction of Victorian attitudes toward children.

Biographical Information

The son of a country pastor, Carroll passed a quiet childhood, showing a precocity in mathematics and poetry. As a child, he and his sisters entertained themselves by writing and performing plays, and even created a literary magazine, where an early incarnation of what would later become "Jabberwocky" was first published. Carroll went to Oxford at age 18, and was made a fellow of Christ Church two and a half years later. He was to remain there for the rest of his life, lecturing in mathematics and writing the occasional satirical poem lampooning a local political matter. It was at Christ Church that Carroll met Alice Liddell, the daughter of the college's dean, for whom he composed the tale of Alice in Wonderland. The normally reserved Carroll lost his shyness and found his voice in the presence of children, and he was able to captivate them for hours with fanciful tales of inquisitive little girls and anthropomorphic animals. Throughout his life, Carroll exhibited this peculiar blend of personalities: on one hand was the reserved and conventional mathematics professor, and on the other was the witty and imaginative author. The story that Carroll made up to amuse his young friend Alice Liddell in 1862 was published in 1865 (after much persuasion on the part of his friends), as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and his literary reputation was immediately established. Its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There was published in 1872. While both these books were enormously successful and are the most memorable of Carroll's work, he continued to write poetry and prose. Apart from the Alice books, his most popular works were nonsense poetry, the most famous of which was The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony, in Eight Fits (1876). Following his death in 1898, his family was forced to quickly dispose of his possessions which included most of his letters, sketches, photographs, and

games, which were sold at auction. Most of these are now considered permanently destroyed or lost.

Major Works

Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has been considered a children's classic as well as an essential book in the English literary canon. It has been criticized as a savage parody of Victorian attitudes toward children, and as a testimony of Freudian analytical theories. Additional interpretations analyze the tale as one which demonstrates both the imagination and the disturbance of its author. The poem, "Jabberwocky," in Through the Looking Glass (1872) has been seen as a predecessor of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, as well as surrealist art, and modernist literary concepts. The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony, in Eight Fits (1876) is noted for its parody, punning, and mastery of nonsense poetry, a form of poetry arguably part of the historical development of English poetry. Although Carroll's later work is thought to be critically lacking, Carroll's language skills and games have drawn increasing interest and are often additionally seen to be the predecessors of postmodernist theories and poetry.

Critical Reception

Carroll's first published work was actually an uninspired mathematical treatise, A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry, under his real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, in 1860. Carroll was encouraged by friends to publish his tale, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which he eventually did, enlisting John Tenniel, the popular political cartoonist, to illustrate it. The book was an immediate and an enormous success. First recognized as a children's book, it later came to be of increasing interest to adults as well, and critics have gradually come to include the book in the literary canon. Through the Looking Glass, its sequel, contained the nonsense poem, "Jabberwocky," which demonstrated a skillful parody of both poetic form and heroic language. Critics have come to recognize this poem's influence on Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and its importance to modernist theories of art and language. Most critics feel that Carroll's later works lack the consummate artistry of the Alice books, with the possible exception of The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony, in Eight Fits.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Phantasmagoria and Other Poems 1869

The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony, in Eight Fits 1876

Rhyme? and Reason? 1883

Three Sunsets and Other Poems 1898

Collected Verse 1929

Other Major Works

A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry (essay) 1860

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (novel) 1865

The Dynamics of a Particle (satire) 1865

The New Belfry (satire) 1872

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (novel) 1872

Euclid and His Modern Rivals (essay) 1879

Curiosa Mathematica, Part I: A New Theory of Parallels (essay) 1888

Sylvie and Bruno (novel) 1889

Curiosa Mathematica, Part II: Pillow Problems Thought Out during Wakeful Hours (essay) 1893

Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (novel) 1893

Complete Works (novels, poetry, essays, satires, letters, and rules to games) 1939

Edmund Wilson (essay date 1952)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "C. L. Dodgson: The Poet Logician," in The Shores of Light, Farrar, Straus and Young, Inc., 1952, pp. 540-50.

[In the following excerpt, Wilson argues for a serious critical approach to Carroll's work.]

… If Dodgson and his work were shown as an organic whole, his "nonsense" would not seem the anomaly which it is usually represented as being. It is true that on one of his sides he was a pompous and priggish don. He used to write letters to friends the next morning after he had been having dinner with them and beg them never again in his presence to speak so irreverently of Our Lord as they had the evening before, because it gave him infinite pain; and he wrote to the papers in a tone of indignation worthy of Mr. Podsnap protesting against the impiety of W. S. Gilbert in being whimsical about curates on the stage. But even this side of Dodgson should not be kept out of the picture: the Alice in Wonderland side has an intimate relation with it. Under the crust of the pious professor was a mind both rebellious and skeptical. The mathematician who invented Alice was one of those semi-monastic types—like Walter Pater, and A. E. Housman—that the English universities breed: vowed to an academic discipline but cherishing an intense originality, painfully repressed and incomplete but in the narrow field of their art somehow both sound and bold. A good deal of the piquancy of the Alice books is due to their merciless irreverence: in Alice's dreaming mind, the bottoms dismayingly drop out of the didactic little poems by Dr. Watts and Jane Taylor which Victorian children were made to learn, and their simple and trite images are replaced by grotesque and silly ones, which have rushed in like goblins to take possession. And in the White Knight's song about the aged man a-sitting on a gate, a parody of Wordsworth's "Leech-Gatherer," Lewis Carroll, in his subterranean fashion, ridiculed the stuffed-shirt side of Wordsworth as savagely as Byron had ever done. Wordsworth was a great admiration of Dodgson's; yet as soon as he enters his world of dreams, Lewis Carroll is moved to stick pins in him. This poem in its original form, before it had been rewritten to adapt it to Alice's dream, had been even more subversive of Victorian conventions:

It is curious what ordination as a clergyman of the Church of England can do to an original mind. The case of Dodgson is somewhat similar to those of Donne and Swift—though Dodgson was shy and stammered and never took priest's orders; and he was closer, perhaps, to Swift and Donne than to the merely whimsical writer like Barrie or A. A. Milne, for Dodgson had a first-rate mind of a very unusual sort: he was a logician who was also a poet.

