Along with his contemporary, the great painter and poet Edward Lear (1812-88), Lewis Carroll, who was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98), is one of the greatest Victorian purveyors of nonsense literature. Unlike Lear, Carroll poured his nonsense into fiction as well as some of the most famous and best-loved poems in the English language, so below we introduce eight of Lewis Carroll’s best novels and poems, to be enjoyed by ‘children of all ages’.
You can buy all of the works listed below in The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll.
Along with Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll was the master of Victorian nonsense literature, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is his best-known book. First published in 1865, the story originated in a boat trip that took place in Oxford on 4 July 1862, on which Charles Dodgson (the real name of Lewis Carroll) entertained the children of his friend Henry Liddell – children who included Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in the book – with a humorous story involving illogical conversations and nonsensical events. The Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat have been firm favourites with readers of all ages ever since.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said,
‘To come and spoil the fun …’
A little nonsense now and then, as a wise man once said, is relished by the wisest men. And so this fine beach-poem, and first-rate example of nonsense verse from Lewis Carroll, earns its place here. In ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ the two title characters, while walking along a beach, find a bed of oysters and proceed to eat the lot.
But we’re clearly in a nonsense-world here, a world of fantasy: the sun and the moon are both out on this night. The oysters can walk and even wear shoes, even though they don’t have any feet. No, they don’t have feet, but they do have ‘heads’, and are described as being in their beds – with ‘bed’ here going beyond the meaning of ‘sea bed’ and instead conjuring up the absurdly comical idea of the oysters tucked up in bed.
‘You are old, Father William,’ the young man said,
‘And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?’
Lewis Carroll hated children’s literature which moralised, and this is probably one reason why his Alice books remain such firm favourites, because whereas moral values often change from century to century, nonsense doesn’t tend to age at the same rate.
This poem (also from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) is well-known, but what is now largely forgotten is the poem it parodies: Robert Southey’s 1799 poem ‘The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them’, a pious poem which begins, ‘You are old, Father William, the young man cried, / The few locks which are left you are grey …’
4. ‘The Crocodile’.
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
Another poem from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, this poem (variously known as ‘The Crocodile’ or by its first line) is another parody of an earlier well-known children’s poem: in this case, another overly pious eighteenth-century poem ‘How doth the little busy bee’ by Isaac Watts.
Subtitled And What Alice Found There, this book was the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was first published in 1871; according to Alice Liddell, the young girl who inspired Lewis Carroll to write the Alice books, Through the Looking-Glass had its origins in the tales about the game of chess that Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) used to tell Alice and her sisters when they were learning to play the game.
Alice finds herself transported into a looking-glass world which is arranged as a giant chessboard, but with various other features, such as gardens of flowers, present. She finds a poem which she cannot read (see ‘Jabberwocky’ below), because its words are back-to-front. Many of the subsequent ‘moves’ in the novel actually follow the rules of the game of chess (for instance, the Queens tend to move about looking-glass world a lot, while their husbands, the Kings, largely remain where they are throughout the novel), and the characters – including the Red Queen and White Queen, are chess pieces come to life.
We have analysed this classic novel here.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe …
Another classic poem by Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’ is perhaps the most famous piece of nonsense verse in the English language. And the English language here is made to do some remarkable things, thanks to Carroll’s memorable coinages: it was this poem that gave the world the useful words ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’, both examples of ‘blending’ or ‘portmanteau words’.
As we explain in the summary of the poem provided in the above link, ‘Jabberwocky’ may be nonsense verse but it also tells one of the oldest and most established stories in literature: the ‘overcoming the monster’ narrative and the ‘voyage and return’ plot.
‘Just the place for a Snark!’ the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
‘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 …’
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?
8. Sylvie and Bruno.
This 800-page novel, published in two volumes between 1889 and 1893, is Carroll’s last great work – although how ‘great’ it is has been the matter of some comment. Indeed, it is generally viewed as something of a failure. It certainly was in terms of its sales: it sold just 13,000 copies, which, given Carroll’s literary reputation and success by the 1890s, was a relative flop.
Here at Interesting Literature, we are in a minority in seeing value in this later work of Carroll’s. It’s a compelling mixture of science, poetry, parody, plays, psychical research, romance, and silliness, albeit with the occasional dull spell. It is also frequently funny, too.
You can buy all of these classic Lewis Carroll works in one handy and affordable volume, which we here at IL Towers own and which we would heartily recommend for all your nonsense needs: The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll.