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Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1961.

Introduction and Excerpt from "Jabberwocky"

The sequel to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland titled Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There contains a poem that seems to spew forth utter nonsense. When Alice finds a poem in a book, she has difficulty reading it because it is displayed backwards.

After holding the book to a mirror, she discovers that she still cannot understand the poem. However, she does claim that she seemed get ideas from the verse. The poem to which Alice refers is "Jabberwocky," which has become the most noted nonsense verse in the English language.

Looking closely at this so-called nonsense poem, the reader discovers a treasure trove of logic and sense. Humpty Dumpty explains the verse to Alice, and as he does so, he reveals that the poem is anything but nonsense in the ordinary definition of the term “nonsense."

"Jabberwocky" consists of seven quatrains. Each quatrain has the same rime scheme: ABAB. The poem actually tells of an event: a father warns his son about the dangers of the Jabberwock, who has biting jaws and claws that catch his prey.

The son then goes out looking to slay the Jabberwock. Not only does the son simply slay the Jabberwock, he cuts off its head and triumphantly returns home. The father welcomes his son's victory and is quite proud of the youngster.

(Please note: Dr. Samuel Johnson introduced the form "rhyme" into English in the 18th century, mistakenly thinking that the term was a Greek derivative of "rhythmos." Thus, "rhyme" is an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form "rime," please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Excerpt from Jabberwocky

(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

To read the rest of the poem, please visit the “Jabberwocky” at the Poetry Foundation.

Reading of "Jabberwocky"

Commentary on the First Quatrain of "Jabberwocky"

Likely the most important nonsense poem in the English language, Lewis Carroll’s "Jabberwocky" serves to exemplify how language works and how it revitalizes itself.

First Quatrain of "Jabberwocky"

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

In the first quatrain, the narrator begins a description of the scene which includes the time of day. Humpty Dumpty explains that "brillig" sets the time at 4 p.m., the time of day when folks are "broiling" things for dinner.

"Slithy toves" are simply lithe and slimy badgeresque creatures. Humpty Dumpy further enlightens Alice, telling her that "slithy" is a "portmanteau," which is a resulting word from combining two other words. The result of "lithe" and "slimy" is "slithy."

"Toves" is a badgeresque type of critter, but it is also like a lizard and a corkscrew whose sustenance is mainly cheese. Thus "toves" remains a more complex term, likely undetectable by the layman.

Humpty Dumpty continues his lecture, stating that "gyre" and "gimble" indicate a being that goes round and round as a gyroscope would, drilling holes as a gimlet would. He explains that "wabe" is an area of grass surrounding a sundial. A strange sundial it is, in that it goes out in either direction.

Another portmanteau word is "mimsy" which combines flimsy and miserable. Birds that resemble living mops are "borogoves." Humpty Dumpty remains uncertain about the meaning of "mome," but he guesses it may be a contraction of "far from home.”

Green pigs are "raths," while "outgrabe" represents the past tense of "outgribe," which indicates a sneeze while one whistles and bellows. So a somewhat sensible translation of the first quatrain of "Jabberwocky" might be:

It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and the lithe
and slimy badger-lizard- corkscrew-like creatures
Did go round like a gyroscope and make holes
like a gimlet in the grassy area around the sundial:
All flimsy and miserable were the living-mop-like birds,
And the far from home green pigs sneezed
between whistling and bellowing.

The Way Language Works

"Jabberwocky" remains a fun poem, but it also teaches an important function of language. Language is made up of content words and function words.

While the poem uses nonsense terms for the content words, the function words remain as in traditional language; this fact is partly responsible for Alice's finding that the poem gave her ideas.

Function words such a "'twas," "and," "the," and "in" along with a number of traditional content words renders the verse's narrative understandable. For example, "Beware the Jabberwock, my son!"

The command alerts the reader that the Jabberwock is quite a dangerous fellow, and along with the completely understandable English, "The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!" solidifies the narrative.

When the narrative states, "He took his vorpal sword in hand," the listener understands the act without knowing the meaning of "vorpal." While telling a story about slaying a monster, the narrator accomplishes much more than merely spewing nonsense terminology.

Modern English is filled with examples of portmanteau terms: tangelo, sheeple, spork, edutainment, motel, docudrama, cyborg, brunch, workaholic, and many others, which likely sounded nonsensical the first time they appeared.

This important "nonsense" poem as explained by Humpty Dumpty, however, demonstrates the vital functioning of the English language, which further demonstrates the strength of that language.

A Brief Life Sketch of Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll is the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He was born to Charles Dodgson and Frances Jane Lutwidge on January 27, 1832, in Daresbury, a small parish in Cheshire, England. He was the third child of the couple's eleven children.

Carroll demonstrated an early interest in writing.

Attending the Richmond School, in 1845 at the age of thirteen, Carroll created a family magazine titled Useful and Instructive Poetry for the purpose of entertaining his younger brother, Wilfred Dodgson, who was seven years old at the time, and for his sister Louisa, who was only five.

Carroll's nephew Stuart Dodgson Collingwood remarked in The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (1898) that Uncle Charles "invented the strangest diversions for himself ... made pets of the most odd and unlikely animals, and numbered certain snails and toads among his intimate friends."

One of Carroll's instructors at the Richmond School has observed that Carroll had a penchant for "creativity in replacing the inflexions of nouns and verbs, as detailed in our grammars." That instructor, Dr. Tate, tried to assure Carroll's parents that the boy would "outgrow" such nonsense.

However, as the Jabberwocky attests, Carroll was able to parley his deficiency with "our grammars" into classic literature. And his odd imagination assured that his fame for writing children's literature would astound a doubting world.

In a sermon, Dean Paget once remarked about Carroll's talent,

The brilliant, venturesome imagination, defying forecast with ever fresh surprise; the sense of humour in its finest and most naive form; the power to touch with lightest hand the undercurrent of pathos in the midst of fun; the audacity of creative fancy, and the delicacy of insight—these are rare gifts; and surely they were his.

In 1850, Carroll began attending Christ Church, University of Oxford, and it was expected that he would follow in his father's footsteps and become a clergyman.

In 1861, he was ordained, but because he felt unsuited for the priesthood, he did not enter that profession.

However, Carroll did become a distinguished teacher and lecturer and was able to earn his living pursuing his interests in the life of the imagination even as he lectured, studied, and instructed students privately.

On January 14, 1898, Lewis Carroll died, after having contracted a severe case of influenza. He left behind a valuable canon of literary works that have kept his name at the forefront of the literary world.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes