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Carroll's Wonderland: A Poetic Journey Through Childhood

Updated on November 23, 2014
Alice and the Rabbit, Sir John Tenniel
Alice and the Rabbit, Sir John Tenniel

All In the Golden Afternoon: The Introduction to 'Wonderland'

Although many poems appear throughout Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, three in particular are of great importance. These three poems provide 'book-end' narration, and when both works are read together, they form a continuous flow from start to finish. In keeping with this natural flow, first we'll look at part of the introductory poem to Carroll's first book, Alice in Wonderland. In each of these three poems can be read an allegory to life and death.

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale, of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict to "begin it" -
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
"There will be nonsense in it,"-
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

There is, here, a sense of contradicting ages. 'Golden afternoon...full leisurely we glide' can be taken in different ways; literally, the first three stanzas offer a common scenario. Children, with their parent or perhaps grandparent, enjoying the summer days and begging for a story. But there is more to it than simply this. Take it, if you will, figuratively, and imagine it as an allegory for life and death. 'Golden afternoon' becomes a metaphor for childhood and innocence, in which a youth may simply be enjoying life but with no destination. In the second stanza, then, there is an invocation to the 'cruel Three,' named in the poem as Prima (Clotho), Secunda (Lachesis), and Tertia (Atropos). Like three playful children, they interrupt the quiet solitude of the day. Like a parent giving into their child's demands, the human soul can do nothing against the Three Fates.

The Fates, in the Greek mythos, are responsible for spinning the thread of life (Clotho), for measuring and determining the thread of life (Lachesis), and finally ending, or cutting, the thread of life (Atropos). In the poem, Prima demands that the tale begin, while Secunda gives the tale its structure ('There will be nonsense in it'), and Tertia interrupts it. While Tertia's role here is much more friendly in nature, she still represents the tale coming to an end in some capacity.

The sixth stanza is the last one I wish to look at. It best sums up the first three stanzas and the analogy for life, death, and mortality.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out-
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

The Gryphon, Sir John Tenniel
The Gryphon, Sir John Tenniel

"Wonderland" is life itself. It is imagination, it is hope, it is fear; everything that one can imagine as life exists also as Wonderland. At the consistent begging by the three young children, the tale is begun, told, and eventually ended. The use of the word "grew" in the first line of the stanza makes one think of life, because all living things grow, but the tale itself is not a living thing. The tale is a tale of life.

The next two lines, "Thus slowly...hammered out-" paint a picture also reminiscent of life. Life is strange in that time flows slowly or quickly, at its own discretion, but summer is often thought of as long and slow, as we have all the time in the world to live. Thinking back to the analogy of the Three Fates, who essentially create the stories which are woven into our lives, we also notice the word "hammered" which draws to mind Vulcan, or Hephaestus, who can be considered a god of creation due to his craft. "And now the tale is done," begins the ending of the poem. Following the allegory of life, where once there was a youthful summer sun, now the sun is setting on youth and on life, and the person is finally going home.

That is the true end to each of our tales; going home. The summer youth can only last so long, and that is what Alice's Adventures in Wonderland tells us.

Alice and the Caterpillar, Sir John Tenniel
Alice and the Caterpillar, Sir John Tenniel

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

One of the most prominent themes that presents itself in Wonderland is the theme of change and acceptance. From the very beginning of the book things begin happening that, once started, Alice can't control. She grows taller, shorter, bigger, constantly changing and constantly pondering who she really is? Has she changed? Is she someone new? The first sensible character she meets, if any character in Wonderland is sensible, is the Caterpillar, who is himself a symbol of change:

"Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice; "but when you have to turn into a chrysalis- you will some day, you know- and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't you?"

"Not a bit," said the Caterpillar.

Alice outlines the life of a caterpillar as we know it, youth, adolescence, adulthood, and how strange it must be to change so drastically! The point being made is that we often don't even realize that we are changing until the change has occurred, and by then it certainly is too late to stop it. That is how life goes; and the Caterpillar, for all his strange way of thinking and doing, accepts that change is inevitable, and that it isn't so strange at all.

The Caterpillar then asks Alice, "So you think you're changed, do you?" and proceeds to command her to recite a poem. One of the earliest poems within the book, You are old, Father William, is also about conflicting ages. At the end of the poem, the Caterpillar poses the question to Alice regarding what size she would like to be, to which Alice responds, "Oh, I'm not particular as to size...only one doesn't like changing so often, you know." Then says that she would like to be a little larger, because she was not quite used to being only three inches tall. The Caterpillar's reply is "You'll get used to it in time."

Everything in Wonderland changes, the characters and the places, even Alice herself, who is the personification and characterization of every person who reads these books. Whether speaking literally or figuratively, the reader is not the same person at the end of the tale as they were at the beginning, nor is Alice. Change is something that we must all accept, and the hardest change for many people is growing up. Yet Alice shows us that change does not mean leaving ourselves behind, but accepting change for its necessity while still retaining who we are. Alice wanders through Wonderland as we do through life, seeing things she cannot believe and doing things she never thought possible, but in the end she must accept that life is constantly changing, and she is powerless to stop it. She learns, such as with the drinks and the mushrooms, that even though she can affect change, it happens nonetheless, as with the baby who turns to a pig and the shop which changes to a boat.

