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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...

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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

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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)

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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.

Dodgson's Euclid and His Modern Rivals had nothing to do with non-Euclidean geometry, but in the section called A New Theory of Parallels of his Curiosa Mathematica he grazed one of the conceptions of relativist theory; and is there not a touch of Einstein in the scenes in which the Red Queen has to keep running in order to remain in the same place and in which the White Queen gives a scream of pain before she has pricked her finger?

In literature, Lewis Carroll went deeper than his contemporaries realized and than he usually gets credit for even today. As studies in dream psychology, the Alice books are most remarkable: they do not suffer by comparison with the best serious performances in this field—with Strindberg or Joyce or Flaubert's Tentation de Saint Antoine. One of Alice's recent editors says that the heroine's personality is kept simple in order to throw into relief the eccentrics and monsters she meets. But the creatures that she meets, the whole dream, are Alice's personality and her waking life. They are the world of teachers, family and pets, as it appears to a little girl, and also the little girl who is looking at this world. The creatures are always snapping at her and chiding her, saying brusque and rude and blighting things (as if their creator himself were snapping back at the authorities and pieties he served); and she in turn has a child's primitive cruelty: she cannot help mentioning cats when she is swimming around with the mouse, and later on, with the birds all around her, she comes out, as if naively, with, "Dinah's our cat. And she's such a capital one for catching mice, you can't think! And oh, I wish you could see her after the birds! Why, she'll eat a little bird as soon as look at it!" But though Alice is sometimes brutal, she is always well-bred; and, though she wanders in a world full of mysteries and of sometimes disagreeable surprises, she is always a sensible and self-possessed little upper-class English girl, who never fails in the last resort to face down the outlandish creatures that plague her: she can always bring the dream to an end by telling the King and Queen and the Court that they're nothing but a pack of cards or by picking up the Red Queen and shaking her. She can also be sympathetic and sometimes—for example, with the White Knight—exhibits a maternal instinct, but always in a sensible and practical way. Lewis Carroll is never sentimental about Alice, though he is later on to become so, in the messiest Victorian way, in the Sylvie and Bruno books. Yet Sylvie and Bruno, too, has considerable psychological interest, with its alternations of dream and reality and the elusive relationships between them. The opening railway journey, in which the narrator is dozing and mixes with the images of his dream his awareness of the lady sitting opposite him, is of an almost Joycean complexity and quite inappropriate for reading to children.

I do not, however, agree with Mr. Herrick, in the case of the Alice books, that the Alice that grown-ups read is really a different work from the Alice that is read by children. The grown-ups understand it better, but the prime source of the interest is the same. Why is it that very young children listen so attentively to Alice, remember it all so well and ask to hear it again, when many other stories seem to leave little impression? It is surely the psychological truth of these books that lays its hold on us all. Lewis Carroll is in touch with the real mind of childhood and hence with the more primitive elements of the mind of maturity, too—unlike certain other writers who merely exploit for grown-ups an artificial child-mind of convention which is in reality neither child-like nor adult. The shiftings and the transformations, the mishaps and the triumphs of Alice's dream, the mysteries and the riddles, the gibberish that conveys unmistakable meanings, are all based upon relationships that contradict the assumptions of our conscious lives but that are lurking not far behind them…. I believe that [The Alice books] are likely to survive when a good deal of the more monumental work of that world—the productions of the Carlyles and the Ruskins, the Spencers and the George Eliots—shall have sunk with the middle-class ideals of which they were the champions as well as the critics. Charles Dodgson who, in morals and religion, in his attitude toward social institutions, was professedly and as he himself believed, more conventional than any of these, had over them the curious advantage of working at once with the abstract materials of mathematical and logical conceptions and with the irrationalities of dreams. His art has a purity that is almost unique in a period so cluttered and cumbered, in which even the preachers of doom to the reign of materialism bore the stamp and the stain of the industrial system in the hard insistence of their sentences and in the turbidity of their belchings of rhetoric. They have shrunk now, but Alice still stands.

Elizabeth Sewell (essay date 1961)

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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 to jolt but to help in this investigation, for which these verses provide interesting evidence. Actually, as I have suggested elsewhere, this particular narrative is not pure Nonsense. It admits too much of the real world, which is why it is less successful as Nonsense and highly relevant here and now. Fit the Sixth, like the rest, wavers between flashes of poetry—as in There was silence like night' which has a touch of Milton or of Mallarmé, 'Et l'avare Silence et la massive Nuit'—and an occasional hint of authentic nightmare, 'And the Judge kept explaining the state of the law, in a soft undercurrent of sound.' These are details, however. It is with the Barrister's Dream as a whole that we are concerned, for he dreams, professionally enough, a trial 'in a shadowy Court' where the Snark who is, you may remember, an extremely shadowy entity itself, is Counsel for the Defence on behalf of a pig accused of deserting its sty. The case as it proceeds becomes more and more vague, muddled and self-contradictory. What is interesting is the way in which the various functionaries of the Court abdicate one by one from their functions; the Judge declines to sum up, the Jury refuse to reach a verdict, the Judge cannot pronounce sentence, and little by little the Snark takes on one function after another, returns a verdict of 'Guilty' (although acting supposedly for the defence), and pronounces sentence, 'Transportation for life … And then to be fined forty pound.' Only at the last is it discovered that the pig had in fact been dead for some years before the case began.

This is not the only law-court in Carroll's dream-writings. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which is a dream from start to finish, contains two trials, each resembling the more developed law-court in The Hunting of the Snarkin a number of ways. The trial of the Knave of Hearts at the end of Alice's story proceeds in a no less vague, muddled, topsy-turvy fashion. The jury, lizards, mice and birds as they are, are luckless and incompetent. Witnesses are threatened. The King, sitting as Judge, has no idea of procedure, and due process is subverted—'Sentence first, verdict afterwards.' The second trial in this book occurs earlier and has the look of gratuitous interpolation. This is the Mouse's Long Tale, which runs typographically tail-wise down the page in ever-diminishing print, ending in a whisper as it were: 'I'll be judge, I'll be jury,' said cunning old Fury: 'I'll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.' So ends the trial proposed as a pastime by Fury, the dog, to his mouse-victim. What is interesting is that here, too, Fury, who begins as prosecuting counsel and apparently in fun, absorbs as did the Snark the other functions in the Court, and the trial ends lamentably for the accused.

This gathering up of various judicial roles into one person who then 'embodies the Law' is significant…. this dream fusion of legal personnel in Carroll's law-courts is interesting in two other ways. It is, first, an example of those tendencies towards synthesis in dream which Freud wrote of in his great work The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900, a process which he called the 'work of condensation'. Second, such a synthesis is no longer a mere matter of the imagination, but has become, within living memory, cold and recurring fact. What were noted or invented as dream phenomena have become actual practice in certain Courts. The metaphor has come true.

Elizabeth Sewell (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Lewis Carroll and T.S. Eliot as Nonsense Poets," in T.S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 65-72.

[In the following excerpt, Sewell argues the importance of Carroll's nonsense poetry, particularly as an influence on T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and "Four Quartets."]

I saw the 'potamus take wing.
("The Hippopotamus")

It was Chesterton, that man of marvellous perception and often perverse practice, who announced in 1904 that Nonsense was the literature of the future. It was a brilliant guess. Even now, however, when it is clear that he was right, when the trials in Wonderland and the Snark have become prototypes of real trials from Reichstag to McCarthy, and much of our literature—poetry and criticism—and most of our philosophy is shaped on Nonsense principles, people are slow to recognize its importance, or that of Lewis Carroll. Carroll is no lusus naturae but a central figure, as important for England, and in the same way, as Mallarmé is for France. Nonsense is how the English choose to take their Pure Poetry, their langage mathématique or romances sans paroles: their struggle to convert language into symbolic logic or music. It is a serious struggle, but taken this way it need not appear so. Nonsense? A mere game, of course. This is characteristic of us. We like, you might say, to play possum in these matters.

The genre or game of Nonsense has strict rules. The aim is to construct with words a logical universe of discourse meticulously selected and controlled; within this playground the mind can then manipulate its material, consisting largely of names of things and numbers. The process is directed always towards analysing and separating the material into a collection of discrete counters, with which the detached intellect can make, observe and enjoy a series of abstract, detailed, artificial patterns of words and images (you may be reminded of the New Criticism), which have their own significance in themselves. All tendencies towards synthesis are taboo: in the mind, imagination and dream; in language, the poetic and metaphorical elements; in subject matter, everything to do with beauty, fertility and all forms of love, sacred or profane. Whatever is unitive is the great enemy of Nonsense, to be excluded at all costs.

The pure practice of Nonsense demands a high degree of asceticism, since its very existence in the mind depends on limitation and infertility. Nonsense is by nature logical and anti-poetic. The Nonsense poet, therefore, faces a constant paradox of self-denial. Something of the effects of this can be seen in the work of … Carroll…. With Carroll we move from pure Nonsense in the Alices through The Hunting of the Snark to Sylvie and Bruno, … Carroll is the best interpreter we have for Mr. Eliot, and Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, Mr. Eliot's overt Nonsense work, is not a chance production, the master in a lighter mood. It is integral to the whole body of his work, and a key to his poetry and his problem.

Mr. Eliot couches his own autobiography in Nonsense terms, but at one remove, for he parodies Lear's Autobiography into "How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!" He is an extensive parodist as Carroll was, and in each case this is a device for handling what might otherwise be dangerous for Nonsense. It is a matter of affirming and denying, and in his autobiography Mr. Eliot affirms and denies Nonsense in its relation to himself. He has told us that he drew from Alice in Wonderland that rose-garden with which the first of the Four Quartets opens, leading into the image of the rose which pervades and closes the last of them. In his 1929 essay on the Dante he so greatly reveres he says that we have "to pass through the looking-glass into a world which is just as reasonable as our own. When we have done that we begin to wonder whether the world of Dante is not both larger and more solid than our own." Nonsense goes deep in Mr. Eliot. One does not describe one's life, even ironically, construct an image system in serious poetry, nor interpret an honored poet in terms of something one considers trivial. It is we who would be at fault in seeing Nonsense so. What Mr. Eliot is doing here is working at the dilemma of his vocation as a Nonsense poet. The Four Quartets epitomize the problem. They are religious poems; yet one of their main images comes from classical Nonsense, the Wonderland rose which becomes the Paradiso rose drawn in its turn from a poet to understand whom, according to Mr. Eliot, we have to go through the looking-glass. And Nonsense as a pure systematic art form of mind and language excludes both poetry and religion.

Lewis Carroll, much less of a poet than Mr. Eliot but no less devoted a churchman, faces the same problem. He had, however, two advantages: first, he had an official status in the matter; second, he was luckier in his period. He had a triple identity, as the Reverend Charles Dodgson, as a professional mathematician and symbolic logician, and as a Nonsense writer. The last two, closely allied as they are, were allowed to meet; the first was sealed off, at least up till the Sylvie and Bruno period. And the age in which he lived, a pre-Freudian era in which more modern meanings of "repressions" or "integration" were unknown, made possible such a separation and that which resulted from it—the perfection of the Alices. (The Snark is already much more ambiguous.) It is a pattern that Mr. Eliot might almost envy, if only for its true Nonsense quality. He, in his Nonsense autobiography, describes his own features as being "of clerical cut," and it is remarkable how character after character in the plays is impelled towards Holy Orders. Mr. Eliot's difficulty is that nowadays religion and other such vital subjects cannot conveniently be affirmed and then closed off. One has to be Nonsense man, poet, and churchman all at once. Carroll's hippopotamus, secure in its Nonsense bounds, can remain of the earth, earthy; but Mr. Eliot's has got into the poetry and has somehow to be got into heaven. Yet despite the superficial differences between them, to us readers it is a great help to have one such quadruped by which to measure a second, and Carroll is the best point of reference we have for understanding Mr. Eliot.

Anyone interested in drawing minor parallels between earlier Eliot poems and the Alices will find material ready to hand: the reminiscence of the Frog Footman in "Portrait of a Lady" ("I shall sit here …"); the executioner who haunts Sweeney Agonistes among the playing cards as he does the Queen's croquet game; the echo, also in Sweeney, of the riddle of the Red King's dream ("If he was alive then the milkman wasn't"); the reversals or full stops of time in the two writers; the endless tea party, interminable as the Hatter's, in "Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," "Mr. Apollinax," "Hysteria," "A Cooking Egg," The Waste Land where the typist comes home at tea time, the first scene of Family Reunion, Skimbleshanks in Old Possum, till only the tea leaves are left in "The Dry Salvages"; and so on. These are not uninteresting, but they are very minor affairs. It is in the major poems, as it should be, that Carroll and Nonsense begin to be really helpful.

The Waste Land is comparable to the Alices and to them alone, as Mr. Eliot's nearest approach to pure Nonsense practice. He admits certain elements into his subject matter—myth, love, the poetry and beauty of the past—which are dangerous, but he employs classic Nonsense techniques to control them. Thus the fragmentation in the poem is not to be regarded, in this light, as a lament on our modern condition. It is the Nonsense poet's way of analyzing his subject matter into discrete parts, "one and one and one" as the Red Queen says, to make it workable in Nonsense terms. The same is true of the sterility the poem deals with. This, too, is the Nonsense poet carefully setting up the conditions necessary for the exercise of his special art. To hold the whole poem together, the two classic Carroll frameworks are employed, playing cards and chess, the digits and moves of a game substituted for those dangerous and un-Nonsense entities, human relationships. The Nonsense rules procure the necessary working conditions—detachment of mind from subject matter, analysis of material, manipulation of patterns of unfused images. Into this careful systematics, highly intellectual as Nonsense is, even potentially subversive material can be fitted and held, and the result is probably Mr. Eliot's masterpiece.

With the Four Quartets, the situation is made more difficult by what is now the poet's increasing emphasis upon unitive subjects, particularly love and religion. We need here, as points of reference, the Alices and the Snark, with a glance forward to Sylvie and Bruno. The over-all Nonsense control of The Waste Land has gone; in its place we have Nonsense procedures still operating, but used now as defenses against particular dangers. We will consider four of these: poetry, words in their nonlogical functions, and the two central images, roses and dancing.

Traditional forms of poetry are admitted into the Quartets from time to time, with their complement of metaphor and nonlogical speech so antithetical to Nonsense. When they appear, however, they tend, as in the Alices, to be pounced on and immediately subjected to critical analysis. See Part Π of "East Coker," for instance, where the passage "What is the late November doing" is followed at once by

That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory. A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion.

So Alice says to the Caterpillar after repeating some verses, "Not quite right, I'm afraid…. Some of the words have got altered," and receives the reply, "It is wrong from beginning to end." Poetry is dangerous to Nonsense, even if unsatisfactory, even if parodied, and it is as well to reduce it to criticism at once. No one interested in the present hypertrophied condition of literary criticism should overlook the importance of the Caterpillar and Humpty Dumpty as spiritual ancestors of this development….

A rose is about as dangerous an image for Nonsense as could be imagined. It implies an immense range of living company—beauty, growth, the body, sex, love. Roses in Nonsense will need special treatment, and Carroll begins to operate on his immediately, with pots of paint wielded by playing-card people or animated numbers. Mr. Eliot adopts a different but no less effective technique, sterilizing his rose in his turn, at the beginning and end of "Little Gidding," with ice and fire which cancel one another out and wipe away with them the living notion of the rose, leaving only a counter or cipher, suitable for Nonsense, behind.

Lastly, there is the dance, a dangerously living and bodily image, too. Carroll's attitude to it is always insecure. The cavorting Mock Turtle and Gryphon are clumsy and tread on Alice's feet; three times round the mulberry bush is enough for Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Carroll's most revealing dance occurs in one of his letters, where he compares his own dancing to a rhinoceros and hippopotamus executing a minuet together. Carroll is the reluctant dancing hippo. Mr. Eliot is a reluctant dancer also in the Quartets, even though dancing is the way to heaven. The dance is constrained: "At the still point, there the dance is," restricted as the circling round the Mad Hatter's table or the crocodile walking up his own forehead in Sylvie and Bruno. The best comment on this inhibition of free movement comes in the Snark. "In my beginning is my end or say that the end precedes the beginning"; it runs in "East Coker" and "Burnt Norton," and the Bellman, familiar with this condition, describes it as being "snarked," a state when "the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes." Movement in Nonsense is admitted only to be annulled, if the control and pattern are to be preserved.

Where then can we go now? It seems only towards Sylvie and Bruno, The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk. There is already a surprising similarity between Part II of "The Dry Salvages,"

Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers

and so on, and the prose poem with which Sylvie and Bruno ends, with its chilly mists and wailing gusts over the ocean, its withered leaves of a blighted hope, and the injunction, to the hero sailing for India, "Look Eastward!" as the Eliot poem bears us on to Krishna and Arjuna. Yet this is not Mr. Eliot's last word as Nonsense poet. He will talk about love and God and heaven in the later Quartets and plays, as Carroll does in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, but this is not the answer, nor the way in which the hippopotamus can enter heaven. Mr. Eliot's answer is more direct and much more surprising; one hesitates, with any writer calling his book Old Possum, to suggest that it seems also largely unconscious. He implies that the way for a Nonsense poet to reach heaven is by Nonsense itself; and so we have Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.

Phyllis Greenacre, M.D. (essay 1966)

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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 have been given by the various critics of this field of literature. Of these only a few will be mentioned.

Emile Caemmerts (1925) points out that the general opinion of nonsense is that it consists of anything which displeases you or any statement with which you emphatically disagree, and that there are as many different nonsenses as there are individual opinions, so that it would be a hopeless task to distinguish between them, or to attempt to draw up a list of them. He argues further that what is nonsense for one person is very often sense for another—similar to the situation of one man's meat being another man's poison. Someone else has remarked in regard to science fiction and scientific theory that yesterday's scientific nonsense becomes today's scientific sense….

Caemmerts then proceeds to give his own version of poetical nonsense, seeing it as arising from the same matrix as nursery rhymes, viz., the "innocent exuberance of childhood." He believes that writers of nonsense, referring especially to Lear, Carroll, and Kipling … wrote their nonsense out of memory of this joyously restless state of childhood and to please child friends of later life. This point of view would certainly oppose the theory that many of the Mother Goose rhymes originated as slyly disguised political satires which only later were incorporated into the lore of childhood…. Carroll's friendly relationship to children, almost exclusively to little girls—for he had an open aversion to little boys—was an exceedingly complex one. "Stuff and Nonsense," or "Fiddlesticks," has a considerable excluding aggression in it, like Mrs. Preemby's declaration of nonsense. It is an attitude which may become playfully elaborated when it has gone through another stage of development, achieving some degree of emotional detachment. But Mrs. Preemby could never achieve this and so was always stuck with an argument.

Another writer, Elizabeth Sewall, an English philosopher dealing with the Field of Nonsense (1952), goes to considerable length to show that nonsense is an intellectual game with its own rules, and is really a manifestation of the mind's force toward order, and the establishment of order over a counterpull to disorder. Having a stance just the opposite of Mrs. Preemby's, she seems to take nonsense entirely away from any emotional connections. She sees in the extraordinary meticulousness of both Lear and Carroll only an indication of their spontaneous pleasure in "being that way," since they were not compelled by external events to behave in this fashion. She seems to see mental health and balance in terms of derangement or no derangement, and scouts the idea that there was emotional disturbance of any importance in either man, ignoring the painfully disturbing symptoms associated with Lear's severe epilepsy during his adult life, and his constant anxiety about money. The fact that neither man married or was known to have a sexual interest in any adult woman appears to her insignificant. The nonsense of these men, she says, represents their sanity and reason. I shall return to look at this from a little different angle later.

Max Eastman (1936), looking at nonsense more from the angle of the effect of the finished product than from that of the process, says that nonsense is only effective if it pretends to make sense, i.e., if in some way it gives the illusion of being sensible. It appears, then, that part of its effectiveness has an element of the practical joke in it; one laughs at oneself for reaching for something that isn't there. Koestler (1964), who quotes Eastman and himself writes only briefly of nonsense, turns his attention at once then to tickling; and it seems possible that there is a connecting link between the two: both are threats that were only play after all.

This discussion will deal chiefly with the nonsense of Carroll in the Alice books, but will rely also on the Hunting of the Snark and the Songs of the Mad Gardener in Sylvie and Bruno. No one can talk about nonsense in any serious, sensible way, however, without considering the nonsense rhymes in the Book of Nonsense and More Nonsense by that master, Edward Lear. These two, Lear and Carroll, are certainly the outstanding professors and practitioners of nonsense. But here may we add the name of another literary man whose work would not generally be considered nonsensical at all, but only gruesome, eerie, and nightmarish. Yet his writings, especially Metamorphosis, Amerika, and The Trial, contain many of the ingredients of nonsense, without the detachment which permits comical effectiveness. I refer to Franz Kafka.

What do we mean by nonsense? Obviously, the word means no sense, i.e., without sense. This would seem to be clear enough. But sense is not so clear-cut in meaning as one might at first think. Sense at once suggests the intellect and reason, and nonsense would then consist in words or actions which convey an absurd meaning or no meaning at all. But sense also refers to the ability to receive and to respond to stimuli. The senses considered as a total bodily function are distinguished from intellect and movement. Thus the word senseless may mean unconscious, or it may refer to something unreasonable, foolish, and apparently meaningless in content. My scrutiny of the nonsense of Lear and Carroll will encompass both meanings of the word sense, for it seems to me that the intellect and reason emerge developmentally from the hinterland of the bodily senses, and that the separation of the two areas of functioning is never complete. This becomes more obvious with the examination of the content of the nonsense productions which critics like the philosophically minded Sewall would rule out of the field altogether.

It is an interesting fact that the term nonsense, except when said in a very emphatic tone of voice, is rarely applied to a production without some qualifying adjective. There is "just nonsense," "mere nonsense," "utter nonsense," "sheer nonsense," or, in the extreme, "absolute nonsense." These qualifying adjectives convey the subjective judgment of the spectator or listener, and go all the way from a relatively mild feeling: "I don't understand what you are talking about (or doing). It does not seem reasonable to me," to the extreme judgment of "absolute nonsense," implying: "What you are saying is so unheard of, so generally incomprehensible, that it disturbs me unbearably unless I think that no one can be expected to understand it." Now, absolute nonsense, with the meaning of a complete elimination of any kind of coherence or even cohesiveness of content, and associated with an inability to receive or respond to stimuli from others—the elimination of any degree of relationship whatsoever would mean such a state of disorganization and psychophysical disintegration as to be scarcely compatible with life itself. Like its extreme opposite, absolute perfection, it then becomes static, isolated, and approaches lifelessness. When Lear speaks of his rhymes as "absolute and pure nonsense"—as he does in the introduction to the book More Nonsense (1872)—he is using the phrase not to indicate the degree of nonsensical quality, but rather to indicate that his nonsense does not contain any hidden attack on any specific individuals or any sly political satire.

In studying nonsense from the productions of Lear and Carroll, we have to realize further that neither of these men could possibly have come very close to absolute nonsense, not only because of the practical inaccessibility of that chaotic, disorganized, anarchic state except for a babbling idiot incapable of writing or of definite language formation; but because both Lear and Carroll were gifted men, perhaps men of genius. This in itself gives an obligatory inner organization with some extra capacity for rhythm and patterning both in awareness and in execution. Absolute nonsense is incapable of representing itself.

The garden variety of judgment of nonsense may represent the frame of mind of the spectator or listener rather than having much to do with the product itself. Thus, as in Mrs. Preemby's case, it may show rather the antipathy of prejudice with an accompanying aggressive wish to rid oneself of the disquieting intrusion. The aggression then may be largely on the part of the spectator, although it is felt by him as a justified reaction to the aggressively nonsensical intruder who must be banished. But with Lear and Carroll, the object of the nonsense and the subjective audience are essentially the same person—the author of it. The public is only taken in by accident, as it were.

Lear was a painter of considerable ability, and Carroll was a mathematician and an Oxford don, although trained to be a clergyman. Neither made the writing of nonsense his primary profession, and both were puzzled or even annoyed at winning fame more through their nonsense than through their serious professions. Charles L. Dodgson, the Oxford don, was so annoyed, in fact, that at one time he disclaimed knowledge of Lewis Carroll and refused to receive mail directed to Carroll at his, Mr. Dodgson's, address. Carroll's nonsense works have been translated into some thirty to forty different languages, and it is reported that in English-speaking countries the Alice books rank next to the Bible in the frequency with which they are quoted. Almost the whole world knows some, at least, of Lear's rhymes, though relatively few know anything of his painting….

In each of the Alice stories there is a central theme, though it is almost lost sight of in the nonsensical meanderings of its pursuits. According to Carroll, Alice is a little girl of 7½, though she talks and acts more like a prepuberty child of 9. The aim of Alice's adventures in the first book is to find a secret subterranean garden, toward which she has been led by her curiosity in following a white rabbit, dressed as a gentleman, whom she sees as he disappears into a hole in the ground. In the pursuit of this goal she wanders through a wonderland confused and bewildered. She is never quite sure who she is and time itself is quite mixed up and runs one way and another. In fact, nothing, not even ideas and knowledge, remains reliable. She thinks of bats in connection with rats and mice and then finds herself in a confused doubting "Do rats eat bats? Do bats eat cats?" and a little later she is wondering whether she is herself or Ada who has ringlets or Mabel who is rather stupid. She is constantly growing up or shrinking down and is fearful that she may go out like the flame of a candle, but what is the flame like after it is out? She encounters animals who behave like human beings and human beings who behave like savages. Her hands and feet grow so large and distant that they seem to have identities separate from her own, and she considers sending a letter in order to communicate with her right foot, but realizes that she is talking nonsense. Her voice is so strangely hoarse that it too hardly belongs to her. There are many tears in Wonderland, and once the diminutive Alice nearly drowns in a pool of tears wept by Alice the Great. In general, however, she maintains a somewhat addled philosophical poise through all the faultfinding, bickering, and threats of open savagery. Decapitation is the favorite threat of those in power.

No one laughs much. But the Cheshire cat grins in his superior fashion since he can withstand decapitation by allowing his own body to disappear leaving his grinning head, which in turn fades with the grin, the last part to go. The story begins by Alice being bored at the book her sister is reading to her until she drops to sleep, and dropping to sleep with boredom, even in the thick of an argument, remains one of the retreats of minor character in the tale. At one point, when with a spurt of growth Alice finds herself so large that the room will no longer contain her and she is pressed against all its sides, she considers that when she is (really) grown up she will write a book about herself describing all this. This evidently is the task undertaken then by Lewis Carroll, even though Alice herself could not decide whether it was better to risk growing up to old womanhood or remaining young and doing other people's bidding, even that of cats and rabbits. Then again in a diminished phase when she is very small indeed, she gets into an argument with a caterpillar who, seated on a toadstool smoking a hookah, defends the idea that metamorphous changes need not be upsetting. He admonishes her to curb her temper and directs her to recite that erotically suggestive rhyme about Father William. Soon she is growing so big again that a wandering pigeon mistakes her elongated neck for a serpent.

In her protest that she is only a little girl (and she has jiggled herself small again) she continues to look for the secret garden, and then comes to a diminutive house in the wood. Here she encounters a grotesque version of maternity, in a ferocious duchess who is impatiently nursing her baby while she sings "Speak roughly to your little boy … " as she is anxious to be off to a croquet game with the Queen. Complete pandemonium soon reigns. The baby's nose is cut off by a flying saucepan hurled by an enraged cook. The baby himself is thrown into Alice's arms, but quickly turns into a pig and runs off into the woods. The Cheshire cat appears or disappears, as the case may be, and directs Alice to the Mad Hatter, who quickly lands her in the Mad Tea Party, all of whose members are male. She is no better off here, for all her remarks are turned around and used against her until she doesn't know the meaning of anything she has said. The Hatter's remarks seemed to have no sort of meaning at all and yet certainly were in English. (Here Alice certainly seems to agree with Max Eastman's views about effective nonsense.) Confusion is piled on confusion. Time and size are mixed up individually and together. Alice is accused of having beaten Time in her music lessons, and the Hatter is threatened with decapitation for having murdered Time. But in the end Alice does find the door to the secret garden and enters.

This, the royal garden, is as chaotically angry a place as the Duchess's kitchen had been. A rampageous croquet game is in progress. All humans, regardless of sex, age, or rank, look exactly alike from the rear, as they are really animated playing cards. The balls and the mallets, however, are animals who contribute to the general anarchy by doing whatever they please while the Queen threatens decapitation to anyone who displeases her. The Cheshire cat materializes out of his grin and escapes execution, though the King argues that anything that has a head can be beheaded, and the Queen threatens to execute everyone unless a way can be found to execute the cat. The game ends with everyone, even the wickets, being taken into custody, leaving Alice alone with the King and Queen while the King whispers a pardon to all whom the Queen has executed or imprisoned. Alice is taken in charge by the Gryphon, a hideous composite of lion, eagle, and dragon, who explains to her that the executions are only the Queen's fancy. "They never execute anybody you know." After an interlude of a satirical and whimsically nonsensical discussion of education with the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle (who suffers from sorrow which is only fancy since he is only a mock turtle and the source of Mock turtle soup), the messily confused day ends in a trial. The King with the Queen by his side is an uneasy judge fearful lest his own crown may fall off. The Knave of Hearts is being tried for stealing tarts. But execution is threatened to nervous witnesses and then for good measure to nonnervous ones as well. A general atmosphere of execution prevails.

Alice feels herself suddenly growing up, getting too big for all this nonsense. When she at last is called as a witness she has so far outgrown any trepidation that she tips over the jury box with the edge of her skirt and has to pick up the spilled jurors and return them to the box for the trial to go on. Alice's testimony that she knew nothing whatsoever about the business is considered important or unimportant, as the case may be, until an argument arises about it, and Alice herself is ordered out of the court as being too high and mighty. But before she leaves, an incriminating bit of evidence against the knave is discovered in an unsigned set of verses not in the knave's handwriting which prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the knave is a dishonest man. For why else would he have not signed his name and further gone to the trouble of imitating someone else's handwriting! Alice declares that the verses have not one atom of meaning in them, but the Queen demands the sentence first and the evidence later, while the King thinks that he detects some meaning somewhere. Alice, now full size, declares the whole thing stuff and nonsense, while the Queen shrieks, "Off with her head," and Alice retorts, "Who cares for you, you are nothing but a pack of cards!" Whereupon they all rise up in the air and come flying down at her. She wakes to find her sister brushing away dead leaves that have fluttered into her face. And in the epilogue, when Alice tells her sister the dream, she herself begins to dream Alice's dream and then, half awake, muses that this little sister of hers will soon be a grown woman with children of her own.

I shall not go to as much length in describing Alice Through the Looking Glass. It is a less spontaneous production and seems more consciously contrived than Wonderland, almost as though Alice herself had become a little more settled. It too is played against the background of a game involving a royal family, the game of chess in which the characters are now three-rather than two-dimensional, and the sexes can be distinguished even from the rear. Alice's ami in this game is to become a queen. There is not quite as much riotous confusion as in Wonderland, but the bipolarity of constant doubt is paramount. Many experiences appear in opposites, and many characters are in pairs: Alice and her mirror image, the black kitten and the white one, the Red King and Queen, and the White King and Queen, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Haigha and Hatta, etc. Alice's size does not change so much as was true in Wonderland, but the creatures around her are often outsized, especially the insects; and space and time have a way of extending and contracting themselves that is bewildering.

In the end Alice does find a crown on her head, but her maturity is at once challenged by the Red and White Queens, who then succumb to the fatigue of their own arguments and fall asleep on her shoulder. In the last scene, a coronation banquet is given for Alice who arrives late and is scolded like a bad child. Nothing can be eaten, however, as the food is all animated, and the various dishes behave like guests as soon as they are introduced to Alice. The whole party ends in a riot with the White Queen disappearing into the soup tureen, while the mutton sits in a chair. Alice and all the plates and the candles fly up in the air while the guests lie down in the remaining dishes. Alice completes the destruction by pulling the tablecloth off and dumping everything left onto the floor. She again awoke to find it all a dream.

The Red Queen whom she thought she was scolding for having instigated the mischief turned out to be the Black Kitten whom she had been admonishing for tangling up the yarn at the time she had gone to sleep. In talking to the Black Kitten (alias the Red Queen) Alice gives a valuable clue to the meaning of all this nonsense, when she says, "Let us consider, who it was dreamed it all. You see Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream—but then I was part of his dream too. Was it the Red King, Kitty? You were his wife, my dear, so you ought to know—do help to settle it!" It may be worth noting, too, that in Wonderland, Dinah (Alice's cat) does not actually appear unless we are to consider her reincarnated as the Cheshire cat—and there is no mention of kittens. In the Looking Glass world, it is Alice's play with the kittens that initiates her adventurous exploration. Perhaps we may guess that the kittens or the thoughts of kittens have arrived in Alice's life between Wonderland and Looking Glass. But I shall have more to say of content later.

Carroll's nonsense rhymes are quite different from Lear's in form. They are generally interspersed through his stories, and many among them are parodies. He did not use the aabba rhyme form; and his single-verse rhymes, appearing mostly as the Songs of the Mad Gardener in Sylvie and Bruno, achieve a comical effect largely through the utter incongruity of the fused pictures and ideas presented.

Thus the rhymes:


These rhymes spoof the dilemma, critical though it may be, by making it ridiculous, and the rhythm and utter absurdity of the solution have a stimulating, almost staccato effect. This is different from the returning monotony of Lear's last lines in his limericks and is also in contrast to the word distortions and creations of new words which reach their height in the "Jabberwocky." This is not only written backward in mirror writing, but it contains twentysix newly coined words in its five stanzas.

What are the ingredients in the picture of nonsense? The feeling of nonsense materialized by Lear and Carroll has a general background of confusion against which a central bewildered explorer struggles with the problems of life. One aspect of the main problem is that of maintaining a sense of his own identity. With this in jeopardy, there can be no definite decision about which course to take, what road to pursue, or even whether to move forward, go backward, or attempt to stay where he is. This uncertainty of the identity is felt variously not only concerning the self and the own body, but also about all the elements (animate and inanimate) of the environment, which are generally anthropomorphized as well. Activity is the order of every situation, as is shown endlessly in Lear's drawings and in Carroll's prose. This multiplies the confusion since no one—whether Alice or the animals she meets or the path she travels—seems able to keep straight who or what he is; is supposed to be doing; or how it can be done. Even the words get out of hand and cannot be relied upon. A variety of verbal switches are utilized with punning based on klang associations, alliterations, spoonerisms, malapropisms, portmanteau condensations, neologisms, etc. Humpty-Dumpty tries to master words by making them mean whatever he wants them to, but very often, in the struggle, the words themselves win out and seem to go their own way. In other words, even words lose their identity in losing their uniqueness of form and meaning, and seem to run off in various directions. Sometimes the word self-consciously maintains two opposite meanings (as indeed may be the case even with well-behaved words), but in the Looking Glass especially, opposites seem like nearly identical twins who are bound in an eternal wrangle as in the case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

The portmanteau word is a descriptive phrase originating with Carroll, who applies it to a combination of a number of words in one single one which contains at least the remnants of them all. Thus just as the snark is a monstrous combination of animals, so the word itself, like a composite photograph, contains snake, shark, snail, and probably many others. "Jabberwocky," too, is such a portmanteau word, designating a terrifying animal composed of several others. There is one word play used by both Carroll and Lear which has never been given a special name. It consists in the snapping off the end of one word and adding it to the word next to it. Thus in "Jabberwocky," the "slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe." As it is explained later, wabe comes from "way-before" and "way-behind" the sundial in the garden. Lear spoke of a "sill kankerchief," "a nempty stomach," etc. But he was in any case an inveterate tamperer with words, combining phonetic spelling with colloquialism in a way which may make sense to the ear but is grotesquely unfamiliar, when printed, to greet the eye.

A certain compulsiveness appears in Lear's punning, for his journals and letters are heavy with it. To me, at least, it becomes tiresome in its monotonous cuteness, as though it were a repetitive plea not to be taken seriously, and not to be held responsible. In Looking Glass in which accusation and trial seem always in the air (and the trial has actually taken place in Wonderland) the compulsive nature of the punning is clearly indicated. While Alice finds herself riding in a railroad carriage over the chessboard of life with a variety of animals dressed as humans, as fellow travelers, she hears a hoarse voice down the car a way and thinks to herself that it sounds like a horse. At the same time a very small voice close to her ear says, "You might make a joke of that—something about 'horse' and 'hoarse' you know." When presently she wishes that she could go back to the wood she has just left, the same little voice echoed, "You might make a joke on that, something about 'you would if you could, you know.'" It was a gnat that had lodged in her ear and was directing her travels punwise. And just as a bee she had seen only a while ago had become an elephant diving into enormous flowers with his great proboscis, so the gnat flew into a tree and became the size of a chicken.

Tampered-with words resulting in distortions of their form and meaning are obviously closely bound up with problems of their identity, whether these have to do with flora, fauna, or the human species, and involve in turn changes in size and apparent distortions of part or all of the body. Gross changes in size overtake Alice and many of the animals whom she encounters. But since these change individually rather than in an epidemic wave, there are many discrepancies and incongruities. In Lear's rhymes and stories there are more distortions of body shape with accentuation or a practical loss of some body part than changes which involve the entire body. There is not the same fluidity of form as occurs in Carroll's productions. In Lear indeed the body distortions are much more apparent in the drawings than in the rhymes.

The basic sexual identity of the characters is maintained at least in outline by both nonsense writers. Alice does not change into a boy, nor does she behave like a boy; and there is no frank change from one sex to the other…. But there is a thinly disguised set of sexual problems in Alice's quest for the secret garden and for queenship. Her dilemma is rather: "What does it mean to grow up, be a woman and have children? How do the two sexes really get together? Is it after all an enviable state to be grown up?" At times it is as though she were saying, "What is happening to my body anyway? It is getting out of hand in its demands on me, and I can't stop it, or can I?" Older people whether men or women are, on the whole, unappetizing and as unpredictable as children in Alice's worlds. But one must remember that Carroll was next to the oldest of eleven children, and a crowded parsonage may well have been tempestuous….

Lear much more openly than Carroll indicated his feeling of inadequacy as a man. Carroll seemed to side-step masculine goals in many ways and identify with the prepuberty girl who was doubtful but inquisitive about growing up.

