Interesting facts about the surprising history of Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Who is being described? Born in the north-west of England near Manchester, he was a literary man who was also noted in his day for his interest in science and mathematics. In terms of physical appearance, he was known for being particularly tall, considerably taller than average. He gave us Tweedledum and Tweedledee, pioneered a system of code-writing, wrote one of his most famous works for a young girl, and appears to have had an interest in the occult.
The above may sound like a description of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, but in fact we’re talking about John Byrom (1692-1763), English poet and the real originator of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Byrom was born in Manchester on 29 February 1692, and would grow up to be a notable poet and hymn-writer, principally remembered now for writing ‘Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn’, supposedly as a Christmas gift for his daughter. He also pioneered geometric (modern) shorthand, later perfected by Isaac Pitman.
But perhaps these days Byrom’s greatest legacy is the one he bequeathed to subsequent writers, particularly Lewis Carroll: Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But where did the characters come from?
Well, aptly for a hymn-writer, Byrom took his cue from the world of music. In particular, Byrom invented Tweedledum and Tweedledee in a poem that satirised and mocked two rivalling schools of music at the time. (‘Tweedle’ from twiddle, as in to tweak an instrument.) Byrom’s poem runs:
So, the two names first appear in a poem devised to highlight the petty disagreements between two musicians and their followers, with the names designed to suggest that very little actually separates the two factions, in practice. So although the modern reader may most readily associate Tweedledum and Tweedledee with Lewis Carroll, who used the names for the two fat brothers who appear in Through the Looking-Glass, it is to John Byrom that we owe a debt for (supposedly) originating the names, and for suggesting the idea of two people whose differences are not so great as they would have us believe.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee also appear in an ‘elegy’ by Peter Pindar, the pseudonym of satirist John Wolcot (1738-1819): ‘Poor Tweedledum must also taxes pay, / Must bend to Puff, or woe to Tweedledum!’ This poem also predates Carroll’s 1871 novel, and is used with a similar meaning to Byrom’s original.
Five years after the pair showed up in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the anti-war nursery rhyme ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ was published in Extraordinary Nursery Rhymes (1876):
But it was Carroll who would really fix the twins in the popular consciousness, of course. Carroll was obviously aware of the nursery rhyme (and may also have known Byrom’s original epigram), but in Through the Looking-Glass, the brothers agree to have a battle but never actually go through with it. Although it’s often assumed that the two characters in Carroll’s novel are twins, they might alternatively be viewed as mirror-images of each other, especially since they complete each other’s sentences.
We’ve discussed Carroll’s fascinating life and literary achievement in our Interesting Facts about Lewis Carroll.
Image: Tenniel illustration of Tweedledum (left) and Tweedledee (right), cropped to show only the two characters, excluding Alice. Author: John Tenniel, 1871. Wikimedia Commons.