‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’ is a poem by Lewis Carroll, one of the two acknowledged masters of Victorian nonsense verse (along with Edward Lear). Although the poem is among his most popular, after ‘Jabberwocky’, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, and The Hunting of the Snark, its curious origins are less well-known.
Before we offer a few words of analysis about the poem, it might be worth recapping the words to ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’, a poem of two stanzas.
How Doth the Little Crocodile
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’ was first published Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book which grew out of the story Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (the real name of Lewis Carroll) told to the Liddell children, who included Alice Liddell. He told Alice and her siblings the story during a boat ride they took together on 4 July 1862.
‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’ is recited by Alice in Chapter 2 as she attempts to recall another, pre-existing poem which was often taught to Victorian children (of which more below).
A number of Carroll’s best-known and best-loved poems from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were actually parodies of famous poems already in existence. However, the original poems are now far less famous than they were, and Carroll’s send-ups of the originals remain far better-known. For instance, another poem which appears in the novel, ‘You Are Old, Father William’, 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 …’
Just as Southey’s poem is pious and moralistic, and Carroll pricks this piety by writing a poem about an old man who – against all the advice of those around him – insists on standing on his head, so ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’ parodies another popular poem of the age. In this case, ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’ is a parody of the moralistic poem ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’ (1715) by Isaac Watts:
How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!
How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.
In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.
In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.
The bee is a symbol of industry and hard work, and a model for all good children to follow. Riffing on the old proverb that ‘the Devil finds work for idle hands to do’, Watts’s poem extols the virtues of the bee in building its own home or ‘cell’, and storing the beeswax it produces (demonstrating frugality and prudence).
By contrast, Carroll’s poem is about a cunning and predatory crocodile that lures fish into its mouth, so good, honest work is cast out and replaced by trickery and deception. Carroll didn’t like children’s books that moralised or talked down to their young readers, and ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’ – in subverting the didactic purpose of Watts’s poem – shows how he valued mischief and even an air of danger in his writings for children, rather than moral purity and piety.
The predatory nature of the crocodile in Carroll’s poems also brings home another common feature found in the Alice poems. Consider the ‘jaws that bite’ and ‘claws that snatch’ possessed by the fictional Jabberwock in ‘Jabberwocky’, for instance. This air of subversion and chaos is also found in some of Edward Lear’s limericks from the 1840s, in which, for instance, an old man is beaten with his own gong. Nonsense literature is frequently amoral and carries an ‘edge’ of transgression to it.
‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’ is written in the regular iambic metre that Watts used for his poem. Iambic metre means that an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed, i.e. ti-TUM, ti-TUM, and so on. More specifically, Carroll’s poem is written in lines of alternate iambic tetrameter (i.e. four iambs per line, or eight syllables) and trimeter (three iambs per line, or six syllables):
How DOTH the LIT-tle CROC-o-DILE
Im-PROVE his SHIN-ing TAIL
This is the same as the metre used in traditional ballads, and is fairly traditional – but obviously Carroll’s main purpose in using this form is to draw a comparison between his subversive poem and Watts’s original.