A last major ingredient of the nonsense picture, and one which is also part of the identity complex, has to do with the loss of body parts, either in actual fact or threatened as accident or punishment. In Lear's rhymes this is a less frequent occurrence than it is in Carroll's writings. Lear describes the Old Man of the Nile who loses his thumbs as the result of sharpening his nails with a file, and another old man who just escapes catastrophe when he is offered a hatchet with which to kill a flea that is biting him sorely. Then there is the famous Pobble that has no toes, as well as one young person who loses her head by its being fanned off by a too-attentive uncle. Lear also works this theme of loss in reverse in his accentuation or enlargement of body parts and members. It is perhaps most dramatic in his nonsense song of the Dong who fell in love with a Jumbly girl and so grieved when she sailed away and left him that what little sense he had in his head also left him. Consequently, as he wandered disconsolately over the world hunting her, to light his way at night he made an artificial nose with a luminous light on its end, which served as a beacon. He became celebrated then as the Dong with the Luminous Nose.

Lear's "nonsense" pictures of body multilations and compensatory exaggerations are readily recognizable by anyone familiar with the psychology of the unconscious as expressions of severe castration fear which is being expressed directly or in an extreme form of denial.

In the Alice books, this is presented differently. Decapitation and extinction by fading out are more frequent threats than those of damage to or loss of a body part. To be sure the baby does lose its nose, sliced off by a flying pan; and the extinction of the Cheshire cat proceeds bit by bit rather than through a massive fading. Decapitation in a less corporeal form is suggested too by Alice's recurrent fear of loss of memory even of her own name and whereabouts, so that she is frequently testing her own mental functioning.

…. The thread of the stories in the Alice books shows quite clearly the major crises of growing up, with attempts to solve the problems of sexual identity and identification. But the fears of castration and annihilation are so vivid and repetitive as to suggest chronic anxiety of panic proportions. All this is in the general setting of oedipal guilt; but is complicated by the persistence of infantile rage in the case of Carroll, and by real epileptic attacks in Lear. What is striking, however, is that the situations which might produce panic are presented in so exaggerated and confused a way as to appear ridiculous. The panic is quickly muted. The beheading is anticipated on the scale of the French Revolution or worse, only actually "They never behead anyone," and it is all in the Queen's mind anyway. Certainly the sadistic aggression, which is a component of all anxiety and especially of that arising in anticipation of cruelty, is then compounded and directed against the self in guilt—the conscience is on a veritable rampage, until the voice of reason steps in and says, "This is all mental, a dream, a game." In this sense Sewall is right—that with the ability to get some distance, the force of reason prevails over the destructive forces. This control by the rarified counteraggression of reason—the superiority of the mind over primitive instincts—is personified by the Cheshire cat sitting aloft, grinning a superior (rather than a merry) grin, which is the last to go.

But there may be another determinant in the fear of beheadment, to be found in the nature of extreme rage. The enraged person then "loses his head"—he loses his sense of direction and becomes disorganized. He acts, we say, like a chicken with its head cut off. Some think indeed that the epileptic convulsion is intrinsically related to and represents repressed rage. This is a state very close to absolute nonsense. But the ability to write, or to paint, or to reproduce this in a communicable form saves the person … from being devastated by it. It is my suspicion that communicating nonsense always requires considerable talent. This is a way of saying that talent provides ways of leaving the purely individual personal experiences, pains, and pressures of life; and through channels of empathie association not open to the less gifted, talent permits the maintenance of a distance from which to hear the collective or even the cosmic beat or see the outlines of organization and feel relationships in that which would otherwise be personally devastating. Communicated nonsense is a defense against destructive forces. But it may be more than a defense in that its very ability to maintain an equilibrium against such odds contains a constructive force offering, at the very least, continuity of existence rather than complete annihilation or disintegration. One might liken it to the expectation of rebirth which sometimes accompanies the intention of suicide….

While the typical fetishist has always to have an object which will be a phallic representative for him if he is to function sexually at all, there is no evidence that Carroll had any sexual interest in any woman, except his lost mother. But just as the fetishist must have his fetish not only for sexual adequacy but for the narcissistic completion of his body image, so Carroll, I suspect, in his voyeurism and intensive interest in prepuberty girls was repetitively confirming his identification with them, thus denying his need for masculine genital adequacy. But this very denial could not help but contribute to a sense of unreality and alienation from his actual body and from the pursuits of family life which constitute so much of the emotional foundation for most of us. It permitted, however, the development of a defensive critical distance in which a sense of nonsense could develop and flourish.

Raymond J. Rundus (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1439

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

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

Alice Through the Looking-Glass

To the linguist, to the semanticist, and to the folklorist, Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," from Alice"s Adventures in Wonderland, has an inescapable attractiveness. (The poem is reprinted here for those who may have forgotten it or who may be unfamiliar with it—God forbid!)

In the first stanza of this piece of "nonsense verse," the linguist finds a unique capsule illustration of syntactic structure and a typical pattern of phonemic/morphemic signals ("nonsense" words italicized):

The linguist can readily point out that here Carroll has retained the function words of the English language (determiners, prepositions, expletives, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs) while filling the remaining slots with "nonsense" words whose grammatical function is signalled syntactically and/or by inflection. Thus "gyre" and "gimble" are both clearly parts of a compound predicate because of their position following the common English auxiliary "did" and their being linked by the coordinate "and." Syntactically, "toves" must be a noun because it follows both the determiner "the" and "slithy," which is given adjectival force because of its "-y" suffix, and also because "toves" precedes and clearly governs the compound predicate. Additionally, the linguist can remark that this same word has the inflection /z/, one of the three most common noun plural markers in English (the others being /s/ and /ǝz/).

The semanticist (or semiotist) also finds much in the first stanza upon which to wax philosophical. He can reflect upon the portmanteau weight of many of the words ("slithy"="slither"+"slimy"? Perhaps also "lithe"? An entire catalogue of slwords can be discussed) and suggest that "brillig" indicates the kind of day it is, and not a dismal, gray one, because "brillig" suggests "brilliant" and "bright." And after all the toves would not be gyring and gimbling ("gambolling"?) on an unpleasant day, would they?

Finally, the folklorist can see in "Jabberwocky" either a seminal fairy tale or the structure of a "quest" motif. Or perhaps both. Clearly, a father-figure of some sort is giving a warning to the hero (doubtless the youngest of three sons) in the second stanza:

But the youngest son, being strong, brave, and not overly impelled by his rather small ration of common sense, sets off anyway; and, in spite of all obstacles, he returns in triumph, even "galumphing," suggesting that if he lacks horse sense, he at least has sense enough to use a horse (or perhaps only behave like one, which would not be quite so admirable).

Or perhaps Carroll is giving us a sketch of a chivalric quest. Then the figure speaking in the second stanza is not the father but a feudal knight, an Arthur-figure, advising the bachelor knight of the dangers involved in the world beyond the castle. Then the Jabberwock, who has "eyes of flame," who comes "whiffling through the tulgey wood," is equivalent in status as an opponent to a fire-breathing dragon. (Since it "burbled as it came," we can well assume some sort of conflagration in its innards.) If we accept this convention, then we are involved in a mystical and magical world somewhat removed from the fairy-tale world, but one equally as fascinating.

But I seem to have digressed somewhat from my main concern. What, one may ask, does "Jabberwocky" have to do with the introducing of poetry, with which, as my title suggests, this paper ought to be concerned?

If the poem does offer such a wealth of material to the linguist, the semanticist, and the folklorist, is there anything left for the teacher seeking an effective way to introduce a poetry course, or a section of poetry in a grabbag literature course? Here I violate mathematical principles to stress a point: the sum is more than the total of its parts.

Because the teacher of literature should always be a linguist and a semanticist and often even a folklorist, "Jabberwocky" offers a particularly unique and valuable experience to the student as he is being led into the treasure house of poetry, the Taj Mahal of literature.

First, although the teacher of poetry is not likely to be a trained linguist, he is, in a different way, nearly as much concerned with sounds as the linguist. And he must also be a semanticist, aware of the richness of connotation and able to point it out to his students. He differs in one important respect: he is a linguist and a semanticist simultaneously. He is concerned with the fusion of sound and sense and must not here make the mistake of compartmentalizing, and so destroying the fusion that is there. He must recognize that he is approaching an entity on the printed page as static in form as Michelangelo's Pietà. If a dynamic experience is to be the result, it will result from the subtle interaction of poet, poem, and audience; the task of the teacher is to make that experience as dynamically charged for his students as possible….

Writing now more pragmatically, I can demonstrate that "Jabberwocky" has specific values which qualify it as a touchstone in a poetry course.

For one, the poem can be shown to illustrate all three of the common modes of poetic discourse: lyric (descriptive), dramatic, and narrative. The first stanza (repeated as the last) is clearly lyric, describing a scene and establishing a mood or atmosphere for the subsequent story. The second and sixth stanzas are dramatic: the father figure (or King Arthur-figure) is addressing the young hero in both stanzas, first warningly and then, upon the hero's return, joyously. The middle three stanzas are narrative, recounting the successful venture of the hero, culminating with the decapitation of the Jabberwock and the bringing of the grisly trophy home, much in the same manner that Beowulf brings the head of Grendel from his dam's lair to Heorot. Thus the poem can be classified, if so desired, as primarily narrative, but with lyric and dramatic elements.

Also as a touchstone poem to introduce poetry, "Jabberwocky" offers several characteristics that place it in the mainstream of much of the great body of English and American verse. (1) It is written in four-line stanzas, certainly the most common stanza length. (2) The prevailing rhythm is iambic, by far the dominant rhythm of both English and American poetry. (3) Alternating rhyme is used in most of the stanzas, and all of the rhyme used is masculine. (4) Tetrameter, along with pentameter the most common length of the English-language poetic line, is used throughout. (5) One may also point out that the form of stanzas three, five, and six, except for the lack of alternating trimeter, is identical to that of the prevailing early ballad stanza, still a popular stanza form.

Among other poetic devices that may be pointed out to students are alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, figurative language, and onomatopoeia. Alliteration, for example, is evident in line two (gyre and gimble), line eleven (Tum-tum tree), and line twenty-two (beamish boy). Assonance is especially remarkable in the repeated stanza through the sounds /i/ (brillig, slithy, gimble, mimsy) and /o/ (toves, borogoves, mome) as, to even greater extent, is consonance, with /b/ (brilling, gimble, wabe, borogoves, outgrabe), /g/ (brillig, gyre, gimble, borogoves, outgrabe), and /m/ (gimble, mimsy, mome). Internal rhyme is used in lines eleven (he, tree), seventeen (two, through), nineteen (dead, head), and twenty-three (day, Callay). And though it is difficult to distinguish figurative language in "nonsense verse," "eyes of flame" in line fourteen is probably metaphoric. The poem is especially rich in onomatopoetic technique, with such words as "whiffling," "burbled," "snicker-snack," "galumphing," "Callooh! Callay!" and "chortled" as prime examples.

Perhaps by now I have clearly established what value "Jabberwocky" has as a poem especially fit to introduce the student to the great depth and breadth of the poetry which has been composed in the English language.

Michael Holquist (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6394

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 extended, but these names will probably suffice to suggest, if very roughly, the tradition I have in mind. The works of these men are all very dissimilar to each other. However, they seem to have something in common when compared not to themselves as a class, but to past literature. In casting about for specific terms which might define this vaguely felt sense of what was distinctive and yet shared in these works, two things constantly inhibited any progress. The first was one's sense of the ridiculous: aware of other attempts to define the modern, one knew that it was difficult to do so without becoming shrill or unduly chileastic. There is a group of critics, of whom Ihab Hassan and Nathan Scott might be considered representative, who insist on an absolute cut-off between all of previous history and the modern experience. They have in their characteristically humorless way taken seriously Virginia Woolf's remark that "on or about December, 1910 human nature changed." The work of these critics is easily recognized in the apocalyptic rhetoric which distinguishes their writing, and in the irresponsible application they make of terms derived from modern German philosophy. So one thing which made it difficult to get at distinctive features in recent literature was the sense that it was very different from previous literature; and at the same time to recognize that it was not the end of history.

Another stumbling block, much less serious, was the constant recurrence of a phrase, which continually passed through my mind as I would read new works. I would read that Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to discover that he was an Ungeziefer, and immediately a ghostly refrain would be heard in my inner ear: "Aha, for the Snark was a Boojum, you see!" The same thing would happen when in Lolita, one discovered that all those strange men following Humbert were Quilty; or when reading in Gombrowicz that there was nothing to identity but the grimace [g ba]; and so on and on—one kept hearing 'The Snark was a Boojum, you see." Pausing to reflect on this, the association of Lewis Carroll with modern literature seemed natural enough: his name figures in the first Surrealist manifesto (1924); Louis Aragon and André Breton write essays on Carroll; the former attempts a translation of The Snark (1929), the latter includes selections from Carroll in his Anthologie de l'humour noir (1939). Henri Parisot publishes a study of Carroll in 1952, in a series called, significantly, Poetes d'aujourd hui; Antonin Artaud tried to translate the Jabberwocky song; Joyce's use of portmanteau words, without which there would be no Finnegans Wake, is only one index of his high regard for Carroll; Borges admires Carroll, and Nabakov translates all of Alice in Wonderland into Russian…. But such obvious associations of Carroll with modern authors were not, it turned out, the reason why the Boojum kept raising its head as I read these men.

Finally, I picked up again, after many years, The Hunting of the Snark, and it soon became apparent why its final line kept popping up in connection with modern hterature: Lewis Carroll's "agony in eight fits" was not only among the first to exemplify what is perhaps the most distinctive feature of modern literature, it did so more openly, more paradigmatically than almost any other text one knew. That is, it best dramatized the attempt of an author to insure through the structure of his work that the work could be perceived only as what it was, and not some other thing; the attempt to create an immaculate fiction, a fiction that resists the attempts of readers, and especially those readers who write criticism, to turn it into an allegory, a system equatable with already existing systems in thenon-fictive world. In what follows, I propose to outline this pattern of resistances in some detail as it exists in The Hunting of the Snark, and then, in a short conclusion to suggest the significance the pattern may have for readers of experimental modern fiction. But before looking at the poem itself, it might prove helpful to have some background information.

Lewis Carroll is, of course, a pseudonym. Characteristically for its bearer, it is an acrostic, based on an inversion of the re-Latinized forms of his two Christian names, Charles Lutwidge. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is a fascinating object of study in himself, but in what follows I propose to mention only those aspects of his career which bear directly on the significance of the Snark poem.

Dodgson's whole career can best be understood as a quest for order, in some ways not unlike that of the White Knight in Through the Looking Glass.… It should be clear that Dodgson's life, in the large outline of his whole career and in the smallest details of his everyday existence, was dominated by the quest for a more perfect order. I will return to the significance of this point in a moment. But one further aspect of Dodgson/Carroll's existence should first be mentioned. It concerns the necessity of the slash or hyphen which one must use when referring to this author. That is, he is both Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, student (or Fellow) of Christ Church, and Lewis Carroll, author of books of nonsense.

…. Much has been made of this dichotomy between Mr. Carroll and Mr. Dodgson, and psychoanalytical studies, such as Phyllis Greenacre's Swift and Carroll (New York, 1955), suggest that the man was simply a schizophrenic who found a unique means of adjustment.

A more balanced view has been provided in what are probably the two best studies of Carroll: Elizabeth Sewell's The Field of Nonsense (London, 1952) and Alfred Liede's Dichtung als Spiel (Berlin, 1963, 2 vols.). These two critics have suggested that the split between Dodgson and Carroll is only an apparent dichotomy, quickly resolved if one sees that there is a common pursuit at the heart of each avatar, a Drang nach Ordnung which Dodgson/Carroll sought in mathematics and logic, in the strictly ordered life of an Oxford scholar, in the severely proper existence of a Victorian gentleman—and last but not least, in nonsense. In fact it was in nonsense that Dodgson's compulsion toward order found its most perfect expression…. I would further add that the most nonsensical nonsense which Carroll created is The Hunting of the Snark. There is an ascending progression toward the apex it represents in 1876, from the first Alice book (1865) through the second (1872); and all the work after the Snark was a decline, a falling away which is painful in the last books, (1889) and (1893).

The Snark is the most perfect nonsense which Carroll created in that it best exemplifies what all his career and all his books sought to do: achieve pure order. For nonsense, in the writings of Lewis Carroll, at any rate, does not mean gibberish; it is not chaos, but the opposite of chaos. It is a closed field of language in which the meaning of any single unit is dependent on its relationship to the system of the other constituents. … As has recently been said, "what we have learned from Saussure is that, taken singly, signs do not signify anything, and that each one of them does not so much express a meaning as mark a divergence of meaning between itself and other signs … The prior whole which Saussure is talking about cannot be the explicit and articulated whole of a complete language as it is recorded in grammars and dictionaries … the unity he is talking about is a unity of coexistence, like that of the sections of an arch which shoulder one another. In a unified whole of this kind, the learned parts of a language have an immediate value as a whole, and progress is made less by addition and juxtaposition than by the internal articulation of a function which in its own way is already complete" [Merleau-Ponty, 1964]. My argument here is that The Hunting of the Snark constitutes such a whole; it is its own system of signs which gain their meaning by constantly dramatizing their differences from signs in other systems. The poem is, in a small way, its own language. This is difficult to grasp because its elements are bound up so closely with the syntax, morphology, and, fleetingly, the semantics of the English language.

…. Nonsense is a system in which, at its purest, words mean only one thing, and they get that meaning through divergence from the system of the nonsense itself, as well as through divergence from an existing language system. This raises, of course, the question of how one understands nonsense. It is a point to which I will return later; for the moment suffice it to say that if meaning in nonsense is dependent on the field it constructs, then the difference between nonsense and gibberish is that nonsense is a system which can be learned, as languages are learned. Thus the elements of the system can be perceived relationally, and therefore meaningfully, within it. Gibberish, on the other hand, is unsystematic.

What this suggests is that nonsense, among other things, is highly abstract. It is very much like the pure relations which obtain in mathematics, where ten remains ten, whether ten apples, ten horses, ten men, or ten Bandersnarks. This is an important point, and helps to define one relationship of nonsense to modernism. For it suggests a crucial difference between nonsense and the absurd. The absurd points to a discrepancy between purely human values and purely logical values. When a computer announces that the best cure for brain cancer is to amputate the patient's head, it is, according its system, being logical. But such a conclusion is unsettling to the patient and absurd to less involved observers. The absurd is a contrast between systems of human belief, which may lack all logic, and the extremes of a logic unfettered by human disorder. Thus the absurd is basically play with order and disorder. Nonsense is play with order only. It achieves its effects not from contrasting order and confusion, but rather by contrasting one system of order against another system of order, each of which is logical in itself, but which cannot find a place in the other. This distinction may help to account for the two dominant modes of depersonalization in recent literature. The absurd operates in the theater, where the contrast of human/non-human serves to exploit the presence of living actors on the stage. Nonsense, understood as defined above, dominates in prose fictions, where the book may become its own hermetic world, its own laboratory for systematic play, without the anthropomorphizing presence of actors. Thus the difference between, say, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and the same author's Comment c'est.

