Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Little Jabberwocky Goes A Long Way

Since I have really nothing to say (or rather too much to say that there is a logjam in my head) I'll just drop in an essay I wrote in my first year of uni about Jabberwocky, mostly cos I promised Beatrix's awesome stepdaughter that I would).

'Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
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!

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought-
So rested by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He came galumphing back.

'And has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day, Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe.


Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem that parodies epic poetry and medieval Romance, seems to be the most pulled apart and psycho-analysed text of its genre. A string of writers, concerned with what Carroll could have possible meant by the nonsense words sprinkled fairly liberally into a structured, recognisable form, wove a web of interpretations to suit their particular pet theories. To the Freudians, the reclusive Oxford don was hinting at his repressed sexuality. To the limguists, he had invented a new form of art, or at least perfected what was formerly only for children, for the enjoyment of adults as well. Many pointed out that adults, as well as children, read and enjoy Carroll, though possibly for different reasons. To Carroll himself, Jabberwocky was simply a flight of nonsensical fancy and nobody could have been more surprised than himself at the amount of interest it generated. When a reader wrote to him asking him what he had meant, he replied in a letter:

I'm very much afraid I didn't mean anything but nonsense! Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant.

He was being prophetic indeed, suggesting the "death of the author" more than half a century before Roland Barthes wrote his famous book of a similar title.

This essay seeks to suggest that if one writes nonsense in a plausible and artistic enough manner, one will fool the world into thinking there must be a hidden meaning running through the text. The height of nonsense would be when it is presented in the trappings of sense.


Jabberwocky appeared in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass which was published by Macmillan in 1871. The opening stanza first appeared in Misch-Masch, the last of a series of private little "periodicals" that young Carroll wrote, illustrated and hand-lettered for the amusement of his brothers and sisters.

The text is divided into two sections - an identical opening and closing stanza and five middle stanzas which seem to have no relation with each other. It appears to be about a quest where the young hero kills a monster, but apart from that, making out the meaning is a matter of intelligent guesswork. As Alice herself remarked on reading the poem:

Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas - only I don't know exactly what they are! However somebody killed something: that's clear at any rate-

Carroll then introduces Humpty Dumpty (of nursery rhyme fame) as a kind of burlesque professor who decodes the poem for Alice in his own inimitable way. His explanations, however, only serve to confuse her further.

As Patricia Meyers Spacks said in her essay Logic and Language in Through The Looking Glass, his interpretation, reducing the first and last stanzas to an account of animals resembling badgers, lizards and corkscrews, going through various gyrations in the plot of land around a sundial during the part of the afternoon when one begins broiling things for dinner - destroys the poem.

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

David Buchbinder asserted in his book Contemporary Literary Theory and the Reading of Poetry that looking at the poem's structure and design will help readers figure out the meanings of strange words like brillig, by relating it to their experience of language. He pointed out that the word wabe for instance appears in the adverbial phrase of place (in the wabe) suggesting a location. The plural mome raths, combined with the verb-type word outgrabe suggests that these are creatures engaged in activity of some kind.

However, where in other poetic texts, the actual meanings and shades of meaning of words are critical in understanding the text, in a Nonsense poem such as Jabberwocky, their importance tends to recede into the background as the overall emotion evoked by the poem takes centrestage. As Alice said, it fills her head with ideas, though she is not exactly sure what. Therefore, its strength seems to lie in what it suggests rather than what it is.

Buchbinder said the first stanza, which is repeated at the end, may mean a variety of different things. Firstly, they may just provide the frame for real action set out in the middle stanzas. In this case, the stanza is both introductory and closural. Another theory he postulated, is that these stanzas are completely irrelevant to the middle five stanzas. Buchbinder, however, liked his third suggestion best, which was that the two stanzas were ironic commentary on the actions described in the central ones. This is because, if the world continued the same after the quest, there was not really much point to it in the first place. It seems to suggest the futility of this quest in particular and all quests, in general.

