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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 1962.

The Jabberwock

The Jabberwock

Introduction and Excerpt from "Jabberwocky"

The sequel to Lewis Carroll's classic 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: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, 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 “Jabberwocky” at the Poetry Foundation.

Reading of "Jabberwocky"

Commentary on the First Quatrain

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.

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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 badgereque 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 responsible for Alice's finding that the poem gave her ideas.

Function words such a "'twas," "and," "the," "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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on July 09, 2016:

Thanks, Lori! That poem could use even more analysis. I seemed to just scratch the surface for now.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on July 09, 2016:

You're welcome, John. It's a fascinating poem and more instructive than might seem at first. "Meaningful nonsense" is definitely an interesting concept. Thanks for your response, John.

Lori Colbo from United States on July 09, 2016:

Love this poem which I've e read in poetry classes in years past. You did a great job translating it here. Nice work.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on July 09, 2016:

Jabberwocky is a classic among nonsense poetry. I have occasionally dabbled in it myself, but nothing of this standard of meaningful nonsense. Thanks for sharing.

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