Jabberwocky

lewis carroll

I was never a huge fan of poetry. When I had to study it in high school and college (you can’t really complete an English Lit degree without having to read at least some poetry — believe me, I tried) I remember rolling my eyes and thinking it was all so dense and inaccessible. Prose just always made more sense to me. You say what you mean and you mean what you say.

As I got older, though, I started to develop an appreciation for poetry. Sometimes verse can paint an amazingly vivid picture, and convey a mood or a setting just as effectively as a lengthier block of prose. I love the fragmentation of ideas that poetry allows for. Sentences don’t need to be finished, the completion of thoughts is not a requirement. The reader will still glean meaning, with perhaps more room for imagination and spontenaity than prose can provide. Poetry can be both playful and profound, in the right hands (or pen, as the case may be).

One of my very favourite poems, in fact, is probably the ultimate example of nonsense verse. With ‘Jabberwocky’ Lewis Carroll literally invented words out of thin air and strung them together to create his poem, but even though probably 50% of the lines are total gibberish you still get a completely vivid sense of what is happening in the narrative. Here is the poem:

‘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!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought–
So rested he 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 went galumphing back.

“And hast 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 borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Here are my favorite terms: ‘vorpal sword’, ‘manxome foe’, ‘uffish thought’, and ‘frabjous day’. Each one of these combines a nonsense word with a real word, and even though vorpal, manxome, uffish, and frabjous don’t mean anything, you know exactly what they mean — or, at least, you have a reasonably good idea. You can use your imagination to project onto these words whatever images make them sensical to you.

My favourite line has always been: ‘And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?’ I don’t know why, exactly. It has a nice ring to it, and I like how Carroll uses very formal language here to inject a sense of earnest gravitas amongst all the absurdism. The entire poem, really, is both silly and solemn at the same time. Like much of life.

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