A haunted reading of Lewis Carroll's classic poem
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"Jabberwocky" is a nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll and included in his 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, a sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The book tells of Alice's adventures within the back-to-front world of a looking glass.
In an early scene in which she first encounters the chess piece characters White King and White Queen, Alice finds a book written in a seemingly unintelligible language. Realising that she is travelling through an inverted world, she recognises that the verses on the pages are written in mirror-writing. She holds a mirror to one of the poems, and reads the reflected verse of "Jabberwocky". She finds the nonsense verse as puzzling as the odd land she has passed into, later revealed as a dreamscape.
"Jabberwocky" is considered one of the greatest nonsense poems written in English. Its playful, whimsical language has given English nonsense words and neologisms such as "galumphing" and "chortle".
Origin and publication
A decade before the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the sequel Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll wrote the first stanza to what would become "Jabberwocky" while in Croft on Tees, close to Darlington, where he lived as a child, and printed it in 1855 in Mischmasch, a periodical he wrote and illustrated for the amusement of his family. The piece was titled "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry" and read:
Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.
Carroll wrote the letter-combination ye throughout the poem instead of the word the, using the letter Y in place of the letter þ (Thorn) in combination with the superscript E, as in þe, a common abbreviation for the word the in middle and early modern English, presumably to create a pseudo-archaic impression.
The rest of the poem was written during Carroll's stay with relatives at Whitburn, near Sunderland. The story may have been partly inspired by the local Sunderland area legend of the Lambton Worm.
The concept of nonsense verse was not original to Carroll, who would have known of chapbooks such as The World Turned Upside Down and stories such as "The Great Panjundrum". Nonsense existed in Shakespeare's work and was well-known in the Brothers Grimm's fairytales, some of which are called lying tales or lügenmärchen. Roger Lancelyn Green suggests that "Jabberwocky" is a parody of the old German ballad "The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains" in which a shepherd kills a griffin that is attacking his sheep. The ballad had been translated into English in blank verse by Carroll's cousin Menella Bute Smedley in 1846, many years before the appearance of the Alice books. Historian Sean B. Palmer suggests that Carroll was inspired by a section from Shakespeare's Hamlet, citing the lines: "The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead/Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets" from Act I, Scene i.
John Tenniel reluctantly agreed to illustrate the book in 1871, and his illustrations are still the defining images of the poem. The illustration of the Jabberwock may reflect the contemporary Victorian obsession with natural history and the fast-evolving sciences of palaeontology and geology. Stephen Prickett notes that in the context of Darwin and Mantell's publications and vast exhibitions of dinosaurs, such as those at the Crystal Palace from 1854, it is unsurprising that Tenniel gave the Jabberwock "the leathery wings of a pterodactyl and the long scaly neck and tail of a sauropod."
"It seems very pretty," she said when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!" (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate."
This may reflect Carroll's intention for his readership; the poem is, after all, part of a dream. In later writings he discussed some of his lexicon, commenting that he did not know the specific meanings or sources of some of the words; the linguistic ambiguity and uncertainty throughout both the book and the poem may largely be the point. In Through the Looking-Glass, the character of Humpty Dumpty, in response to Alice's request, explains to her the non-sense words from the first stanza of the poem; however, Carroll's personal commentary on several of the words differ from Humpty's. For example, following the poem, a "rath" is described by Humpty as "a sort of green pig". Carroll's notes for the original in Mischmasch suggest a "rath" is "a species of Badger" that "lived chiefly on cheese" and had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag. The appendices to certain Looking Glass editions, however, state that the creature is "a species of land turtle" that lived on swallows and oysters. Later critics added their own interpretations of the lexicon, often without reference to Carroll's own contextual commentary. An extended analysis of the poem and Carroll's commentary is given in the book The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner.
In 1868 Carroll asked his publishing house Macmillan, "Have you any means, or can you find any, for printing a page or two in the next volume of Alice in reverse?" It may be that Carroll was wanting to print the whole poem in mirror writing. Macmillan responded that it would cost a great deal more to do, and this may have dissuaded him.
In the author's note to the Christmas 1896 edition of Through the Looking-Glass Carroll writes, "The new words, in the poem Jabberwocky, have given rise to some differences of opinion as to their pronunciation, so it may be well to give instructions on that point also. Pronounce 'slithy' as if it were the two words, 'sly, thee': make the 'g' hard in 'gyre' and 'gimble': and pronounce 'rath' to rhyme with 'bath.'" In the Preface to The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll wrote, "[Let] me take this opportunity of answering a question that has often been asked me, how to pronounce "slithy toves." The "i" in "slithy" is long, as in "writhe", and "toves" is pronounced so as to rhyme with "groves." Again, the first "o" in "borogoves" is pronounced like the "o" in "borrow." I have heard people try to give it the sound of the "o" in "worry." Such is Human Perversity."