Lewis Carroll is one of the most important figures in the movement Ortega y Gasset has called the "dehumanization of art." Kafka was not the first to reduce his hero to an integer; his K has an earlier analogue in one of the many essays Dodgson wrote on Oxford university issues. In 1865 the Regius chair in Greek fell vacant, and Dodgson used the occasion as an inspiration for a little paper called A New Method of Evaluation of ð: "Let U=the university, G=Greek, and P=professor. Then GP=Greek Professor; let this be reduced to its lowest terms and call the result I. Also let W=the work done, T=the times, p=giving payment, ð=the payment according to T, and S=the sum required; so that ð=S. The problem is to obtain a value for ð which shall be commensurate with W …"

#x0022;Let this be reduced to its lowest terms …" What Dodgson has expressed here in satire is a fundamental principle of his nonsense. For to reduce a word to one meaning is surely to reduce language to its lowest terms. The effect is to create a condition of what the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky has called ostranenie, or "making it strange." But, again like so much modern literature, the effect in the Snark is not just to estrange a character or an event, but to estrange language itself. The technique is usually employed to render some familiar action unfamiliar by describing it naively, as if perceived for the first time. And this is what nonsense does to language. But it has a purpose for doing so, one which Merleau-Ponty has hinted at in another context: "If we want to understand language as an originating operation, we must pretend never to have spoken, submit language to a reduction without which it would once more escape us by referring us to what it signifies for us, [we must] look at [language] as deaf people look at those who are speaking." Or, it should be added, look at language as children or Lewis Carroll look at language.

In order to understand "language as an originating operation" we must, in other words, see it as a process, as a system in itself. By so doing, one becomes aware of its capacity to present us with something new. But in order to achieve this state of radical linguistic innocence it is necessary to put aside all expectations which arise from the habit of creating meaning through systems other than language. Perception has recently been defined as being "primarily the modification of an anticipation." The unfamiliar is always understood in terms of the familiar. This may seem a bit opaque, but it is really quite simple, and an operation we engage in and see performed every day around us. The most common example of it in literary criticism is found in the work of critics who bring to bear on any given text a procrustean system, the sort of thing T.S. Eliot had in mind when he referred to the "lemon-squeezer school" of criticism. A rigidly Freudian critic will never perceive a dark, wet setting as anything but a womb symbol, or an object which is slender and vertical as anything but a phallic symbol, regardless of the fact that, in the system of the text he is treating, the former is a bower in a forest, say, or the latter a cane or spear. This critic has not seen bowers or spears in the one system because his expectations are a function of another system. In order to see a new thing we must be able to recognize it as such, and this is done by the willed inhibition of systems we have learnt before coming upon the novel object, an act performed in the service of learning new systems. If this is not done in literary criticism, all texts become allegories…. .

Critics of Lewis Carroll have possibly developed this allegorical urge to its ultimate limits. Phyllis Greenacre, a practicing psychiatrist, cannot forget that Dodgson loved to photograph little girls in the nude, with results for her interpretation of the Alice books which are as predictable as they are unfortunate. Louis Aragon, in a 1931 article in Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution does a Marxian interpretation of the Alice books, notable for such insights as: "in those shameful days of massacre in Ireland … human liberty lay wholly in the frail hands of Alice …" William Empson has combined Freudian and Marxian techniques in his reading, "The Child as Swain." Alice experiences birth trauma, and her tears become amniotic fluid; commenting on the famous scene at the end of Through the Looking Glass where Alice pulls off the tablecloth, sending plates, dishes, and guests hurtling to the floor, Empson remarks, "It is the High Table of Christ Church we must think of here …" A. L. Taylor makes the Alice books into that easiest to find of all allegories, the Christian. I have argued that the Alice books are less perfect nonsense than The Hunting of the Snark; therefore they are less hermetic, less systematic in their own right, and thus more porous to other systems.

But even title Snark has not excaped the allegorist. Alexander Taylor sees it as an anti-vivisectionist tract and Martin Gardner, in his otherwise fine annotated version, suggests a crude existentialist reading, full of Angst's, and in which the Boojum somehow becomes the atomic bomb [Gardner, 1962]. A former dean of the Harvard Business School has argued that the poem is "a satire on business in general, the Boojum a symbol of a business slump, and the whole thing a tragedy about the business cycle." I will not go into F. C. S. Schiller's theory, which states that the Snark is a satire on Hegelian philosophy, because Schiller presents his theory as a send-up. But even W. H. Auden has said that the Snark is a "pure example" of the way in which, "if thought of as isolated in the midst of the ocean, a ship can stand for mankind and human society moving through time and struggling with its destiny" [The Enchafèd Flood, 1967].

Now there is something remarkably wrong about all this. Dodgson himself would be astounded. We have his word that "I can guarantee that the books have no religious teaching whatever in them—in fact they do not teach anything at all." It may be that, knowing how drearily and relentlessly didactic Victorian children's books were, readers have not been able to accept that the most famous representative of the class is without uplift of one sort or another. However a quick comparison of Alice or the Snark with Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863) should be enough to convince any unprejudiced reader of the fact. Kingsley's book, it will be remembered, ends with Tom, the erstwhile fairy, "now a great man of science [who] can plan railroads and steam engines, and electric telegraphs and rifled guns, and so forth." Not content with this, the author adds, to his little readers in the attached "Moral," "… do you learn your lessons, and thank God that you have plenty of cold water to wash in; and wash in it, too, like a true Englishman."

Lewis Carroll does not cloy in this way because he had a very sophisticated image of his audience. One may be highly specific about what the word child meant to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. It meant first of all a girl; further, a girl between the ages of ten and thirteen, who belonged to an upper-middle class family; was beautiful; intelligent; well dressed and well behaved. Anything else was not a child. Now it is obvious that such a restricted view of children cannot be the same one which animates Lewis Carroll the author. Rather, this audience is conceived not in terms of chronology, but as a state of perceptual innocence and honesty. Children are the proper audience of nonsense only to the degree that they let strange things remain strange; to the degree they resist forcing old systems on new, and insist on differences rather than similarities. The allegorists who have written about the Snark without having seen it are obviously long past such a state of open potentiality.

The best argument against the Snark's allegorization remains, of course, the poem itself. The interpretation which follows is based not only on the poem itself, but on the various ways in which it is itself. That is, the poem is best understood as a structure of resistances to other structures of meaning which might be brought to it. The meaning of the poem consists in the several strategies which hedge it off as itself, which insure its hermetic nature against the hermeneutic impulse. Below are six of the many ways by which the poem gains coherence through inherence.

1. The dedication poem to Gertrude Chataway appears at first glance to be simply another of those treacly Victorian set pieces Dodgson would compose when he abandoned nonsense for what he sometimes thought was serious literature. But a second reading reveals that the poem contains an acrostic: the first letter of each line spells out Gertrude Chataway; a third reading will show that the initial word in the first line of each of the four quatrains constitute another acrostic, Girt, Rude, Chat, Away. This is the first indication in the poem that the words in it exist less for what they denote in the system of English than they do for the system Carroll will erect. That is, the initial four words of each stanza are there less to indicate the four meanings present in them before they were deployed by Carroll they at first convey (clothed, wild, speak, begone) than they are to articulate a purely idiosyncratic pattern of Carroll's own devising.

2. Another index of the systematic arbitrariness of the poem is found in the second quatrain of the first Fit: "Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice: / That alone should encourage the crew. / Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice: / What I tell you three times is true." The rule of three operates in two ways. First of all it is a system for determining a truth that is absolutely unique to this poem. When in Fit 5 the Butcher wishes to prove that the scream he has heard belongs to a Jubjub bird, he succeeds in doing so by repeating three times, "Tis the voice of the Jubjub!" Now, there will be those who say that there is no such thing as a Jubjub bird. But in fact, in the system of the Snark poem, there is—and his existence is definitively confirmed through the proof which that system itself provides in the rule of 3. In the game of nonsense that rule, and only that rule, works. The system itself provides the assurance that only it can give meaning to itself.

The rule of three also operates as a marker, indicating that the intrinsic logic of the poem is not that of extrinsic logic which operates in systems outside the construct of the poem. In other words, it is a parody of the three components of that core element in traditional logic, the syllogism. As an example of this, take an exercise from Dodgson's own book, Symbolic Logic (1896): "No one has read the letter but John; No one, who has not read it, knows what it is about." The answer is, of course, "No one but John knows what the letter is about." The third repetition "Tis the voice of the Jubjub," has the same effect in nonsense that the third part of the syllogistic progression has in logic. The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines a syllogism as a major and a minor premise, "with a third proposition called the conclusion, resulting necessarily from the other two." If you begin with nonsense, and its conclusion, like the syllogism, results necessarily from the beginning, you also end with nonsense. The progression is closed to other systems. It is not, incidentally, without significance for Carroll's play with words that the etymology of syllogism is a portmanteau from the Greek syllogizesthai (to reckon together) and logizesthai (to reason) which has its root, logos.

3. The same effect of an arbitrariness whose sense can be gleaned only from the poem itself is to be found in the various names of the crew members: Bellman, Boots, Bonnet-maker, Barrister, Broker, Billiard-marker, Banker, Beaver, Baker, and Butcher. They all begin with a B. And much ink has been spilled in trying to explain (from the point of view of the allegory a given critic has tried to read into the Snark) why this should be so. The obvious answer, if one resists the impulse to substitute something else for the text, is that they all begin with B because they all begin with B. The fact that they all have the same initial sound is a parallel that draws attention to itself because it is a parallel. But it is only a parallel at the level where all the crew members on this voyage will be referred to by nouns which have an initial voiced bilabial plosive. In other words, it is a parallel that is rigidly observed, which dramatizes itself, but only as a dynamic process of parallelism, and nothing else.

4. Another way in which the poem sets up resistances which frustrate allegory is to be found in the fifth Fit. The butcher sets out to prove that two can be added to one. "Taking three as the subject to reason about—/ A convenient number to state—/ We add seven and ten, and then multiply out / By one thousand diminished by eight.

The result we proceed to divide, as you see, / By nine hundred and ninety and two: / Then subtract seventeen, and the answer must be / Exactly and perfectly true."

And in fact the answer is perfectly true—but it is also what you begin with. The equation begins with 3—the number the Butcher is trying to establish—and it ends with 3. The math of the equation looks like this: (X+7+10) (1000—8)/992—17 = X; which simplifies to x, or a pure integer. The equation is a process which begins with no content and ends with no content. It is a pure process which has no end other than itself. It is thus perhaps the best paradigm of the process of the whole poem: it does what it is about. It is pure surface, but as Oscar Wilde once observed, "there is nothing more profound than surface."

5. A fifth way in which the poem maintains its structural integrity is found in the many coinages it contains, words which Humpty Dumpty defines as portmanteau words, two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau; words which Giles Deleuze, in the most comprehensive study of Carroll's significance for language, Logique du Sens, has so charmingly translated as "les mots-valises." Carroll, in the introduction to the Snark writes, "… take the two words 'fuming' and 'furious.' Make up your mind that you will say both words, but have it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards 'fuming' you will say 'fuming-furious;' if they turn by even a hair's breadth towards 'furious,' you will say 'furious-fuming;' but if you have that rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say 'frumious.'"

"If you have that rarest of gifts, a balanced mind …," in other words, you will find just the right word, and not some approximation. In the seventh Fit, when the Banker is attacked by the Bandersnatch, the bird is described as having "frumious jaws." And the Banker, utterly shaken, chants "in mimsiest tones," a combination of miserable and flimsy. For a bird which exists only in the system of nonsense, adjectives used to describe objects in other systems will not do; they are not precise enough, and so the system itself provides its own adjective for its own substantive. Since only the Banker has ever been attacked by a Bandersnatch, it is necessary to find a unique adjective adequate to this unique experience: thus "mimsiest." This attempt to find just the right word, and no other, resulting finally in coinages, is another way in which Carroll's search for precision, order, relates him to language as an innovative process in modern literature. Carroll speaks of "that rarest of gifts, a balanced mind" as the source of his experiment. In our own century it was a man remarkable for not possessing that gift who has best expressed the pathos of its absence in the face of language. In one of his fragments Antonin Artaud says "there's no correlation for me between words and the exact states of my being … I'm the man who's best felt the astounding disorder of his language in its relation to his thought." Carroll's portmanteau words are revealing not only for the way they participate in the self-insuring autonomy of the poem. They also provide an illustration of how Carroll's nonsense is grounded in a logic of surface. The portmanteau word is not only a combination of two definitions, it is a combination of two systems, language and logic. Mention was made earlier of Saussure's insight into the way language means through divergence. The portmanteau word creates a new meaning by phonologically exploiting the divergence between two old meanings. It thus provides one of the most economical proofs of Saussure's insight into language. But the portmanteau word is also the third element of a three part progression, from one, furious, to two, fuming, to three, frumious. Like the rule of three it results in a new "truth," and like the rule of three it is a unique kind of syllogism. In order to get a logical conclusion to the syllogism, it must grow out of a divergence between two prior parallel statements.

This is an important point if one is to see the logic which determines that Carroll's system is a language and not gibberish. In logic, not all pairs of apparent concrete propositions can result in a meaningful conclusion. Two examples, again taken from our poet's own textbook of Symbolic Logic will make the point. The two statements, "No riddles interest me if they can be solved"; and "All these riddles are insoluable," cannot lead to a conclusion due to the fallacy of like eliminads not asserted to exist. "Some of these shops are not crowded; no crowded shops are comfortable" cannot lead to a conclusion due to the fallacy of unlike eliminads with an entity-premise. These and other possibilities for false syllogisms are generally subsumed under the fallacy of "post hoc, ergo propter hoc." That is, the invalidity of the conclusion is a result of incorrect premises. And the criterion for determining whether the primary and secondary propositions are valid or not is provided by the rules of logic itself. These rules make up one system. But if one were to create another system, which would state that the original premises were correct according to its rules, then the same conclusion which the system of logic would call invalid would, perceived as a result obtained according to the new rules, be correct. By extrapolation a true syllogism has been created out of what was in another set false.

The point this arcane diversion into eliminads and entity-premises seeks to make is that the system of Carroll's nonsense is just such an extrapolation, it is the transcendence of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc principle into an aesthetic. Carroll's portmanteaux are words and not gibberish because they operate according to the rule which says that all coinages in the poem will grow out of the collapse of two known words into a new one. Carroll can deploy words he invents and still communicate, because he does so according to rules. Whereas an expression of gibberish would be a sound pattern whose meaning could not be gleaned from its use according to rules: an expression of gibberish would be a sound pattern whose meaning could not be gleaned either from the syntactic or morphological principles provided by its use, or which would be deducible according to such principles in a known language system. Nonsense, like gibberish, is a violence practiced on semantics. But since it is systematic, the sense of nonsense can be learned. And that is the value of it: it calls attention to language. Carroll's nonsense keeps us honest; through the process of disorientation and learning which reading him entails, we are made aware again that language is not something we know, but something alive, in process—something to be discovered.

6. The final structure of resistance I'd like to mention is contained in perhaps the most obvious feature of the poem, its rhyme. William K. Wimsatt, in a well-known essay, makes the point that in a poem the rhyme imposes "upon the logical pattern of expressed argument a kind of fixative counterpattern of alogical implication" [The Verbal Icon (New York, 1962)]. He goes on to say that "rhyme is commonly recognized as a binder in verse structure. But where there is need for binding there must be some difference or separation between the things to be bound. If they are already close together, it is supererogatory to emphasize this by the maneuver of rhyme. So we may say that the greater the difference in meaning between rhyme words the more marked and the more appropriate will be the binding effect." This important insight into verse is contained in a piece entitled "One Relation of Rhyme to Reason." Now, Lewis Carroll wrote a book entitled Rhyme? and Reason? (1883), and I suggest that the distinctive role which rhyme plays in the Snark is best caught by means of a titular portmanteau here. That is, it is precisely that one relation of rhyme to reason which Professor Wimsatt evokes in his title, which is put into question marks not only by Carroll's title of 1883, but which is also put into question in the function rhyme serves in The Hunting of the Snark.

Professor Wimsatt suggests that "the words of a rhyme, with their curious harmony of sound and distinction of sense, are an amalgam of the sensory and the logical, or an arrest and precipitation of the logical in sensory form; they are the icon in which the idea is caught." I read this to mean that two words which are disparate in meaning result, when bound by rhyme, in a new meaning which was not contained in either of them alone. In other words, you get a kind of rule of three at work. Like the syllogism, two disparate but related elements originate a third. Thus understood, the rhyme of traditional verse has the effect of meaningful surprise; two rhymes will constitute a syllogism resulting in a new association.

But this is not true of nonsense verse. "They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care; / They pursued it with forks and hope; / They threatened its life with a railway-share; / They charmed it with smiles and soap." This stanza begins each of the last four Fits, and may stand as an example for what rhyme does throughout the poem. The rhyme words, "care, railway-share," and "hope, soap" would be very different from each other in traditional verse, and binding effects of the sort Professor Wimsatt has demonstrated in Pope or Byron would be possible. Because the language of most verse is simply a more efficiently organized means of making sense of the sort that language outside verse provides. Thus, while very different, some kind of meaningful association could be made of them capable of catching an idea.

But "care," "railway share," "hope" and "soap" in this quatrain have as their ambiance not the semantic field of the English language, but the field of Carroll's nonsense. In traditional verse "rhyme words … can scarcely appear in a context without showing some difference of meaning." But if the whole context of a poem is without meaning, its separate parts will also lack it. There can be no differences in meaning between words because they are all equally meaningless in this context. So the reader who attempts to relate rhyme to meaning in Carroll's poem will be frustrated. The syllogism of rhyme, which in other verse has a new meaning as its conclusion, ends, in Carroll's verse, where it began. Instead of aiding meaning, it is another strategy to defeat it. Language in nonsense is thus a seamless garment, a pure cover, absolute surface.

But if The Hunting of the Snark is an absolute metaphor, if it means only itself, why read it? There are several answers, but the one I have chosen to give here is that it may help us to understand other, more complex attempts to do the same thing in modern literature. It is easy to laugh at the various casuistries by which readers have sought to make an allegory, something else, out of the Snark. But the same sort of thing is being done every day to Kafka or Nabokov. Possibly the example of Lewis Carroll may suggest how far we must go, how much we must forget, how much we must learn in order to see fiction as fiction.

For the moral of the Snark is that it has no moral. It is a fiction, a thing which does not seek to be "real" or "true." The nineteenth-century was a great age of system building and myth makers. We are the heirs of Marx and Freud, and many other prophets as well, all of whom seek to explain everything, to make sense out of everything in terms of one system or another. In the homogenized world which resulted, it could be seen that art was nothing more than another—and not necessarily privileged—way for economic or psychological forces to express themselves. As Robbe-Grillet says, "Cultural fringes (bits of psychology, ethics, metaphysics, etc.) are all the time being attached to things and making them seem less strange, more comprehensible, more reassuring" [The French Novel Since the War (London, 1967)].

Aware of this danger, authors have fought back, experimenting with new ways to insure the inviolability of their own systems, to invite abrasion, insist on strangeness, create fictions. Lewis Carroll is in some small degree a forerunner of this saving effort. To see his nonsense as a logic is thus far from being an exercise in bloodless formalism. That logic insures the fictionality of his art, and as human beings we need fictions. As is so often the case, Nietzsche said it best: "we have art in order not to die of the truth."

After having stressed at such length that everything in the Snark means what it means according to its own system, it is no doubt unneccessary, but in conclusion I would like to answer the question with which we began. What is a Boojum? A Boojum is a Boojum.

J.S. Bratton (essay date 1975)

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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 Phantasmagoria in 1869 and The Hunting of the Snark in 1876, whose work took the comic ballad into the realm of fantasy and escapism, developing it into an art as abstract and devoid of direct relevance as it could well be; and on the other W. S. Gilbert, who collected the Bab Ballads into volume form in 1867, and who fulfilled a function parallel to that of Sims in affirming the social and personal identity and solidarity of a class aware of social threats and problems which gave an edge of horror to his comic flirtation with harsh realities.

Dodgson, in his first volume of verse published under the name of Lewis Carroll, approached the comic ballad along conventional paths. In the Phantasmagoria volume is a variety of unexceptional comic ballads and songs which includes some conventional popular jokes and subjects, such as the misery of being a fat man with a thin friend and rival (in "Size and Tears") and the horrors of the seaside, including a conventionally indirect reference to fleas (in "Sea Dirge"). Besides the popular conventionality of the jokes, the forms used in the telling of them are derived from the expected source of comic verse, the parody: Tennyson (in "Echoes"), Longfellow (in "Hiawatha's Photographing"), and Swinburne (in "Atlanta in Camden Town") are the most obvious contributors. The mock-Scottish ballad tale of "The Lang Coortin" is no more distinguished than these, and is less vividly effective than the traditional ballad parody of some of his predecessors, such as W. E. Aytoun. It has felicitous touches of humour based upon incongruous juxtaposition of ancient form and modern meaning, and of romanticism and practicality:

'And didna ye get the letter, Ladye,
Tied wi' a silken string,
Whilk I sent to thee frae the far countrie,
A message of love to bring?'

'It cam' to me frae the far countrie
Wi' its silken string and a';
But it wasna pre-paid,' said that high-born maid,
'Sae I gar'd them tak' it awa".

The joke, however, is scarcely strong enough to sustain its thirty-seven stanzas, and the incidental humour arising from the ballad common-places used of a modern domestic situation is scattered rather than cumulative in its effect. In the title poem of the volume, however, the elements of parody, incongruity, and the figures of the comic ballad world are worked together into a coherent whole which takes off spectacularly into Carroll's peculiarly potent fantasy world.

The poem is divided into seven cantos, titled medievally from "The Trysting" to "Sad Souvenaunce," and represents the apotheosis of comic medievalism. It takes the domestication of the other-worldly to such an extreme that it becomes once more potent and strange, and the domestic is felt to share the qualities of the supernatural, instead of the other way round. It displays a self-sufficiency and completeness within its own assumptions which renders the ghostly once more extraordinary. The domestic setting is tangibly realistic, beginning with comfortable matter-offactness in the first stanza:

One wintry night, at half-past nine,
Cold, tired, and cross, and muddy,
I had come home, too late to dine,
And supper, with cigars and wine,
Was waiting in the study.

The cosiness of this picture is later qualified by incidental revelations that the domestic situation described is actually less than perfect: the Villa he calls home is rather small, his study is not as opulent as he tries to suggest—

'Your room's an inconvenient size;
It's neither snug nor spacious.

'That narrow window, I expect,
Serves but to let the dusk in—'
I cried, 'But please to recollect
'T was fashion'd by an architect
Who pinned his faith on Ruskin!'

It is moreover afflicted with loose doors and draughty wainscotting; while his supper is prepared by a cook who uses old peas and sends the toasted cheese up cold; the cigars and wine are indifferent. Into this picture of ordinariness, and indeed so thoroughly involved with it as to be the voice which utters the criticisms just quoted, comes a Thing, soon particularised as a Phantom; and the inversion of the natural order begins. To start with, the Thing, rather than the human narrator, is afraid; and their relationship, developed in the course of conversation to something like affection, consistently flouts every expectation. The Phantom's attitude changes from the timid to the self-justifying, and then to the informative:

Through driving mists I seemed to see
A form of sheet and bone—
And found that he was telling me
The whole of his biography
In a familiar tone.

He becomes critical, and his human host retreats from curiosity to attempting to score debating points and catch him out; they bicker, and conduct a meaningless argument about punning,

Commencing every single phrase
With 'therefore' or 'because'
I blindly reeled, a hundred ways,
About the syllogistic maze,
Unconscious where I was.

Finally they discover that the Phantom is in the wrong house anyway, and he leaves, with a casual farewell which haunts the narrator for a year:

Yet still they echo in my head,
Those parting words, so kindly said,
'Old Turnip-top, good-night!'

The effect of this reversal of expectations, the narrator's calm acceptance of the ghost and his human relationship with him, is less to tame and make acceptable the ghost as a funny idea than to undermine the reader's convictions about the difference between reality and fantasy. If this very ordinary man, bad at arguments and living in a poky new house with a presumptuous cook and cheap cigars, finds absolutely nothing extraordinary about the visit of a Phantom, perhaps one's own dismissive, amused attitude to the idea is in some way mistaken. The ghost's speeches, which make up the main body of the verse, are both funny and as disturbing as the setting. They take to its final extreme the Ingoldsby Legends technique of using strict adherence to verbal logic to set up a parallel world inhabited by supernatural beings subject to a parody of natural law. Carroll reveals the spirit world as a version of the ordinary one, with all its conventional attributes linked with or explained in human terms. The Phantom reveals to the startled narrator that he is as dependent on material considerations as the least spiritual human being, and indeed his self-pitying narrative suggests that his lot is most uncomfortable. Not only is he as liable to physical discomfort and as often hungry and thirsty as Barham's devils, but he is also enmeshed in a restrictive class system, looked down on by Spectres, deprived of preferment by intimidation at elections, and rejected by the snobbish Haunted-House Committee; he is even kept from what a mortal might have thought of as his natural rights by lack of capital. He cannot afford to fly; and when he first set up in business, he says, he

… often spent ten pounds on stuff,
In dressing as a Double,
But, though it answers as a puff,
It never has effect enough
To make it worth the trouble.

Long bills soon quenched the little thirst
I had for being funny—
The setting-up is always worst:
Such heaps of things you want at first,
One must be made of money!

For instance, take a haunted tower,
With skull, cross-bones, and sheet;

Blue lights to burn (say) two an hour,
Condensing lens of extra power,
And set of chains, complete …

And then, for all you have to do,
One pound a week they offer you,
And find yourself in Bogies!

The humour of this fantasy arises partly from its unexpectedness, the sense of a completely new way of looking at things which is not without consistency and logic, indeed is strictly rational in appearance, but presents notions previously completely unimaginable as if they were prosaic realities. The use of factual reference, which is so disturbingly realistic, to the real world, does not actually mean that the ballad is related to reality at all. As in the case of its predecessors, its relation is to words, concepts and literature detached from the relevance they originally had to fact and physical existence. Carroll creates an imaginary world out of pieces detached from reality by means of the abuse of verbal and conceptual patterns normally used to order and discuss it.

Exactly the same procedure is used in The Hunting of the Snark. Out of fragments of factual reality, and by means of literary reference and the manipulation of words freed from their meanings in the ordinary world, Carroll created a dream world ordered by its own purely verbal logic. The detachment of that world from all others is illustrated by the difficulties Henry Holiday, the original illustrator, had with the pictures for it. One, his drawing of the Snark, was rejected by Carroll because 'All his descriptions of the Boojum were quite unimaginable'—they were only verbal, and not even intended to convey a picture to the imagination. They were indeed quite detached from anything but the words they were expressed in, as can be perceived from the synaesthetic statement of the first of the 'Five unmistakable marks' of the snark. It is quite impossible to translate the stanza from words to impressions:

Let us take them in order. The first is the taste,
Which is meagre and hollow, but crisp:
Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist,
With a flavour of Will-o'-the-wisp.

The picturing of such a creature is clearly not to be done, and most of the important descriptions and events of the poem have the same quality. Holiday's other problem, however, highlights a quality of the whole which would not appear very readily compatible with this singularity: he said that 'In our correspondence about the illustrations, the coherence and consistency of the nonsense on its own nonsensical understanding often became prominent' This consistency of the poem is often, as in all Carroll's fantasy writing, called 'dream logic', things having the kind of connections which they have in the suggestive, symbolic, loosely articulated flow of a dream. It is, I feel, better to think of it as something which is much more artistically and consciously created, a logic of verbal connection and suggestion disciplined by reference to the organisational principles and conventions of the ballad tradition. It is as if elements thrown up by free association, and by verbal games (like the party game in which each player in turn has to produce a word connected by some chosen principle, such as its first letter or occurance in a literary quotation, to the last) were organised into a story by literary principles used without reference to likelihood, relevance or possibility, but quite logical and viable in themselves. In such a process of composition a gap yawns between the poem and reality across which are verbal connections which only serve to mislead. W. S. Gilbert's fantasy ballads rely completely upon the connection they have with reality for their humour and their point; but Carroll has taken off into a purely cerebral game of words and literary associations. The poem is not about anything at all, beyond the words of which it is made up.

His reliance upon quite ordinary literary processes of organisation to provide the basis for the fantasy, giving an identifiable and acceptable groundwork for the reader's grasp of the ballad, is the most easily demonstrated aspect of this. He is using a ballad stanza common to many comic verses and versifiers from Hood onwards, a regular four-line stanza enlivened with occasional internal rhymes and double or triple rhyming words, extended lines and frequent use of extra, unstressed syllables to give a conversational, colloquial flow. The language is calculated to provide a deliberately casual, prosaic background against which the nonsense words and ideas will show up the more incongruously and appear the more mind-bendingly peculiar. The urbane relaxation of Carroll's use of words gives the surface a polish which is often itself highly amusing, and might perhaps be said to be descended from the Byronic style:

The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because
He had seven coats on when he came,
With three pair of boots—but the worst of it was,
He had wholly forgotten his name …

But the valley grew narrow and narrower still,
And the evening got darker and colder,
Till (merely from nervousness, not from good will)
They marched along shoulder to shoulder.

The donnish dryness of 'hardly' and 'wholly', the neatness of the parenthesis, and the easy manipulation of the rhyme, are all delightful.

On a larger scale, the continuity of the story, such as it is, depends on a version of ballad technique. The title is of course suggested by 'The Hunting of the Cheviot,' and the poem is divided, somewhat arbitrarily, into fits (with a pun upon the word—it is 'an agony in eight fits'). More than this, the only continuity throughout is the use of a kind of ballad repetition: the story leaps from incident to incident, but all is held together by a recurring stanza. It is introduced to recall the minds of readers, and, one feels, participants, to the fact that they are nominally hunting the Snark, and coming in abruptly in a variety of contexts it is just as well that it is, like some ballad refrains, quite devoid of sensible meaning, although redolent of poetic suggestiveness:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

The repetition within the stanza is also of course a common ballad construction, which occurs again, parodying the commonplace which runs

They had not sailed a week, a week,
A week but barely ane [or 'A week but two or three']

in the Bellman's speech in the second fit:

We have sailed many months, we have sailed many weeks
(Four weeks to the month you may mark),
But never as yet ('tis your Captain who speaks)
Have we caught the least glimpse of a Snark!

We have sailed many weeks, we have sailed many days
(Seven days to the week I allow)
But a Snark, on the which we might lovingly gaze,
We have never beheld till now!

A reference to this emphatic repetition is surely also behind the same character's opening words, and his statement that 'What I tell you three times is true.'

Within the framework established by these ballad techniques there is a huge amount of echoing and verbal reference, not only to literature, but to all the set phrases and composite units of meaning which make up ordinary conversation. Common verbal intercourse is not actually a matter of pronouncing and attending to each individual word as it is freshly related to each other word, but rather the emission and reception of expected, pre-set patterns of meaning which approximate to the new, or the old idea we wish to communicate. Carroll's technique is partly the breaking up of these units by totally unexpected juxtapositions—

There was also a beaver, who paced on the deck,
Or would sit making lace in the bow.

and also partly, because he was so aware of them, a utilisation of the set phrases and verbal patterns in odd contexts so that the reader is pleased and amused by his own recognition of them. The technique was used much more crudely in the punning and parodying of the minor pieces in Phantasmagoria, and appears throughout The Hunting of the Snark. One of the more obvious examples is the Baker's life-story in the third fit, which he attempts to tell as a popular tale of tragedy, beginning 'My father and mother were honest, though poor—' which the Bellman will not tolerate. Another phrase from popular use is allowed to pass without comment in the first fit, when the Baker is described as having been 'engaged at enormous expense'.

Even the nonsense words, coinages and transpositions of meaning, are made intelligible—or partly so—if a reader recognises their source and the reference involved. 'Uffish', 'beamish', 'galumphing' and 'outgrabe', all of which occur at some point in the history of the Snark, are taken from Carroll's own work, appearing in "Jabberwocky" in the first chapter of Through the Looking Glass, and they are in some cases explained there: Humpty Dumpty defined 'outgribing' as 'something between bellowing and whistling', while 'galumphing' is a portmanteau word from 'triumphant' and 'galloping'. The point and effect of all this is not, however, to convey in a veiled and indirect way some sensible everyday meaning, and recognition of references is pleasing for its own sake without adding anything to the objective comprehension of the context in which they occur. Objective sense is not the intention in the employment of these or any of the words of the piece; they are all employed as units of speech detached from their usual meanings and used to make up a new language in a new world, where different rules apply. What is said is intelligible to us because those rules are a version of the patterns of literature, particularly popular literature.

A good example of the detachment of words from their usual sense is the naming of the crew. Carroll would seem to have begun with the captain, the Bellman. The office of bellman was not simply, as Martin Gardner suggests in The Annotated Snark, 'another word for a town crier'; in Scotland the 'skellat bellman' of Glasgow, for example, was certainly appointed as town crier, but he had other functions which were a residue of the role of the minstrel or poet of the community. One particularly famous holder of the office, of whom Carroll may well have known, was Dougal Graham, born in 1724, writer and publisher of a series of chapbooks of Scottish tales and jokes. In London, on the other hand, the bellman was rather a night watchman, whose office survived from the fifteenth century until the improvement of the police force in the early nineteenth century, and who traditionally had printed and sold at Christmas a broadside sheet of verses addressed to the householders of his round soliciting their future support and present payment of a seasonal bonus. Carroll was clearly thinking of a ballad story-teller when he used the name, and Holiday would seem to have been thinking of one particular public poet, Alfred Tennyson, when he drew the pictures. The reference is complex—but probably irrelevant. The bellman in the poem, although he makes speeches and is sensitive to the use of literary' clichés by others, is a sea captain and a hunter; his literary qualifications do perhaps serve to suggest the verbal, rather than actual, field through which the hunt is conducted.

Having therefore begun with a captain who is a bellman, Carroll proceeded to name the rest of the crew on a purely phonetic principle, with a series of professions beginning with the letter B. Only one, the Butcher (who is not really a butcher, and has moreover forgotten his own name), shows much interest in or preoccupation with his trade. All the others are simply interesting and sonorously appropriate words. The use of the name 'Baker', for instance, adds an extra dimension to the character's actions and fate, but the changing of it, say to 'Boxer' or 'Bagman', or even the substitution of a nonsense word, would not destroy other aspects of the character and its humour. Thus Carroll can make use of words quite arbitrarily selected, and indeed can occasionally change the meaning of a word to suit himself, not only cutting off its old sense but forcing us to assign it another, as in 'in an antediluvian tone' to heighten and intensify the humour of his other world. Gilbert was tied to the contrast with reality for his meaning, and so had to maintain a superficial semblance of possibility and precise meaning for his effects. The Snark floats free of relevance and reference. Its connection with reality, if it has one at all, is perhaps philosophic, and many critics have earnestly sought its transcendental meaning, the most recent being Martin Gardner, whose theory is that 'The Snark is a poem about being and non-being, an existential poem, a poem of existential agony.' Without agreeing or disagreeing with this sombre pronouncement, one might see in it a possible link between Carroll and Gilbert, for Gilbert is concerned with the 'dimension of anxiety', 'the agony of anticipating one's loss of being', in a much more concrete, and I would suggest conscious, way, in the context of his own class in Victorian society.

Beverly Lyon Clark (essay date 1982)

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

[In the following excerpt, Clark discusses Carroll's verse parodies in Through the Looking Glass and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.]

In writing to his child-friends Lewis Carroll was not averse to verse, however he might tease. Nor was he averse in his fiction—for it comprises one of the most memorable features of his Alice books. It contributes to the humor and nonsense and absurdity of the books, through its play with "real"-world forms and its parody, and through its concreteness and its interaction with the surrounding prose.

Carroll played with "real"-world forms sometimes by making things more orderly and sometimes by making them less. But of course order and disorder are all a matter of perspective. When Humpty Dumpty defines glory as "a nice knock-down argument" he disorders our real-world semantic order, from one perspective, but the simple act of defining the word, of associating it with a meaning and not leaving it in the limbo of meaningless noises, is itself an act of order. Humpty Dumpty's new order may be unfamiliar, but it is not entirely chaotic. Or take "Jabberwocky." Does it disorder our orderly universe? Yes, in part, for "brillig" and "slithy" have no familiar meaning. Yet, as students of language are fond of pointing out, the grammatical structure of the poem is orderly, making it possible for us to decipher, for instance, the parts of speech to which the nonsense words belong. And the words themselves combine consonants and vowels the way English words do (unlike, say, the Wonderland Gryphon's "Hjckrrh!"). Further, Humpty Dumpty's explication provides an ordering of the meaning as well. When he expounds, "'Brillig' means four o'clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin broiling things for dinner," he describes a world with a modicum of order, one that can be envisioned as in, say, Tenniel's drawing.

Another way of describing Carroll's play with "real"-world forms is in terms of open and closed fields. Susan Stewart, in her recent study Nonsense, catalogues nonsense transformations and finds some within the closed fields described by Elizabeth Sewell in her early Field of Nonsense, closing what is traditionally open, while others do the inverse, opening what is closed. Yet whatever we call the two transformations—whether we use this broad definition or else associate nonsense only with the first kind of transformation and associate the second with the absurd—Carroll uses both kinds. He sometimes opens what is traditionally closed (making a mirror into a door) and sometimes closes what is traditionally open and on-going (making time stand still at six o'clock). And often what Carroll does is a complex amalgam of both opening and closing. In his parodies, for instance, some of the wordplay focuses attention on the words, fencing them off from reality, making them a closed world: rhyme and alliteration draw attention to the words and distract us from whatever it is the words are meant to refer to. The parodies also close themselves off as separate worlds to the extent that they do not refer to recognizable reality: how does one balance anything as slippery and floppy as an eel on the end of one's nose? On the other hand, the references to artifacts outside the poems—to other poems—opens the form, and the parodies would also seem to shatter the closed universes of the pietistic poems they mock. The parodies operate in both closed and open fields—they both order and disorder—and part of their effect derives from the confrontation between the two. We can call them nonsense, or something else, but the parodies draw upon both kinds of transformation.