The poetry and the logic in Dodgson were closely bound up together. It has often been pointed out that only a mind primarily logical could have invented the jokes of the Alice books, of which the author is always conscious that they are examples of faulty syllogisms. But it also worked the other way: his eccentric imagination invaded his scholarly work. His Symbolic Logic (which had nothing to do with the subject called by the same name of which A. N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell laid the foundation in their Principia Mathematica) contains syllogisms with terms as absurd as any in the Alice books:

A prudent man shuns hyenas;
No banker is imprudent.
No banker fails to shun hyenas.


(The entire section is 1462 words.)

Elizabeth Sewell (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Law-Courts and Dreams," in The Logic of Personal Knowledge, The Free Press, 1961, pp. 179-88.

[In the following excerpt, Sewell argues that the "real world" can be found in nonsense literature, particularly in the Barrister's dream in The Hunting of the Snark.]

… Alongside this law-court of dream [in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 87"] I want now to set another: that which is described in the Barrister's Dream, Fit the Sixth of Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark. Nonsense literature is, I believe, as valid and as closely knit with our ways of thought as any literary genre we have, so this juxtaposition need not, I hope, seem shocking. Its purpose is not...

(The entire section is 3229 words.)

Phyllis Greenacre, M.D. (essay 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Nonsense," in Psychoanalysis—A General Psychology. International Universities Press, Inc., 1966, pp. 655-77.

[In the following excerpt, Greenacre discusses nonsense and aggression as they are manifested in the works of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.]

This paper will deal with nonsense and its relation to aggression and anxiety. It draws largely on the study of the nonsense of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland and Looking Glass countries, and somewhat less on that of the nonsense rhymes of Edward Lear. But before discussing the nonsense of these two authors we must first approach the question of what we mean by nonsense anyway. Very many definitions of nonsense...

(The entire section is 5894 words.)

Raymond J. Rundus (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "O Frabjous Day!: Introducing Poetry," in English Journal, Vol. 56, No. 7, October 1967, pp. 958-63.

[In the following excerpt, Rundus argues that Carroll's "Jabberwocky" has poetic virtues within the traditional context of the English poetic canon.]

Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

"Contrariwise," continued Tweedledee, "if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."

Alice Through the Looking-Glass...

(The entire section is 1439 words.)

Michael Holquist (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "What is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism," in Yale French Studies, Vol. 43, 1969, pp. 145-64.

[In the following excerpt, Holquist argues that Carroll's work is essential to Modern Literature Studies and that it it exhibits all the tenets of modernism.]

Because the question "What is a Boojum," may appear strange or whimsical, I would like to begin by giving some reasons for posing it. Like many other readers, I have been intrigued and perplexed by a body of literature often called modern or post-modern, but which is probably most efficiently expressed in a list of authors: Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, Nabokov, Borges, Genet, Robbe-Grillet—the list could be...

(The entire section is 6394 words.)

J.S. Bratton (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Comic Ballads in the Drawing Room," in The Victorian Popular Ballad, Rowman and Littlefield, 1975, pp. 203-50.

[In the following excerpt, Bratton argues that Carroll's work has origins in the Victorian Popular Ballad form.]

…. By the middle of the [nineteenth] century the comic ballad world was … established as the domain of the writers who served the middle-class end of the popular audience, and it was adaptable to cater for their tastes and needs in a variety of ways. Two writers then emerged as supreme in whose work, in very different ways, this promise was fulfilled. There was on the one hand Lewis Carroll, who published his first book of comic verse...

(The entire section is 3545 words.)

Beverly Lyon Clark (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Carroll's Well-Versed Narrative: Through the Looking-Glass," in English Language Notes, Vol. 20, No. 2, December 1982, pp. 65-76.

(The entire section is 5121 words.)

William A. Madden (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Framing the Alices," in PMLA, Vol. 101, No. 3, May 1986, pp. 362-73.

[In the following excerpt, Madden argues that the critically-debated framing poems of the Alice books serve several nineteenth-century literary purposes.]

Over the past thirty years Lewis Carroll studies have both altered and generally enhanced the reputation of Carroll's two Alices. Yet from early on in this reevaluation process one feature of these famous stories has posed a persistent critical problem. I refer to the three poems, one prefacing each of the Alice books and the third concluding Looking-Glass, that, together with the prose ending of...

(The entire section is 5351 words.)

Karen Alkalay-Gut (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Carroll's Jabberwocky," in Explicator, Vol. 46, No. 1, Fall 1987, pp. 27-31.

[In the following excerpt, Alkalay-Gut analyses "Jabberwocky" and finds it structurally and thematically similar to heroic epics such as Beowulf.]

An old professor of mine, warning against the dangers of overinterpretation, would illustrate the extent to which criticism could err by giving an extensive and detailed reading of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" as a religious allegory and "Hickory Dickory Dock" as a paradigm of the existential experience. Perhaps for this reason, I have resisted the temptation to try to understand what has made "Jabberwocky" so popular a poem, both with...

(The entire section is 1872 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll. Alexander Woollcott, Ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1976, 1295 p.

Recent compilation of Carroll's complete works.

Kelly, Richard. Lewis Carroll. Herbert Sussman, Ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990, 190 p.

A biographical study intended for high-school level students. Includes a Chronology and Bibliography.


Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, 565 p.

A contemporary...

(The entire section is 803 words.)