Possible interpretations of words
- Bandersnatch: A swift moving creature with snapping jaws, capable of extending its neck. A 'bander' was also an archaic word for a 'leader', suggesting that a 'bandersnatch' might be an animal that hunts the leader of a group.
- Beamish: Radiantly beaming, happy, cheerful. Although Carroll may have believed he had coined this word, it is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1530.
- Borogove: Following the poem Humpty Dumpty says, " 'borogove' is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round, something like a live mop." In explanatory book notes Carroll describes it further as "an extinct kind of Parrot. They had no wings, beaks turned up, made their nests under sun-dials and lived on veal." In Hunting of the Snark, Carroll says that the initial syllable of borogove is pronounced as in borrow rather than as in worry.
- Brillig: Following the poem, the character of Humpty Dumpty comments: " 'Brillig' means four o'clock in the afternoon, the time when you begin broiling things for dinner." According to Mischmasch, it is derived from the verb to bryl or broil.
- Burbled: In a letter of December 1877, Carroll notes that "burble" could be a mixture of the three verbs 'bleat', 'murmur', and 'warble', although he didn't remember creating it.
- Chortled: "Combination of 'chuckle' and 'snort'." (OED)
- Frabjous: Possibly a blend of fair, fabulous, and joyous. Definition from Oxford English Dictionary, credited to Lewis Carroll.
- Frumious: Combination of "fuming" and "furious". In Hunting of the Snark Carroll comments, "[T]ake the two words 'fuming' and 'furious'. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards 'fuming', you will say 'fuming-furious'; if they turn, by even a hair's breadth, towards 'furious', you will say 'furious-fuming'; but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say 'frumious'."
- Galumphing: Perhaps used in the poem as a blend of 'gallop' and 'triumphant'. Used later by Kipling, and cited by Webster as "To move with a clumsy and heavy tread"
- Gimble: Humpty comments that it means "to make holes like a gimlet." The setting for spinning objects such as gyroscopes. (OED)
- Gyre: "To 'gyre' is to go round and round like a gyroscope." Gyre is entered in the OED from 1420, meaning a circular or spiral motion or form; especially a giant circular oceanic surface current. However, Carroll also wrote in Mischmasch that it meant to scratch like a dog. The g is pronounced like the /g/ in gold, not like gem.
- Jabberwock: When a class in the Girls' Latin School in Boston asked Carroll's permission to name their school magazine The Jabberwock, he replied: "The Anglo-Saxon word 'wocer' or 'wocor' signifies 'offspring' or 'fruit'. Taking 'jabber' in its ordinary acceptation of 'excited and voluble discussion', this would give the meaning of 'the result of much excited and voluble discussion'..."
- Jubjub bird: 'A desperate bird that lives in perpetual passion', according to the Butcher in Carroll's later poem The Hunting of the Snark. 'Jub' is an ancient word for a jerkin or a dialect word for the trot of a horse (OED). It might make reference to the call of the bird resembling the sound "jub, jub".
- Manxome: Possibly 'fearsome'; Possibly a portmanteau of "manly" and "buxom", the latter relating to men for most of its history; or "three-legged" after the Triskelion emblem of the Manx people from the Isle of Man.
- Mimsy: Humpty comments that " 'Mimsy' is 'flimsy and miserable' ".
- Mome: Humpty Dumpty is uncertain about this one: "I think it's short for 'from home', meaning that they'd lost their way, you know". The notes in Mischmasch give a different definition of 'grave' (via 'solemome', 'solemone' and 'solemn').
- Outgrabe: Humpty says " 'outgribing' is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle". Carroll's book appendices suggest it is the past tense of the verb to 'outgribe', connected with the old verb to 'grike' or 'shrike', which derived 'shriek' and 'creak' and hence 'squeak'.
- Rath: Humpty Dumpty says following the poem: "A 'rath' is a sort of green pig". However, Carroll's notes for the original in Mischmasch state that a 'Rath' is "a species of land turtle. Head erect, mouth like a shark, the front forelegs curved out so that the animal walked on its knees, smooth green body, lived on swallows and oysters." In the 1951 animated film adaptation of the book's prequel, the raths are depicted as small, multi-coloured creatures with tufty hair, round eyes, and long legs resembling pipe stems.
- Slithy: Humpty Dumpty says: " 'Slithy' means 'lithe and slimy'. 'Lithe' is the same as 'active'. You see it's like a portmanteau, there are two meanings packed up into one word." The original in MischMasch notes that 'slithy' means "smooth and active" The i is long, as in writhe.
- Snicker-snack: possibly related to the large knife, the snickersnee.
- Tove: Humpty Dumpty says " 'Toves' are something like badgers, they're something like lizards, and they're something like corkscrews. [...] Also they make their nests under sun-dials, also they live on cheese." Pronounced so as to rhyme with groves. They "gyre and gimble," i.e. rotate and bore. Toves are described slightly differently in Mischmasch: "a species of Badger [which] had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag [and] lived chiefly on cheese".
- Tulgey: Carroll himself said he could give no source for Tulgey. Could be taken to mean thick, dense, dark. It has been suggested that it comes from the Anglo-Cornish word "Tulgu", 'darkness', which in turn comes from the Cornish language "Tewolgow" 'darkness, gloominess'.
- Uffish: Carroll noted "It seemed to suggest a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish".
- Vorpal: Carroll said he could not explain this word, though it has been noted that it can be formed by taking letters alternately from "verbal" and "gospel".
- Wabe: The characters in the poem suggest it means "The grass plot around a sundial", called a 'wa-be' because it "goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it". In the original MischMasch text, Carroll states a 'wabe' is "the side of a hill (from its being soaked by rain)".
Linguistics and poetics
Though the poem contains many nonsensical words, English syntax and poetic forms are observed, such as the quatrain verses, the general ABAB rhyme scheme and the iambic meter. The linguist Lucas believes the "nonsense" term is inaccurate. The poem relies on a distortion of sense rather than "non-sense", allowing the reader to infer meaning and therefore engage with narrative while lexical allusions swim under the surface of the poem.
Parsons describes the work as a "semiotic catastrophe", arguing that the words create a discernible narrative within the structure of the poem, though the reader cannot know what they symbolise. She argues that Humpty tries, after the recitation, to "ground" the unruly multiplicities of meaning with definitions, but cannot succeed as both the book and the poem are playgrounds for the "carnivalised aspect of language". Parsons suggests that this is mirrored in the prosody of the poem: in the tussle between the tetrameter in the first three lines of each stanza and trimeter in the last lines, such that one undercuts the other and we are left off balance, like the poem's hero.
Carroll wrote many poem parodies such as "Twinkle, twinkle little bat", "You Are Old, Father William" and "How Doth the Little Crocodile?" They have become generally better known than the originals on which they are based, and this is certainly the case with "Jabberwocky". The poems' successes do not rely on any recognition or association of the poems that they parody. Lucas suggests that the original poems provide a strong container but Carroll's works are famous precisely because of their random, surreal quality. Carroll's grave playfulness has been compared with that of the poet Edward Lear; there are also parallels with the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the frequent use of soundplay, alliteration, created-language and portmanteau. Both writers were Carroll's contemporaries.
"Jabberwocky" has been translated into many languages. The translation might be difficult because the poem holds to English syntax and many of the principal words of the poem are invented. Translators have generally dealt with them by creating equivalent words of their own. Often these are similar in spelling or sound to Carroll's while respecting the morphology of the language they are being translated into. In Frank L. Warrin's French translation, "'Twas brillig" becomes "Il brilgue". In instances like this, both the original and the invented words echo actual words of Carroll's lexicon, but not necessarily ones with similar meanings. Translators have invented words which draw on root words with meanings similar to the English roots used by Carroll. Douglas Hofstadter noted in his essay "Translations of Jabberwocky", the word 'slithy', for example, echoes the English 'slimy', 'slither', 'slippery', 'lithe' and 'sly'. A French translation that uses 'lubricilleux' for 'slithy', evokes French words like 'lubrifier' (to lubricate) to give an impression of a meaning similar to that of Carroll's word. In his exploration of the translation challenge, Hofstadter asks "what if a word does exist, but it is very intellectual-sounding and Latinate ('lubricilleux'), rather than earthy and Anglo-Saxon ('slithy')? Perhaps 'huilasse' would be better than 'lubricilleux'? Or does the Latin origin of the word 'lubricilleux' not make itself felt to a speaker of French in the way that it would if it were an English word ('lubricilious', perhaps)? ".
Hofstadter also notes that it makes a great difference whether the poem is translated in isolation or as part of a translation of the novel. In the latter case the translator must, through Humpty Dumpty, supply explanations of the invented words. But, he suggests, "even in this pathologically difficult case of translation, there seems to be some rough equivalence obtainable, a kind of rough isomorphism, partly global, partly local, between the brains of all the readers".
In 1967, D.G. Orlovskaya wrote a popular Russian translation of "Jabberwocky" entitled "Barmaglot" ("Бармаглот"). She translated "Barmaglot" for "Jabberwock", "Brandashmyg" for "Bandersnatch" while "myumsiki" ("мюмзики") echoes "mimsy". Full translations of "Jabberwocky" into French and German can be found in The Annotated Alice along with a discussion of why some translation decisions were made. Chao Yuen Ren, a Chinese linguist, translated the poem into Chinese by inventing characters to imitate what Rob Gifford of National Public Radio refers to as the "slithy toves that gyred and gimbled in the wabe of Carroll's original". Satyajit Ray, a film-maker, translated the work into Bengali and concrete poet Augusto de Campos created a Brazilian Portuguese version. There is also an Arabic translation by Wael Al-Mahdi, and at least two into Serbo-Croatian. Multiple translations into Latin were made within the first weeks of Carroll's original publication.
(Lazar Goldman y Stefan Gechev)
(Mogens Jermiin Nissen)
(Arne Herløv Petersen)
(Kirsi Kunnas & Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1974.)
(Matti Rosvallin, 1999.)
(Alice Martin, 2010.)
(Frank L. Warrin)
(Hassard H. Dodgson)
(Samuil Marshak and Dina Orlovskaya)
(Ulalume González de León)
(Adolfo de Alba)
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According to Chesterton and Green and others, the original purpose of "Jabberwocky" was to satirise both pretentious verse and ignorant literary critics. It was designed as verse showing how not to write verse, but eventually became the subject of pedestrian translation or explanation and incorporated into classroom learning. It has also been interpreted as a parody of contemporary Oxford scholarship and specifically the story of how Benjamin Jowett, the notoriously agnostic Professor of Greek at Oxford, and Master of Balliol, came to sign the Thirty-Nine Articles, as an Anglican statement of faith, to save his job. The transformation of audience perception from satire to seriousness was in a large part predicted by G. K. Chesterton, who wrote in 1932, "Poor, poor, little Alice! She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others."
It is often now cited as one of the greatest nonsense poems written in the English language, the source for countless parodies and tributes. In most cases the writers have changed the non-sense words into words relating to the parodied subject, as in Frank Jacobs's "If Lewis Carroll Were a Hollywood Press Agent in the Thirties" in Mad for Better or Verse. Other writers use the poem as a form, much like a sonnet, and create their own words for it as in "Strunklemiss" by S. K. Azoulay or the poem "Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly" recited by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book which contains numerous other references and homages to Carroll's work.
Oh freddled gruntbuggly thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee my foonting turlingdromes
And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my
blurglecruncheon, see if I don't!
Some of the words that Carroll created such as "chortled" and "galumphing" have entered the English language and are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. The word "jabberwocky" itself has come to refer to nonsense language.
In other media
A song called "Beware the Jabberwock" was written for Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951), to be sung by Stan Freberg with the Rhythmaires and Daws Butler. Written by Don Raye and Gene de Paul, it was a musical rendition of the "Jabberwocky" verse. The song was not included in the final film, but a demo recording was included in the 2004 and 2010 DVD releases of the movie. In the final release, the character of the Cheshire Cat (played by Sterling Holloway) sings the first few lyrics of the Jabberwocky poem when Alice encounters him. The poem was a source of inspiration for Terry Gilliam's 1977 film, Jabberwocky.
The Jabberwock (misnamed "Jabberwocky") appears in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, voiced by Christopher Lee. An abridged version of the poem is spoken by the Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp).
In Carmine Sanden's novel Wonderland Revolution, "Jabberwocky" is the nickname of a monster who feeds on the protagonist's anger until it gets strong enough to kill him.
The stage musical Jabberwocky by Andrew Kay, Malcolm Middleton and Peter Phillips, follows the basic plot of the poem. In 1972, the American composer Sam Pottle penned a setting of the entire text of the poem to music. Much like the eponymous poem upon which it is based, the piece itself, as referenced at the beginning of the score, is as much a satire of the western choral tradition from which it derives much of its content as the eponymous poem is one of the western literary tradition in general. This fact is embodied in the fact that the piece calls for nonsensical noises to be made by the vocalists and the use of various objects not normally found in choral compositions, such as a baby rattle, ratchet, and others. Even more satirical is the fact that the piece is to be sung with the seriousness and vocal technique of a piece on par with any of the greatest choral works ever composed in the west. The piece is only one of two compositions by Pottle known not to have been specifically written for the small screen.
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Few would dispute that Jabberwocky is the greatest of all nonsense poems in English.
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- Jabberwocky public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- Essay: "Translations of Jabberwocky". Douglas R. Hofstadter, 1980 from Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid ISBN 0-394-74502-7, Vintage Books, New York
- BBC Video (2 mins), "Jabberwocky" read by English actor Brian Blessed
- Poetry Foundation Biography of Lewis Carroll
- The Lewis Carroll Journal published by The Lewis Carroll Society.
- Jabberwocky by composer Sam Pottle