It has become convenient to refer offhand to most of the verse in the Alice books as parodies. But again we run into a problem of definition. This time I want to define the term more narrowly, for the very general way in which we use "parody" sometimes blinds us to important distinctions. Sometimes we call something a parody if it reminds us of a previous work, whether or not any satire is intended. But I'd like to reserve parody for something that satirizes. Dwight Macdonald, for instance, situates Carroll's works closer to what he calls burlesque than to parody: "he simply injected an absurd content into the original form with no intention of literary criticism." Macdonald is right for some of Carroll's verse, but I would disagree with his contention that Carroll never intended literary criticism, for sometimes Carroll does intend literary, if not moral, criticism [MacDonald, 1960].

Sometimes, if not always. For only in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the verse truly parodic. How doth the little crocodile, for instance, undermines the pious preaching of Isaac Watts's "How doth the little busy bee," which admonishes children to keep busy and avoid mischief: the crocodile presented for our emulation, far from skillfully building a cell or neatly spreading wax, "cheerfully" and "neatly" and "gently"—snares fishes. Much of the other pious verse that Carroll parodies in Wonderland is similarly subverted. While Carroll does not entirely disagree with the sentiments of the poems he parodies—especially in later life, when he wanted to outbowdlerize Bowdler—and thus does not mock that which is preached, he does mock the preaching. Carroll may not be criticizing the content (he surely is not inciting children to be slothful), but he does criticize the literary purpose of didactic verse, the way in which it tried to control children. In part Carroll may simply be entering into the child's perspective, adopting the child's responses to pietistic verse, for he shows considerable sympathy for the child's point of view. And perhaps Carroll's satire of the didacticism of previous children's literature clears a niche for the new kind of children's literature he wanted to write. Much as Alice tries to define herself by attempting to recite familiar verse, Carroll seems, intentionally or not, to be defining his fiction through Alice's failure to define herself, through her mangling of her recitations.

In Through the Looking-Glass however, it is as if Carroll's success with his first children's book freed him from the need to comment on what previous writers had done for, or to, children. The verse is less parodic. Although some of it plays with pre-existing poems, it is harder to label such playing parody, harder to convict it of literary criticism. Carroll's "parodies" in the two books might be placed on a continuum, from the true parodies like that of Watts to reflections of the original that are not necessarily satires (what Macdonald describes), to mere echoes that may not actually be related to a so-called original. The drinking song begot of Scott, sung at the Looking-glass banquet, mimics some lines of the original but probably without any intent to satirize. And still farther from parody is "The Walrus and the Carpenter," which shares its meter and rhyme scheme with Thomas Hood's "The Dream of Eugene Aram" and also the discovery of an unexpected murderer, but which is not otherwise tied to the so-called original. Carroll himself wrote in a letter to his uncle, "I had no particular poem in mind. The metre is a common one, and I don't think 'Eugene Aram' suggested it more than the many other poems I have read in the same metre" (Letters).

Looking-Glass verse tends toward this latter end of the continuum. Carroll here does not demolish children's verse. For the most part, he either uses fantastical nursery rhymes, which do not need to be demolished, or else he plays with adult poetry, which can perhaps be poked and prodded at but need not be so utterly crushed as the sugar-coated moralizing intended for children.

I will demonstrate how Carroll uses pre-existing verse in Looking-Glass by examining the changes he rings on Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence." The White Knight's poem includes echoes of other poems—Wordsworth's "The Thorn" and Thomas Moore's "My Heart and Lute"—but I'll concentrate on "Resolution and Independence." Carroll had written an early version of his poem by 1856, and this version describes a situation fairly close to that in Wordsworth's poem: in both the narrator encounters an extremely old man upon the moor, asks his occupation, and is comforted by the exchange—although Wordsworth's narrator is comforted by the man's cheer and steadfastness, while Carroll's is comforted by the man's "kind intent / To drink my health in beer." The closest verbal echoes are in the closing lines. Wordsworth ends with "I'll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!" ["The Prelude" edited by Carlos Baker (1954)], and Carroll ends with "I think of that strange wanderer / Upon the lonely moor."

This echoing of concluding lines is emblematic of the relationship between the two poems. While the Watts parody starts off proclaiming the poem it twists, repeating the opening "How doth the little," as well as "Improve" and "shining" in the second Une, the Wordsworth derivative waits till the conclusion for a close verbal echo. Furthermore, Carroll entirely omits all reference to the meditative early verses of Wordsworth's poem, and even changes the meter and rhyme scheme. "Upon the Lonely Moor" is simply not very close to "Resolution and Independence." And it is not that Wordsworth's lines utterly forbid parody. Surely, if he had wanted to, Carroll could have embellished "Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead, / Nor all asleep" by adding something like (but better than) "Nor scrubbing scones nor eating flies / Nor starting in to weep." He apparently wanted to use Wordsworth's dramatic situation as a scaffolding more than he wanted to use Wordsworth's poem as a source for parody.

The later version of Carroll's poem, the one that appears in Looking-Glass, is even farther from Wordsworth. The echo in the last two lines has entirely disappeared, and so has all reference to moors. Instead of situating his aged man on a romantic and evocative moor Carroll sits him on a gate. Compared to the earlier version, the nonsense is better, the parody less.

Nevertheless, Carroll himself did call the poem a parody, in a letter to his uncle—but he went on to modify his use of the term: "'Sitting on a Gate' is a parody, though not as to style or metre—but its plot is borrowed from Wordsworth's 'Resolution and Independence' …" (Letters). Carroll uses the term "parody" for lack of a better word, to describe his borrowing of the plot, or dramatic situation, his use of the poem as a scaffolding. He goes on to indicate what in Wordsworth's poem he might well like to satirize, for it is "a poem that has always amused me a good deal (though it is by no means a comic poem) by the absurd way in which the poet goes on questioning the poor old leech-gatherer, making him tell his history over and over again, and never attending to what he says. Wordsworth ends with a moral—an example I have not followed." Carroll uses Wordsworth's dramatic situation here, but doing so, though it may poke fun at the narrator's greater interest in his own thoughts than in human interaction, does not undermine Wordsworth's sentiments, his praise of resolution, nor his communing with nature, nor his introspection. And the final version of the poem has strayed far enough from the original that Carroll needs to stress to his uncle that it is a parody.

We may be too eager to find satiric comment on Wordsworth in Carroll's poem, since the convenient label for the poem is parody and that is what parody is supposed to do. But while Carroll might not mind tweaking Wordsworth's nose when he starts platitudinizing, Carroll less clearly satirizes Wordsworth than he does Watts in the crocodile poem. And in other derived poems in Looking-Glass, such as that sired by Scott, the original neither pedantic nor moralistic, it is even harder to find what Carroll could be satirizing. The complexity of the relationship between Carroll's and Wordsworth's poems, or Carroll's and Scott's, a relationship not easily defined by our usual interpretation of "parody," complements the complexity of Carroll's nonsense and absurdity, which both reveres and defies, both orders and disorders, both closes and opens.

Another way in which Carroll's verse is humorous and nonsensical, in addition to parodying and playing with forms from the "real" world, is through what Elizabeth Sewell calls "a careful addiction to the concrete," [The Field of Nonsense (London, 1952)]. Instead of evoking a twinkling star and comparing it to a diamond, Carroll makes a bat twinkle like a tea-tray. Or he unites shoes, ships and sealing wax, or cabbages and kings. Yet not all of Carroll's verse is humorous in precisely this way. Some of it is less concrete and complete in itself, and part of its humor lies in how it integrates with the surrounding narrative. And since little or no attention has been paid to this other source of humor, I am going to concentrate on it at the expense of "careful concreteness." Again, as with the parodie playing with form, the humor derives from a varying tension, or confrontation, between opening and closing the verse: the concreteness and completeness tend to close it, while the integration with the narrative opens it. In Wonderland the King of Hearts attempts to integrate verse into the story when he uses the lines beginning "They told me you had been to her" as evidence of the Knave's guilt. Yet the ambiguous pronoun references in the lines invite all interpretations—and substantiate none. And the King's attempt to use this verse as evidence ironically substantiates its inadmissibility and hence underscores the disjunction between verse and story. Much of the humor of the verse derives from the use the King makes of it.

Looking-Glass verse tends to be even more integrated with the narrative. Both form and content are integrated, the latter in four ways. I will first discuss the integration of the content, and then turn to the form.

Overall, the content integrates with the prose thematically. Alice finally says, with only slight exaggeration, that the poetry was "all about fishes." (And in the context of playing with kittens, and frequently thinking about eating, it is not amiss to dream about fishes.) In addition, some of the verse relates directly to the action: the Red Queen sings a lullaby when the White Queen wants to nap; and the creatures sing toasts at the closing banquet. Some of the verse is interpreted by the characters, who thereby attempt, as it were, to accommodate the verse to the narrative: Humpty Dumpty interprets "Jabberwocky"; and even the Tweedles offer some interpretations of "The Walrus and the Carpenter." Finally, some of the verse is enacted in the story: notably, the nursery rhymes come to life.

In providing sources for Looking-glass characters, the nursery rhymes strengthen the integration of verse and story. Much as Wonderland creatures sprout from metaphoric proverbs (except for the Queen of Hearts and company, derived in part from a nursery rhyme but also from playing cards), such Looking-glass creatures as Humpty Dumpty and the Tweedles derive from nursery rhymes. As Roger Henkle notes, the careers of the nursery-rhyme creatures "are predetermined by the nursery rhymes about them" ["The Mad Hatter's World," in Virginia Quarterly Review, 49, 1973]—they derive, in other words, from entire verse-stories, not from mere phrases. Or, even if the creatures are ignorant of their predetermining verses, Alice and the reader are not, and we see how the verse does indeed determine actions, how highly integrated verse and narrative are. In Wonderland, on the other hand, while the King acts as if the previous behavior of the Knave of Hearts has been described by a nursery rhyme, Alice and the reader are not convinced. The nursery rhyme does not have determining force there—it is merely posited—while nursery rhymes do affect Looking-glass world, the verse does affect the narrative: Humpty Dumpty does come crashing down.

The appearance of nursery-rhyme characters in Looking-Glass also makes the book self-conscious because Alice knows about the characters in the story of her adventures through knowing other stories—she is "in the ambiguous position of being a reader in a story where she meets fictitious characters and so knows all about them" [Barbara Hardy, "Fantasy and Dream" in Tellers and Listeners, London, 1975]. This self-consciousness is somewhat different from self-consciousness in Wonderland. There Alice may comment that the Mouse has reached the fifth bend of his concrete poem, self-consciously commenting on the poem; but it is only the poem that she views as a literary artifact, not the creatures she encounters. Her comments underline the differences between the poemand the narrative rather than merge them. In Looking-Glass, though, she is self-conscious about both poems and narrative, and she even wonders if she herself is part of the Red King's dream. Although Alice may simply be playing another version of "Let's pretend" at the end, when she asks Kitty which dreamed it, her question does hint at a serious issue. And the poem that concludes Looking-Glass, ending as it does with "Life, what is it but a dream?", continues the impetus of self-consciousness. Such self-consciousness can at first remind the reader of the boundaries between fiction and reality, since the fiction proclaims its fictionality. Hence it would close the work off from reality. Yet, as Borges queries of the work within a work: "Why does it disquiet us to know that Don Quixote is a reader of the Quixote, and Hamlet is a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the answer: those inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious" ["Partial Enchantments of the Quixote" in Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, Austin, 1964]. The self-consciousness in Looking-Glass likewise hints that what appears tangible may be only a dream, that presumed realities are really fantasies, that reality is subjective. Looking-Glass may not be a fully self-conscious novel, one that, in Robert Alter's words, "systematically flaunts its own condition of artifice and … by so doing probes into the problematic relationship between real-seeming artifice and reality" [Alter, 1975], but it does tend somewhat in that direction, to confound reality and fiction. Once again, though indirectly, the Looking-Glass verse occasions integration, integration here of the larger realms of fiction and reality. And once again, Looking-Glass balances closure and self-containment with openness and permeation.

Enough of metaphysics and back to the verse again: not only is the content integrated with the narrative but so is the form. Not only is there thematic continuity between verse and prose, via fishes, and not only is one sometimes an adumbration of the other—as with the Tweedles, Humpty Dumpty, and the Lion and the Unicorn—but the physical integration of the two has also increased in Looking-Glass. Of course, this verse, like the verse in Wonderland, is set off from the rest of the text by being in verse form. Yet in Looking-Glass the segregation of verse and prose falters. Perhaps even the railway passengers' refrain, "——is worth a thousand——a——," is a verse more completely integrated with narrative, a verse not typographically segregated: Alice considers the refrain "like the chorus of a song."

Once more I would like to amplify the argument by examining specific examples. First I will look at the White Knight's verse and then Humpty Dumpty's, both of which merge with the surrounding narrative.

After droning on "mumblingly and low" with his "so" / "know" / "slow" rhymes, the White Knight abruptly ends his poem with "A-sitting on a gate. " The last line provides the rhyme for "weight" so long held in abeyance, until the record needle finally came unstuck, and hence provides some closure. Yet the poem shows a tendency to continue into, merge with, the ensuing narrative. For the interminable o-rhymes, essentially paratactic, could go on forever, comic invention willing. And they make the abrupt concluding line seem tacked on, anticlimactic. This anticlimax is humorous, as Carroll wants it to be, but it also, as Barbara Herrnstein Smith might note, leaves the reader "with residual expectations." [Smith, 1968] These residual expectations make the reader receptive to the possibility of an additional line or lines. And, in fact, the next words the White Knight speaks are "You've only a few yards to go"—consistent with the poem's meter and rhyme. The poem pushes beyond its physical boundaries.

Humpty Dumpty's verse likewise shows a tendency to continue into the narrative, a merging anticipated by Alice's frequent interruptions during the recitation. Some of the stanzas are as follows:

The little fishes' answer was
'We cannot do it, Sir, because——'

…. .

And he was very proud and stiff:
He said 'I'd go and wake them, if——'

…. .

And when I found the door was shut,
I tried to turn the handle, but——

Alice's comment shortly after hearing the poem, as she leaves Humpty Dumpty, is "of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met——." Because of forces working against closure in the poem, her comment would seem to be a reprise of the unfinished sentences in the above stanzas.

Now it is not that there are no forces working to close the poem. The line that Alice speaks and that could continue the poem is not spoken immediately after Humpty Dumpty's recitation, nor is it spoken by the character reciting the poem, nor is it a complete couplet, nor is it metrically consistent with the poem. Then, too, we may resolve some of the poem's lack of closure by declaring it humorous, labeling its dissonance and making it acceptable, so that we need not continue to seek closure. Yet the forces working against closure are stronger.

In the first place, the verse purports to tell a narrative, but its story is truncated. The narrator tells of the need to wake the little fishes and of going to the locked door and trying to get through. We expect some kind of resolution: perhaps the narrator breaks through the door, perhaps the door proves sentient and assaults the narrator, perhaps the narrator wastes away to a hummingbird egg as the continually pounds and kicks and knocks. Yet the action is not resolved but interrupted. Similarly, we expect resolution of other hints in the plot: what nefarious deed, requiring the presence of the fishes, does the narrator intend to perpetrate with his kettle of water?

Instead of resolving the plot the poem simply stops, defying closure. And Alice, puzzled, acts out the reader's discomfort over the poem's abrupt completion. Alice is particularly puzzled by the concluding stanza, the one in which the narrator tries to turn the handle of the door: she pauses, she asks if the poem is over, she finds Humpty Dumpty's dismissal—of the poem and of her—rather sudden. Humpty Dumpty's abrupt good-bye at the end of the poem reinforces the abrupt stopping of the poem itself.

Not only is the narrative action truncated but so too is the sentence begun in the final stanza, as in the other stanzas quoted above. In both the overall plot and also the sentence, the meaning is lefthanging: both are semantically incomplete. And the sentence is syntactically incomplete as well.

I can elucidate the syntactic and semantic open-endedness of this verse by comparing it to a rather different openendedness in verse from Wonderland. The verse about the Owl and the Panther concludes thus (in some versions of the poem):

When the pie was all finished, the Owl, as a boon,
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon:
While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl,
And concluded the banquet by——

The final line is incomplete, but—guided by meter and rhyme, by our knowledge of panthers, by our knowledge that "by" wants here to be followed by a verb ending in "ing"—we can readily complete the line with "eating the Owl." Even the narrative plot of the verse reaches resolution with this ending, thus reinforcing the implicit closure. With our complicity the verse silently reaches syntactic, semantic, and narrative closure. The Looking-Glass verse, Humpty Dumpty's open-ended verse, is rather different. The lines are metrically complete, with appropriate end-rhymes, but semantically incomplete. And the narrative plot is incomplete too. Rather like the later riddle poem, "'First, the fish must be caught,'" whose riddle is never solved for us, and perhaps a bit like the riddle posed in his own nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty's poem reaches no resolution. Although the stanza reaches prosodic closure, thanks to the tidy end rhyme, the meaning stretches beyond the verse form, eluding closure, eluding the tidy solipsizing of the verse.

Much of the humor of Humpty Dumpty's verse derives from its integration with the narrative, its interruptions, its incompleteness. Some critics find this the least satisfactory of Carroll's verse, and while it is certainly not the best it does become better if we look at it not in isolation but in context. At times the proper unit of analysis is not the poem by itself but the entire dialogue, of which the poem is just part.

Like Humpty Dumpty's poem, if not always to the same degree, the Looking-Glass poems are surprisingly integrated into the story, thematically and even physically. Of course, they remain typographically distinct from the prose as well—and again there is a tension between opening and closing. Another site for this tension is the overall structure of Looking-Glass. In fact, the greater merging of poetry and prose, compared to Wonderland, may in part compensate for a more rigid, closed structure in Looking-Glass. Where Wonderland describes a relatively aimless wandering, Looking-Glass describes a prescribed progression toward a goal, as Alice moves across the chessboard. The individual chapters reinforce the structure by corresponding to individual squares. Carroll counteracts the rigidity of this structure in several ways. One is his placement of lines of asterisks: in Wonderland these asterisks, signalling Alice's changes in size, can appear at the end of a chapter, coinciding with and reinforcing a narrative boundary; in Looking-Glass, though, Carroll seems careful not to place asterisks, here signalling movement to the next square, at the end of a chapter. Thus Carroll dissipates, a little, the clear demarcations of his narrative. Similarly, in Looking-Glass Carroll sometimes does not complete a sentence begun in one chapter until the following chapter: again, Carroll is ameliorating the strict division into chapters. It is as if he wanted to attenuate the rigid boundaries imposed by the chessboard structure. The greater integration of the verse may be similarly compensatory. It attenuates the rigidities of the external scaffolding of the book, much as narrative plays against and dissipates the external scaffolding of the Ulysses story in Ulysses.

In fact, Carroll's integration of verse and narrative in Looking-Glass is one of the many ways in which he anticipates twentieth-century literature. In some ways Wonderland seems rather modern—as in its associative, non-sequential plotting—and in some ways Looking-Glass anticipates current fiction. One such way is the way Carroll incorporates verse. His Looking-Glass parodies are not true parodies but rather they play against the scaffolding of pre-existing poems, like some of Yeats's poetry, which uses materials in his A Vision, yet the images in, say, the Byzantium poems do not need to be followed back to their source before we can appreciate them. Carroll's parodies too can stand alone, divorced from their sources. Though not from the narrative. For the relationship between verse and narrative also seems modern. Recent writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Coover have incorporated verse in their novels yet subverted strict boundaries. In Nabokov's Pale Fire, for instance, the novel's plot grows out of footnotes presumably annotating a poem: the poem is far from a mere set piece that a character happens to recite. These novelists carry further certain hints in Carroll's work, going farther than he in merging verse and narrative, fiction and reality.