The desire to tack on a meaning to the poem, which Carroll himself admitted, had none, seems to stem from the fact that the words were put into a recognisable structure and Carroll used enough sensible words to fool people into thinking that there must be some meaning hidden under the layers of rubbish. Carroll seemed to be following the advice of one of his characters, the Duchess in Alice in a Wonderland to take care of the sounds and let the meanings take care of itself.

A more contemporary version of this would be American cartoonist Gary Larson's cow tools, which some critics have gone so far as to facetiously describe as one of the great mysteries of life. Larson drew a cow standing in front of her tool table with an array of tools spread out in front of her. It would have simply been taken as nonsense if one of the tools had not looked like a crude saw. Readers, seeing that, immediately assumed that the other tools must also be representations of actual tools and proceeded to burst their blood vessels trying to figure out which. Larson, who touched on the cow tools dilemma in The Prehistory of the Far Side: A 10th Anniversary Exhibit, said he had never received so many letters for any one cartoon before. He even received letters from some official societies who told him that not even their cleverest members had been able to guess which tools he meant. Like Carroll, he was bewildered by all the fuss. He insisted he had not meant anything by this cartoon and that the tools were not meant to represent any human tools. In retrospect, he admitted that his mistake had been in making at least one of them, resemble something which was recognisable, giving rise to the assumption that they all should be.

What did Carroll contribute to language and literature? Realistically, he can be called the Father of Nonsense, as a genre. Before he came long with his two Alice books, Nonsense was considered quite low-brow. It certainly did not fall under the category of Art. In the Alice books, Carroll remained scrupulously logical in the little things, while playing havoc with concepts we tend to take for granted like time and space. For instance, when Alice tells the Mad Hatter that she cannot have "more tea" because she had none to begin with, he simply replies that she must mean she cannot have less, because it is possible to have "more than nothing". In Wonderland, the Mad Hatter is doomed to an eternal tea-time because he was "murdering time" while reciting a poem. In Through the Looking Glass, the only way to get somewhere is to walk away from it. There too, one remembers what is going to happen two weeks from now, rather than what happened yesterday.

With Carroll's contributions, nonsense as a genre came of age. Elizabeth Sewell, in her essay Lewis Carroll and T.S. Eliot as Nonsense Poets which was published in 1958 pointed out that much of our literature - poetry and criticism - and most of our philosophy, are shaped on Nonsense principles. She said people are slow to recognise the importance of Nonsense, and by extension, that of Carroll.

The ambiguity that he brings forward in his created world seems to run through most forms of art now. They refuse definition and will not be stereotyped into any one category. A good example of this would be Meredith Brook's Bitch, from the aptly titled album Blurring the Edges which despite its title, is not a rude song, but simply a woman's attempt to elude the usual stereotypes.

I'm a little bit of everything
all rolled into one

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I'm your hell, I'm your dream
I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way.

Sewell pointed out that contrary to popular belief the genre of Nonsense has strict rules.

The aim is to construct with words a logical universe of discourse, meticulously selected and controlled; within this playground the mind can manipulate its material, consisting largely of names of things and members.

But once one has created this logical world, one goes for it with a battering ram, leaving only enough sense for it to retain some semblance of order. Sewell pointed out that all tendencies towards synthesis are taboo - in the mind, imagination and dream; in language, the poetic and metaphorical elements, in subject matters, everything to do with beauty, fertility and all forms of love, sacred or profane. In fact, she said, whatever is unitive, proves to be the great enemy of Nonsense, to be excluded at all costs.


Basically, the discourse of our cultures dislikes chaos and confusion and tends to move towards order. It structures the world presented to it, trying to make out trends where none exist, from discrete events; for everything should mean something. It is this tendency that causes it to reject outright nonsense that is presented as nonsense. If Carroll had simply filled Jabberwocky with words that did not make any sense in a totally unrecognisable form, chances are it would be around today, fresh and oft-quoted, studied, parsed and decoded to mean a variety of different things. By presenting Jabberwocky as a pseudo-logical parody of a quest, embedded within a dream, he succeeded in immortalising it. More than a century later, he still has numerous writers trying to figure out what he meant. This then, is the power of ambiguity, or of Nonsense disguised as Sense.

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