Five of the best pieces of Carrollian nonsense selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Lewis Carroll (1832-98) is probably best-remembered for his two novels for children, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The latter of these two books contained the classic nonsense poem, ‘Jabberwocky’, and Carroll’s poetry can easily match that of his fellow Victorian nonsense-maker, Edward Lear for sheer fun and zaniness. Below we’ve picked what we think are Lewis Carroll’s five best poems, complete with some information about them.
‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. This poem is recited by the fat twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Some commentators have interpreted the predatory walrus and carpenter – who feed on the oysters they find on a beach – as representing Buddha (because the walrus is large) and Jesus (the carpenter being the trade Jesus was raised in). It’s unlikely that this was Carroll’s intention, not least because the carpenter could easily have been a butterfly or a baronet instead (he actually gave his illustrator, John Tenniel, the choice, so it was Tenniel who selected ‘carpenter’).
‘A Boat beneath a Sunny Sky’. Carroll loved playing around with language, of course, and one form of poem he enjoyed writing was the acrostic, where the first letter of the poem’s lines spells out a word or phrase. Here, ‘A Boat beneath a Sunny Sky’ spells out the full name of his ‘muse’ for the first Alice book, Alice Pleasance Liddell.
‘The Mad Gardener’s Song’. This poem is less famous than some of the others on this list, largely because it first appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno books (1889-93), which met with less critical and popular acclaim than the Alice books. Nevertheless, it’s great fun, focusing on a man who confuses a letter from his wife with an elephant practising on a fife, and a hippo for a banker (well, who hasn’t?).
The Hunting of the Snark. Subtitled ‘An Agony in 8 Fits’, The Hunting of the Snark is the longest Carroll poem on this list, and one of his finest pieces of nonsense verse. Variously interpreted as an adventure story, an allegory about the search for happiness (Carroll’s own interpretation of his poem), and even a ‘tragedy’ (by the poem’s illustrator Henry Holiday), the poem follows the crew who set sail in search of the mysterious creature known as the Snark. Critics and readers have also speculated about the significance of the number 42 in the poem (Carroll’s age when he began writing it): was this where Douglas Adams got his answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything?
‘Jabberwocky’. This classic tale of monster-slashing wrapped up into a short nonsense poem is probably Lewis Carroll’s finest poem. It gave us two now commonplace words – ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’ – and also inspired the name of a computer program that coins new words. Carroll actually began writing the poem that became ‘Jabberwocky’ in his early twenties, but it appeared in the 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass, where Humpty Dumpty provides Alice with an explanation about what it means.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Illustration for ‘Jabberwocky’ by John Tenniel, 1871; Wikimedia Commons.