The interaction of poem and narrative in Looking-Glass may thus be approaching twentieth-century forms of interpenetration. And Carroll's humor derives in part from this integration and in part from the opposing tendency toward concrete completeness. Likewise it derives in part from parody and in part from simply playing with "real"-world forms. The humor and nonsense and absurdity depend on a confrontation between opposites, a confrontation that we cannot quite resolve in "real"-world terms. Defining "glory" as "a nice knock-down argument" disagrees with our usual use of the term. It is hard even to make it agree metaphorically, as we can when glory is described as clouds that we trail as we come from God. Instead, the odd juxtaposition, the unresolved confrontation, makes us laugh, strikes us as absurd. And we resolve the disparity, a little, by calling it nonsense, something that need not overturn our comfortable real world. Yet despite its resolution it still hints at revolution, still hints at a more serious questioning of reality.

William A. Madden (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5351

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 Wonderland, frame the central tales. The problem is raised in acute form by Peter Coveney in his influential study of the figure of the child in nineteenth-century English literature: praising the central Alice dream tales as triumphs of "astringent and intelligent art," he detects in this frame material evidence of what he describes as "almost the case-book maladjusted neurotic." Subsequent critics who have mentioned this feature of the Alices have for the most part been similarly dismissive, implying, at least, that the Alice frames are best ignored in discussions of the masterpieces they enclose.

The issue has important implications. For one thing, the reputed failure of the frame poems, as I will call them, has sometimes been used as evidence that Carroll's genius was psychologically crippled. Given Carroll's eccentricities, biographical speculation postulating a pathological Dodgson/Carroll personality split may seem a plausible explanation for the apparent erratic working of his acknowledged genius. But the entanglement of an essentially literary question in a nonliterary preoccupation with Carroll's private habits and mental health confuses an issue that needs to be dealt with on literary grounds. While several modern critics have praised the Alice frame poems, no one has advanced an extended analysis to support either a favorable or an unfavorable reading, and until the poems' literary status is clarified our estimate of the aesthetic integrity of the Alices and our understanding of the books must remain in doubt.

It will be useful at the outset to call attention to a feature of the Alice frame poems that helps explain the negative response of modern readers. The three poems are devoid of qualities that the educated reader has come to expect in lyric poetry, qualities summarized by one literary historian as "colloquialism of style and rhythm, realistic particularity, toughness of sensibility, the complex and often dissonant expression of tension and conflict, the resources of irony, ambiguity, paradox, and wit" [Bush, 1963]. The alteration in taste that has led us to value such characteristics was already evident in the work of Carroll's contemporaries Browning and Hopkins, indeed in Carroll's own parodic verses in the Alices, but not at all in the frame poems, where these qualities are conspicuous by their absence.

These poems are characterized, rather, by the conventional diction, metrics, and syntax of the main English poetic tradition—revitalized early in the century by Wordsworth—which still shaped the poetic style of those Victorians whose poetry Carroll most admired: Keble, Tennyson, and the Rossettis. … Generically, too, the Alice frame poems conform to conventions established early in the century. The prefatory poem to Wonderland, for example, with its localized setting, feelings originating in a specific event, and a presupposed listener, has affinities with a poem like Tintern Abbey and, in its evocation of a dream mood, with the Coleridgean "mystery" poem, whereby "the spell-bound reader sees visions and hears music which float in from a magic realm" [Harper, 1928]. Compared with such prototypes, or with most twentieth-century English or American lyrics, the Alice frame poems seem bland indeed—competent minor poems at best and, at worst, symptoms of an exhausted tradition self-indulgently exploited.

It is necessary to concede the surface tameness of the poems in order to avoid defending them on the wrong grounds. I propose an alternative reading that I believe vindicates Carroll's inclusion of them as an integral part of the Alices It is not mere paradox to assert that their conventionality provides an interpretive clue. Modern readers who respond negatively do so, I would argue, because they either fail to recognize the conventions at work in the poems or, recognizing them, mistake Carroll's purpose in adopting them. Writing in a late Victorian climate for a special audience, Carroll adopted a form and idiom familiar to that audience, through parody in the dream tales but directly in the frame poems. While the parodics have been increasingly admired, his direct use of conventions in the frame material has been met in recent years with either indifference or dismay. Since we know that Carroll was a knowledgeable and careful craftsman, it is not unreasonable to assume that he employed a familiar lyric form and idiom for a particular purpose.

He chose the "Tennysonian" idiom, I would suggest, because his age regarded it as proper to "serious" poetry, and he thereby signaled to his audience the serious purpose underlying his books of "nonsense." His choice of a familiar form of the Romantic lyric likewise had a specific purpose: not to create self-standing lyrics but to frame a substantial narrative. In this respect the relevant prototype for the Alice frame poems would be the lyric frame in a poem like "The Eve of St. Agnes" or, to cite a more nearly contemporary prose analogue, the narrative frame provided by Lockwood's dreams in Wuthering Heights which transform the reader's sense of reality at the outset and color the reader's response to everything that follows. On the one hand, the Alice frame poems record an experience of lyric transformation that induces the dream tales that follow, the tales from this perspective serving as sustained extensions of an initial lyric moment. On the other hand, since the dream tales articulate and define the meaning of this initiating lyric experience, the poems remain incomplete, indeed virtually contentless, apart from the tales. It is the mutual interdependence of the frame poems and the dream tales that needs to be recognized if we are to understand why Carroll attached such importance to these poems, never allowing the Alices to appear without them and never allowing the frame poems themselves to appear separately.


…. The apparent anomaly of Wonderland ending with a prose narrative and Looking-Glass with a lyric poem disappears when we recognize that the Wonderland prose ending forms part of the outer-frame structure of which the three frame poems are complementary components. The schema also calls attention to the fact that both books contain inner as well as outer frames, each of which presents a waking Alice in a prose narrative of a kind we might find in a realistic novel. The structure of each book encompasses shifts in the narrative mode, allowing the narrative voice to move into and back out of the central dream tales by modulating from lyric, to realistic fiction, to dream vision, back through realistic fiction, to a final lyric statement.

This organizing structure is similar to that of "The Eve of St. Agnes," and what has been observed of Keats's poem—that "it is the way we are taken into the world of the poem, what happens to us there, and the way we are let out again that matters" [Sperry, 1973]—exactly fits our experience of the Alices, indicating the importance of all three phases of the complex experience that is built into the books' structure. The major difference is that the Alice frame structure initiates a double rhythm of entry into and withdrawal from the central experience. The reader undergoes at the outset a lyric transformation that anticipates the similar transformation that Alice experiences. A series of transitions—from the reader's ordinary reality to the reality of the restless boat children, through the everyday reality that bores the waking Alice, into the chaotic world of Alice's dream—gradually awakens the reader to a nightmare world that proves to be the reader's ordinary world transformed by a startling perception regarding that reality. Responding to this double rhythm, the reader, too, experiences a "dream within a dream." The central dream tales thus take on their full meaning in relation to this double frame, all three elements together—outer frame, inner frame, and dream tale—embodying in their reciprocal interactions the total vision of the Alice books.

I suggest below how the inner frames function within this larger structure. Here, however, I want to stress the answer to the question of why Carroll framed the Alices as he did: to establish in the reader a proper orientation toward the central narratives. The lyric effect of the tales themselves is evidenced by the frequent references commentators make to their dream quality…. Carroll's skill in adapting the poetic conventions of his day to serve his narrative strategy—to induce and reinforce in the reader a necessary state of "reverie"—emerges clearly from an examination of the frame poems individually and as they vary according to their place and function in the overall structure of the two books.


The most complex of the Alice frame poems is the prefatory poem to Wonderland, which, in occupying the privileged place of inauguration, plays a key role in alerting the reader to the special nature of the Alice experience. Through image, character, and event, the first six stanzas embody the fundamental lyric transaction, the seventh stanza constituting an epilogue to and commentary on what has transpired in the earlier stanzas, including the narrating of the tale that the reader is about to encounter. The opening three stanzas present an idyllic setting ("such an hour … such dreamy weather") that is rudely disrupted ("cruel voices") by the three children in the boating party (neutrally designated at this point as Prima, Secunda, and Tertia) demanding that their apparently languid and abstracted companion-attendant entertain them. (It is Secunda who specifically requests "nonsense.") The next three stanzas describe the silence that ensues as the spellbound children are caught up in the storyteller-companion's narrative of a dream child's adventures, interrupting only to demand more whenever the storyteller shows signs of growing weary. This simple plot concludes with the "crew's" merry return home, as the sun is setting, after the tale has been completed to everyone's satisfaction. Imagery of oars, wandering, a journey, and a return home suggests a quest motif, but the "wandering" of the actual boat is aimless, the children's efforts to guide its course futile. Their journey takes on purpose and significance, that is, only with the commencement of the storyteller's narrative. It is thus the imaginative journey on which the narrator's "dream-child" takes the children that carries through the quest motif and sends the children home happy.

What the plot of the poem stresses—once fate, in the guise of the children's request, has issued its command—is the storyteller's initial reluctance and subsequent weariness in attempting to respond to the children's relentless demands. We are made conscious of the speaker of the poem watching his storytelling self, presenting this self as a somewhat feckless, slightly comic figure. The child reader of Wonderland can both laugh at and perhaps feel a bit sorry for this imposed-on and seemingly well-intentioned figure but, like the children in the boat, can quickly forget him when the strange adventures of the dream child begin to unfold. Finally, the subdued silence and intense absorption of the original listeners set up in the reader appropriate expectations of excitement and pleasure. That the ending of each story—the dream child's and that of the boat children who hear her adventures—is a happy one can be inferred from the children's merriment as they return home. Exactly what they have heard and why they are "merry" the reader does not yet know, but even the harried storyteller-poet seems content with what has taken place.

These basic elements of plot, imagery, and characterization remain subordinate, however, to the central purpose, which derives from the poem's function as the point of entry into the main story. The lyrical quality and thrust of the poem, the eerie sense of transition the poem both embodies and effects, is essential: the experience is of a transformation that erases the barrier between the "real" and the "unreal." The poem engages us at this deeper level, modifying our approach and hence our response to the dream tale itself. The lyricizing of this originating moment endows a seemingly ordinary boating excursion, involving an inconsequential skirmish between three children and their languid companion, with a visionary quality. The poem achieves this transformation primarily through a subtle variation and interplay of verbal tenses, manifesting the characteristics of what has been aptly named the "lyric present" (Wright). A past event is rendered as though present ("we glide" "little arms are plied'). Simple physical gestures, in this case rowing, activate a timeless mental event (the emergence of the dream child). Present-tense verbs portentously carry the reader forward ("flashes forth," "hopes") even while the poet is looking to the past ("thus grew the tale"). We observe the poet watching himself in the act of creating ("And faintly strove that weary one / To put the subject by"). In stanza 6, place and time are finally elevated into a historical present ("and now the tale is done, / And home we steer"), the scene becoming endlessly renewable as the action resumes each time we read the poem. The crucial event appropriately occurs at the center of the poem, in the pivotal fourth stanza, in which the "dream-child moving through a land / Of wonders" mysteriously appears, leading the boat children (and the reader) across a threshold through a lyric estrangement that transforms the children and the storyteller alike. When the children cry, "It is next time," we find ourselves in the alogical and atemporal realm of desire, the realm in which the tale is both told and heard.

The seventh and final stanza of the poem is an epilogue in which the storyteller, who now becomes obliquely identified with the poet, directly addresses "Alice" (so named for the first time) in a more serious tone, gently instructing her regarding the proper disposition of the tale she has just heard. The concluding stanza concentrates the themes and transformations of the previous six stanzas in a single conventional image, the one rhetorical figure that Carroll allows himself in the poem:

The opening apostrophe, followed immediately by a shift to the imperative mood, sets off this stanza from the previous six. It is further set off by a slightly weightier cadence and by the relative complexity of the concluding simile. The two main protagonists now emerge: "Alice" as a transformed "Secunda" (the two names are linked by the common epithet gentle) and the poet as a transformed storyteller. It was Secunda who had asked for "nonsense," and it is to her, now renamed and thus identified with the dream child (whose name the reader will soon discover), that the poet turns, singling her out to suggest to her the implications of the adventures that had held her and her companions in thrall and sent them home happy. By placing the message in the actual present of the reader about to read the tale, the imperative mood establishes an implicit identity between the reader and the "Alice" addressed. The poet informs "Alice," in effect, that he has given (will give) her something more than the "nonsense" she has asked for (expects); thus he indicates at the outset what the original Under Ground ending foreshadowed: the narrator's desire to give Alice Liddell something more than a simple transcription of the original oral tales.

This something more is conveyed through the trope of the pilgrim's wreath, which distills the essence of the lyric action embodied by the poem as a whole and delicately hints at the motive (hitherto hidden) for the narrator's willingness to "hammer out" the story. This image integrates the several dimensions of time evoked in the preceding stanzas, extending backward to the past as a memorial of a sacred occasion ("pilgrim's wreath") that gave birth to the tale and forward as an image of the tale itself, a wreath of words woven into artistic form, a circular image of the promise of eternity and—in the present—a lover's gift, a bouquet ("wreath of flowers"), for all the Alices who will read Wonderland. Real time—linear, irreversible, redolent of death—is recognized in the poem: the sun is setting as the boat journey comes to an end, and the wreath itself is already "wither'd" even as the poet presents it. But the linear dimension along which the boating excursion takes place and the spontaneous appearance of the dream child at a particular moment in time are alike arrested in an oneiric timelessness, a vision with roots "twined / In Memory's mystic band." Thus the wreath embodies the three dimensions of linear time: a reminder of the meaning and identity that derive from memory's link with the past, a token of love that redeems the present and gives it value, and an emblem of an artwork with the power endlessly to renew a timeless present in which it always is next time. Properly understood, the concluding stanza declares, the tale will return the reader to the source ("a far-off land") of wholeness and health and sanity, to the psychic origins of the true human identity of which the dream child is an emblem.

We can now see that Carroll revised the Wonderland narrative ending to reinforce the lyric thrust of the prefatory poem. When Alice awakes from her dream, the brief inner frame, basically unchanged from the Under Ground version, gives a straight-forward three-sentence account of Alice's report of her dream to her older sister, after which she obediently runs off to tea, the narrator simply concurring in Alice's final feeling that the dream was "wonderful." In what follows, the topical allusions in Under Ground to the scene of the boating excursion are gone; the dream events, their violence now emphasized, are recapitulated by the sister; and the description of Alice reporting her dream is expanded to suggest that Alice herself has been brought alive by her dream (Alice now tells the dream instead of, as in Under Ground, listening to it being told). Moreover, two substantial added passages make explicit the older sister's acute awareness of how "dull" everyday reality seems, appearing to her in a new and disenchanting light, as "the confused clamour of the busy farm-yard." Her perception has been altered by her exposure to the perspective that informs a dream epitomized by the prefatory poem, in the emphatic rhyme words of its pivotal stanza, as a vision to pursue, a vision both new and true.

Carroll's retention of the Under Ground final paragraph virtually unchanged is equally instructive. The older sister instinctively links the motif of retelling the dream story with Alice's "simple and loving heart," clearly implying that the adventures deserve retelling because they reveal a simple and loving heart. In thus discerning in the behavior of Alice's dream self an exemplary manifestation of human identity and meaning, the older sister guides the reader in interpreting the dream. In her status as an "elder" she perceives a paradoxical warning that she must keep becoming a child, that a simple and loving heart requires perpetual maintenance in the face of the corrosive pressures of reality, whether these pressures take the form of biological laws of physical survival or, as in the later Looking-Glass, of cultural laws of social preferment. The Wonderland dream tale becomes, in this context, a reminder to the reader of both the need and the possibility of transcending the debilitating decorums of ordinary existence through a renewal of perception that is the central effect of Wonderland itself when the reader fully experiences it.


…. Turning now to the Looking-Glass prefatory poem, we can note first that, while the poem reflects a change in "Alice," its primary function is identical to that of the Wonderland frame: to evoke a past communal event by creating from it a lyric present that will guide the reader through the dream tale to follow. Like Wonderland, the tale is both a memorial to and a renewal of "happy summer days," a phrase that Carroll incorporates into the Looking-Glass poem from the prose ending of Wonderland. Since the originating event and its first fruits are already on record, as it were, in Wonderland, the poet can now content himself with reinvoking the appropriate mood by referring to the earlier story. The Looking-Glass poem is therefore less complex than its Wonderland counterpart, the major change deriving from the speaker's more intense time consciousness, rooted in his sense both that the originating event is retreating into the past and that "Alice" is growing away from him. The pressing reality of time is again acknowledged ("though time be fleet"), its emotional effect now overtly expressed ("the shadow of a sigh / May tremble through the story"), and this acute time consciousness makes the speaker's presence more directly felt and the poem's imperatives more urgent than in the Wonderland frame material. But if the sense of time irresistibly passing and of absence becoming permanent is strong, so also is the speaker's will to transcend time through a conscious renewal of the original event. Recognizing and accepting the inexorableness of time and change, the poem reasserts the transforming power of the dream child, whose renewable presence the second dream tale is about to enact.

Carroll employs a slightly modified version of the stanza used in the Wonderland prefatory poem, so that the Looking-Glass prefatory poem's form and language serve as a bridge between the two Alices. The poem's structure, unlike the simple plot-cum-epilogue of the Wonderland poem, is a series of strophic contrasts, each stanza juxtaposing the temporal and the atemporal, the passing and the enduring. In each stanza the quatrain renders the experience of transience and loss or of anticipated decline or separation; the falling trochaic beats at the end of the second and fourth lines convey a mild feeling of pathos, and each quatrain is balanced by a strong affirmation in the concluding couplet. From the confident invocation of the child muse in the opening lines ("Child of the pure unclouded brow / And dreaming eyes of wonder!") down to the end of the fourth stanza the rhythm oscillates between the sense of time past and passing, on the one hand, and the poet's will to affirm, on the other, with a diminuendo in a "though … yet still" movement that reaches a low point in the quiet, almost prosaic statement at the end of stanza 4: "We are but older children, dear, / Who fret to find our bedtime near." For the "melancholy maiden" addressed in these lines there is the early prospect of the "little death" of the marriage bed, and for maiden and poet alike the inevitable grave awaits. But a counterfeeling of hope, rooted in the poet's faith in the power of his visionary gift to redeem the time, emerges with fresh strength in the concluding couplets. The conclusion of stanza 5 invokes the power of the poet's art to protect the maiden against the madness raging outside "childhood's nest of gladness" ("The magic words shall hold thee fast: / Thou shalt not heed the raving blast"), and the terminal couplet of stanza 6 asserts the capacity of the dream tale to render time itself powerless to alter "Alice": "It shall not touch, with breath of bale, / The pleasance of our fairy-tale."

Imagery of frost and fire is related to the deep structure that underpins the stanzaic pattern of strophic oppositions that organize the poem. The natural fire of "summer suns" has departed, but it is replaced by the humanly created fire of a hearth, in the presence of which the poet can retrieve and renew a primordial "now" that is "enough," if the listener will but "hail" his gift and "listen" to what the story has to say. "Come, harken, then" is this poem's imperative. Generative of light and warmth, the fire dispels time's wintry depletions, serving as an emblem of the love that is openly declared in a couplet that simultaneously invites and expresses a hope for an appropriate response: "Thy loving smile will surely hail / The love-gift of a fairytale." Against the surrounding night of frost and blinding snow and the temporal prospect of an "unwelcome bed," the poet sets the image of the fire that Alice will find burning on the other side of the mirror in her dream. In offering this second tale as a "love-gift," the poet offers love itself as the only "nonsense" that can effectively confront the surrounding darkness.

The Looking-Glass end poem embodies the poet's final statement regarding the Alice experience. The poem functions, at one level, as the equivalent to the prose narrative ending of Wonderland, with the reader moved once again out of a nightmare that provokes Alice's violent reaction, through the self-questioning of the inner frame, into final lyric affirmation. It differs from the Wonderland ending in that the poet now addresses the reader directly instead of merely reporting the older sister's response, a change prepared for in a closing inner frame significantly more substantial than the Wonderland equivalent. This time the response to the dream tale is that of the awakened Alice, who poses a series of questions to herself that lead to a final question: was it she or the Red King who dreamed the dream? The dream, that is, has shaken Alice out of her preoccupation with attaining queenhood into serious reflection about the nature of reality. In the final sentence of the inner frame, the narrator addresses the question directly to the reader—"Which do you think it was?"—thereby drawing the reader into the dream and into Alice's radical question, a question that makes all human perspectives relative. In this context the Looking-Glass end poem implicitly offers the Alice experience as the answer to this ultimate metaphysical question, a "dream" that contains not only Alice, the Red King, and all the other dream characters but finally the reader and the poet as well.

Structurally, the seven-stanza Looking-Glass end poem symmetrically balances the seven-stanza prefatory poem to Wonderland, but Carroll now adopts a highly concentrated verse form, a rare trochaic trimeter in triplets, that gives to the end poem a terseness that reinforces the sense of closure. The initial letters of the twenty-one lines of the poem form an acrostic that places "Alice Pleasance Liddell" within the poem, figuratively incorporating Alice Liddell into the books that she inspired and thus assuring her of immortality. While the real Alice Liddell has grown up, the poet rescues and fixes his "Alice" by a process that had begun when Alice Liddell became Secunda and Secunda became Alice in the opening Wonderland poem, was carried forward in the allusion to pleasance in the middle Looking-Glass prefatory poem, and is now brought to completion in her total naming. Whereas the Alice of the Wonderland prefatory poem had been near and real and the Alice in the prefatory poem to Looking-Glass could still be imaginatively evoked, remaining at least virtually real and present, in the Looking-Glass end poem she has been transformed into poetry, the elements of her dismembered name becoming an integral part of the poetic vision that Alice Liddell had inspired long before by awakening the poet's love for her and for what she represented to him.

The opening stanzas go back one last time to the moment of origin, evoking through reverie the benign weather, the boat, and the eager listening children of that long-ago July "evening" (as the poet now autumnally calls it), and for two brief stanzas the scene is again dreamily present. But the third stanza scatters the memory of that moment with shocking finality:

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die,
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Then in the pivotal fourth stanza, in a stunning second reversal, the poet shifts to the lyric present, concentrating the entire Alice experience in a central three-line stanza that is as concise as it is definitive:

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

The dream Alice is finally apotheosized, fixed in the firmament of the poet's poetic universe, reigning there as an emblem of wholeness and integrity perpetually set over against all that we ordinarily assume to be "real." The fifth stanza, echoing the prose ending of Wonderland, anticipates the reembodiment of this lyric vision in works of verbal art capable of making the experience new again and again for "children yet" (both the children to come and those who remain childlike) who listen attentively. As time—that other and more transient dream—moves on, days go by, and other summers die, and we drift down the irreversible stream of time, we can, the concluding stanzas assert, by an act of poetic faith, linger in—await, harken to, renew, take hope from—the "golden gleam" embodied in narratives inspired by an extraordinary visionary experience.


In their conventionality and deceptive simplicity the Alice frame poems no doubt lend themselves to neglect or misreading. My point is simply that the central tales, however brilliantly achieved, are not the whole story of the Alices. The dream tales themselves simply interrogate a reality that is revealed, over and over, as incapable of yielding answers. Their purpose, unlike that of the usual fairy tale, is disenchantment with reality as we normally perceive it, that is, with the reality "grown-ups" accept and seek to exploit out of one or another neurotic impulse. Like certain types of myth, the Alice dream tales serve as inverse social charters, subverting our everyday notions of what is important, portraying worlds of potential madness that close in on Alice inexorably, leaving her nowhere to turn. The great danger to which Alice, like every other human being, is exposed (physical extinction is never felt to be an imminent threat in either dream) appears in the pathological behavior that she observes in the dream characters: cowardice in the White Rabbit, furious passion in the Queen of Hearts, calculated aggression in the Red Queen, evasive conformity in the White Queen, melancholy resignation in the Gnat, self-pity in the Mock-Turtle, insouciance in the Gryphon, arrogance in Humpty Dumpty, madness in the Hare and Hatter, sterile inventiveness in the White Knight, and so forth. The danger that imperils Alice as she grows up is a fatal loss of courage, simplicity, and openness through succumbing to the spiritual death represented in the various dehumanizing forms that she encounters in her dreams, which are ultimately messages from Alice to herself. Her heroism consists in preserving her innate decency against the confusions and dislocations of her dreams through the courtesy and courage that her sister perceives in her dream behavior and that she manifests in her steadfast refusal to submit to absurd or threatening situations.

Carroll's unsentimental view of human nature is pointed up in the realistic inner frames. They show the seeds of spiritual death to be latent even in the innocent Alice: at the opening of Wonderland in the form of boredom, self-pity, and an impulse to regressive withdrawal; in Looking-Glass in the form of role-playing, manic aggressiveness, and ambition ("Let's pretend we're kings and queens"). Even the child harbors disturbing potentialities ("Nurse! Do let's pretend that I'm a hungry hyaena, and you're a bone!"). The frame poems lead us into, through, and out of this dark central vision, providing the perspective that enables the reader to judge the "mistery of pain," as Joyce glosses the dream world of the Alices, and thereby converting the potential nightmare of ordinary existence into a profoundly instructive comedy. It is by their means that we cross the threshold from irreality to reality, from spiritual sleep to intense wakefulness, returning, if we have read the tales attentively, with our vision cleansed. To be awake in the usual sense, the Alice books tell us, is to dwell in an absurd kingdom absentmindedly presided over by the Red King sleeping his fatal sleep. To be truly alive we need to dream the Alice dream—to perceive, nurture, and transmit a vision rooted in the heart's deepest desire.

Karen Alkalay-Gut (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1872

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 children and adults; but, its continued popularity continues to puzzle. After all, if it is only nonsense, what distinguishes "Jabberwocky" from any other nonsense verse, from an obscure modern poem, or from formless gibberish? And if it is purely nonsense, then why is it read? The decision, then, to plumb the depths of "Jabberwocky" is based not on a desire to elicit meaning from the poem, but to determine how it manages to communicate despite its defiance of common language.

The first thing to strike the reader about the poem is not its senselessness but its grammatical and structural coherence. "Jabberwocky" follows known patterns. Not only can some sense be comprehended concerning the action from the grammatical logic, there is also a structural coherence in the poem, a structure that is made salient by the identity of the first and last verses of the poem. Even if there is no agreed meaning to the words, a sense to the setting and the plot, it is possible to say that whatever happens the poem ends where it begins, with the events in the middle having ultimately altered little.

Were this the only hint of a structural order, the poem would be too short and the words seemingly too insignificant to reach this conclusion. Yet, a glance at the adjacent verses—the second and the second last reveals other parallels:

In the former verse, an apparent father-figure speaks, warning the son away from the Jabberwock and the other accompanying monsters. In the latter verse, the same character welcomes the conquering hero on his victorious return. These are clearly equal but antithetical actions. Leaving aside meaning and plot for a moment, the fact that the hero is warned against an action and then praised for the same action by the same elder in itself indicates that in the intervening verses a "turn" has occurred, a "change of fortune."

The third and fifth verse illustrate the same parallelism and the same indication of a "change of fortune" but the implications are more immediate.

Although both verses describe an armed hero, the third verse is concerned with departure, contemplation, and pursuit, and the fifth with action uncomplicated by thought, followed by a return home. The fourth and middle verse, the center of the poem, is the encounter between hero and jabberwock.

It would be easy to conclude from this that Carroll has written a perfectly constructed mock heroic poem, using the structure of the epic, but enveloping it in nonsense in order to prove the ridiculousness of all the heroic tales. But it is also possible to conclude the opposite, that the nonsense takes on special significance in the light of the epic structure and lends it a higher meaning.

When J. R. R. Tolkien was defending Beowulf against the charge that the monsters detracted from the dignity of the epic, he noted, "It is not an accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone…." Tolkien's contention, that the epic quality of the poem is not diminished because of the seemingly ridiculous subject matter, but that the subject—monsters—becomes elevated to the level of significance because of the seriousness with which it is treated, is also applicable in "Jabberwocky."

Tolkien's theory was that the form of the heroic encounter with the forces of evil was a fixed one, that the features of both may change, but the nature and form of their essential conflict remains. The point of "Jabberwocky" is that if the form is in place, no amount of nonsense can divert the reader from the essential conflict. On the contrary, by using nonsense words, the poem deflects the reader from transient details and allows him to focus on the eternal human conflict with the forces of evil.

This is the purpose of the first verse, an introduction to a mythical atmosphere where there are no identifiable creatures to orient and fix the reader in a realistic world, where words mean nothing and the only order is grammatical. Animals and atmosphere are interchangeable. The nonsense serves a serious purpose here, to dislodge the reader from the fixed, limited world, and provide the possibility of limitless association. It is precisely the tight structure, parallel verses, and grammatical sense which allow for the freedom of non-sense.

Too often, Carroll's use of nonsense has been considered a secret kind of anagram, a trick, a "portmanteau." Using as great an authority as Humpty Dumpty, the words of "Jabberwocky" are dismissed with a "reasonable" explantation. "Brilling, " Humpty Dumpty explains in Through the Looking Glass, "means four o'clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin broiling things for dinner." "Slithy" is defined by the same source as "lithe and slimy" "Lithe is the same as active. You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up in one word." "Mimsy" by this definition, means "flimsy" and "miserable." But Carroll himself seemed to find the whole search for "portmanteau" meaning a joke on the adult reader, and when the newly formed Jabberwock magazine wrote to ask permission to use the word, wrote a preciously pretentious explanation of the word's etymology.

Mr. Lewis Carroll has much pleasure in giving to the editresses of the proposed magazine permission to use the title they wish for. He finds that the Anglo-Saxon word "wocer" or "Wocor" signifies "offspring" or "fruit." Taking "jabber" in its ordinary acceptation of "excited and voluble discussion," this would give the meaning of "the result of much excited discussion." Whether his phrase will have any application to the projected periodical, it will be for the future history of american literature to determine. Mr. Carroll wishes all success to the forthcoming magazine.

Concerning this scholarly etymological approach, John Ciardi comments: "Such word-hunting is pleasant enough as a game, and it is clearly founded in the author's own directive. Where, moreover, there is such good reason for believing the poem to be 'nonsense,' little will be served by denying its character as such. But what is 'nonsense'? Is it the same as 'non-sense'? Suppose that Carroll had written not a poem but an orchestral scherzo, a simple but brilliant piece of fun-music: Would one be so readily tempted to call such music 'nonsense'? Let the Wocky jabber as it will—and beautiful jabber it is—there is still a second sort of performance to which the appearance of 'non-sense' gives an especially apt flavor. And that second performance involves a great deal of 'sense,' if by 'sense' one means 'meaningful comment upon an identifiable subject.'" Ciardi does not elaborate, but his enjoinder to leave the nonsense as nonsense is an important first step.

The function of nonsense, at least in many of the works of Carroll, is to rid words and events of transient meaning and allow to events their full significance. This is apparently a natural perception for children and corrective measure for the jaded adult. The classical scholar, N. O. Brown, indicated it as a prescription:

To restore to words their full significance, as in dreams, as in Finnegans Wake, is to reduce them to nonsense, to get the nonsense or nothingness back into words, to transcend the antimony of sense and nonsense, silence and speech. It is a destruction of ordinary language, a victory over the reality-principle….

The function of the nonsense is disorientation and reorientation—removing the reader from the world of limited reality and specificity and placing him in a mythical context. Once, for example, we can rid ourselves of the need to define an adjective like "vorpal," we can understand that every hero has some weapon that is in some way outstanding, that makes him stronger than the average man, proves that he has been blessed by the gods, and leaves him vulnerable should it be removed from him. It is an acknowledgement that some form of supernatural help is necessary to cope with the magnitude of the human lot. A precise definition of "vorpal" as well as other undefined words, limits the poem, but an acceptance of the nonsense words facilitates the reading.

The first words to follow the scenic introduction are those of warning: "Beware the Jabberwock my son! / … / Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch!" This identifies the Jabberwock as the monster, the gratuitous predator with his evil associates. They are evil not by any standards of fluctuating morality—but more basically—because they should be shunned. Therefore, although we are not told what a "frumious" bandersnatch is, we assume its evil nature because the elder warns against it.

This verse also introduces the basic psychological conflict between generations. For although the "father" (his actual position to the son is rightfuly vague) and son agree on the danger involved, the older generation urges caution, suggesting that problems are eternal and cannot be solved but can only be coped with through avoidance.

The unwillingness of the son to disobey entirely the order of the elders of the uncertainty of his worth for such a ponderous task precipitates a period of meditation. As with the situation of most heroes, the action is not taken precipitously or offensively, but after consideration and under duress. From the Prophets who took on God's task with reluctance to Huck Finn, the major heroes of Western Civilization act only when they must, and then defensively.

Because the hero's greatness is measured by the greatness of his adversary, it is important that the battle scene be described, that there be a furious battle. Since it is only the outcome that is important, the nature of the battle or the means of the return home have no significance, and can be blurred with nonsense. Similarly the exact form of joy taken by the elder is insignificant—what counts is the social acceptance of the heroic act.

The final verse returns the scenes to the past of the intro duction—for although much has happened, nothing has changed. Heroes come and go and in an imperfectly understood environment only the danger of evil is clear and eternal. Though the Jabberwock is dead, the monsters of the second verse—the Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch—remain, and the possibilities are endless.

Carroll was not mocking or parodying the heroic tales, but, like a true mathematician, he was formulating them, bringing them down to their common denominator. This is the denominator at which most children begin to comprehend the great myths of society, and the one that adults, caught in the details of the immediate reality, forget.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803


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 biography of Lewis Carroll.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. The Story of Lewis Carroll. New York: Henry Schuman, 1951, 179 p.

An early biography of Lewis Carroll.

Hudson, Derek. Lewis Carroll: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1977, 270 p.

Contains brief, key biographical notes with black and white and color illustrations.

Lennon, Florence Becker. The Life of Lewis Carroll. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972, 440 p.

Biography of Lewis Carroll by a leading scholar.

Woolf, Virginia. "Lewis Carroll." In Aspects of Alice. Robert Phillips, Ed. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1971, 47-9.

An often-cited essay on Carroll.


Birns, Margaret Boe. "Solving the Mad Hatter's Riddle." Massachusetts Review (Autumn 1984): 457-68.

Birns traces the imagery of eating and cannibalism in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Blake, Kathleen. Play, Games and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974, 215 p.

In this book, Blake dissects and explains the games used throughout Lewis Carroll's works.

Cixous, Hélène. Translated by Marie Maclean. "Introduction to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and The Hunting of the Snark." New Literary History, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Winter 1982): 231-51.

Cixous presents a post-modernist reading of Through the Looking-Glass and The Hunting of the Snark.

Cohen, Morton N. "The Wonderful Day Gertrude Met the Snark." London Times, No. 54, 144 (July 20, 1974): 12.

Cohen praises Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark.

Crews, Judith. "Plain Superficiality." In Lewis Carroll. Harold Bloom, Ed. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, 83-102.

Crews examines Carroll's games and approaches using the theories of reasoning employed in his books.

de la Mare, Walter. "On the Alice Books." In Aspects of Alice, Robert Phillips, Ed. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1971, 57-65.

A noteworthy and often-cited essay on Carroll's children's novels.

——. Lewis Carroll. London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1932, 67 p.

Discusses the rise of Nonsense poetry in the early nineteenth century, comparing Carroll to Edward Lear and Charles Lamb.

Earnest, Ernest. "'The Walrus and the Carpenter.'" The CEA Critic, Vol. XXVI, No. 3 (December 1963): 1, 6-7.

Earnest suggests that Carroll's work was highly influenced by folklore and myth as much as it was by psychology.

Gardner, Martin. "A review of The Annotated Snark." Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,175 (February 15, 1963): 111.

Martin Gardner reviews Carroll's The Annotated Snark, doubting that it was Carroll's intent to convey the philosophical issues which literary critics now read into it.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. "You May call it Nonsense: Extract of a talk given to the Society on 6 January 1970." Jabberwocky, No. 3 (March 1970): 9-12.

Green summarizes several views on Carroll's nonsense poetry.

Grotjahn, Martin. "About the symbolization of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." In Aspects of Alice, Robert Phillips, Ed. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1971, 308-315.

Grotjahn discusses the phenomenon of critical analysis of the perceived symbolism in Carroll's classic book.

Haight, M.R. "Nonsense." The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Summer 1971): 247-56.

Haight argues in favor of a serious interpretation of nonsense literature and recaps critical arguments that support his position.

Livingston, Myra Cohn. "But Is It Poetry?" Horn Book, Vol. LI, No. 6 (December 1975): 571-80.

Livingston uses Carroll's parody "Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur" to argue against publishing poetry written by children.

Otten, Terry. "After Innocence: Alice in the Garden." In Lewis Carroll: A Celebration. Edward Guiliano, Ed. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982, 51-60.

A readable essay on psychoanalytic approaches to Alice and the Victorian child.

Parry, Edward Abbot. "The Early Writings of Lewis Carrroll." The Cornhill Magazine. Vol. 5 new series, No. 334 new series (April 1924) 455-68.

Parry praises Carroll's early work, and contradicts a few minor points in Collingwood's biography of Carroll.

Root, E. Merrill. "A review of The Hunting of the Snark." American Opinion, Vol. IX, No. 4 (April 1966): 73-82.

Root argues that The Snark is a clever attack on collectivism and other socialist principals.

Sibley, Brian. "The Poems to 'Sylvie and Bruno.'" Jabberwocky, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer 1975): 51-8.

Sibley discusses the poetic and prose qualities of portions of Sylvie and Bruno.

Smith, William Jay. "A review of The Annotated Snark." New York Times Book Review, Vol. CXII, No. 38, 284 (November 18, 1962): 26.

Smith gives a favorable review of the book.

Sutherland, Robert D. Language and Lewis Carroll. Paris: Mouton, 1970, 190 p.

A detailed, complex study of the intricacies of Carroll's language.

Additional coverage of Carroll's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 53; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 2, 18; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 18, 163; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; Junior DISCovering Authors; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Yound Adults; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children.

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Carroll, Lewis (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)