It is not until Alice begins to "grow up" that she realizes the court is nothing more than a deck of cards, and she then begins to wake from her dream. Now, that being said, Alice has grown considerably throughout this entire adventure, has learned to accept change but also accept strangeness as simply being a part of life.

Child of the Pure Unclouded Brow: The Introduction to "Through the Looking-Glass"

If Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was a novel characterized by summer, then Through the Looking-Glass is characterized by winter. In the same manner that "All in the Golden Afternoon" sets up the entirety of Wonderland, so does "Child of the Pure Unclouded Brow" set up the entirety of Looking-Glass. In the beginning of the first book, Alice is enjoying a leisurely summer afternoon, and by the end of the book, she is returning home, much like she is waking up from a dream. The second major poem that makes a barrier between the two books works in a similar manner.

Child of the pure unclouded brow
And dreaming eyes of wonder!
Though time be fleet, and I and thou
Are half a life asunder,
Thy loving smile will surely hail
The love-gift of a fairy-tail.

I have not seen they sunny face,
Nor heard thy silver laughter;
No thought of me shall find a place
In thy young life's hereafter-
Enough that now thou wilt not fail
To listen to my fairy-tail.

A tale begun in other days,
When summer suns were glowing-
A simple chime, that served to time
The rhythm of our rowing-
Whose echoes live in memory yet.
Though envious years would say "forget."

What the poem begins by saying is that children are nonjudgmental, unbiased and open-minded. They are pure and usually untouched by the burdens of life and sorrow. Their eyes dream of the future and remember the past and seek out magic in every place they can. But time moves forward, and "half a life asunder" could refer to winter and the half of the year where weather is harsh. The sunny summer of "Golden Afternoon" and warm youth is long past, and the "envious years" of old age and winter are now here.

Alice and Kitty, Sir John Tenniel
Alice and Kitty, Sir John Tenniel

Come, hearken then, ere voice of dread,
With bitter tidings laden,
Shall summon to unwelcome bed
A melancholy maiden!
We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near.

This stanza truly is about mortality and death, more so than any other part of Carroll's works. It is a very Donne-like sentiment, daring death to come and take the speaker of the poem. "Voice of dread" can refer back to Atropos, who is in charge of cutting the thread of life, "with bitter tidings laden," or sickness and old age. "Unwelcome bed," is of course a coffin, and with this imagery in mind the rest of the stanza falls into place. The poem is placing a certain kind of immortality upon childhood. Just because we are older or because we've grown up does not mean we must lose the childhood wonder that we once had, and like a child, we are afraid of our "bedtime," of death.

Without, the frost, the blinding snow,
The storm-wind's moody madness-
Within, the firelight's ruddy glow
And childhood's nest of gladness,
The magic words shall hold thee fast:
Thou shalt not heed the raving blast.

And though the shadow of a sigh
May tremble through the story,
For "happy summer days" gone by
And vanish'd summer glory-
It shall not touch with breath of bale,
The pleasance of our fairy-tale.

The firelight provides warmth and brightness akin to summer even though it is cold and dark outside. "Without...moody madness" is the harsh world, no matter what season or time of year, while inside is the "nest" or comfort of one's own home. The outside world is constantly changing, but we can feel safe within our home because it never changes. What's more, outside one must grow up, but inside we can forever stay a child. Therefore, it is not just without/within in a literal sense: it is without and within our own selves. The firelight is our heart and soul that keeps our childhood alive within us even as we grow older.

The last stanza is the most profound and beautifully haunting among all the other poems. It tells us that, although we have the knowledge that all warm comforts must eventually come to an end and give way to time. Despite knowing this, and knowing what end waits us all, it cannot change the joy of life itself. Taking "fairy-tale" like Wonderland as a symbol for life: "They loving smile shall surely hail the love-gift of a fairy-tail," shows us that life begins again.

Through the Looking-Glass, Sir John Tenniel
Through the Looking-Glass, Sir John Tenniel

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There

Just as Alice in Wonderland began in the summer, Through the Looking-Glass begins in winter. Dinah, the cat from the first book, has two kittens now. As Alice muses to herself, it is worth noting the contrast between the more romantic notion of winter in the book and the frightening descriptions of winter in the poem:

"Do you hear the snow against the window-panes, Kitty? How nice and soft it sounds! Just as if some one was kissing the window all over outside. I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, 'Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.' And when they wake up in the summer, Kitty, they dress themselves all in green, and dance about- whenever the wind blows- oh, that's very pretty!"

Alice then wishes that it were all true; this is very important to notice, as well as one of the very next sentences, where she mentions chess, and then says, "Let's pretend" which happens to be her favorite phrase. This all comes together to set up the story: and it seems that, throughout Looking-Glass, Alice creates the things that happen simply by wishing them to be true, or by pretending that they are. It is a completely different point of view than in Wonderland, where things happen and Alice must learn to accept those things, even if she cannot understand them. In this adventure, Alice is the one who creates the change. After all, she did not create Wonderland or even dream it up prior to it appearing, it simply appeared. Here, Alice creates the Looking-Glass House, and by her will, it becomes real.

Alice and the Red Queen, Sir John Tenniel
Alice and the Red Queen, Sir John Tenniel

Through the Looking-Glass is no less short of plays on words and lovely puns than Adventures in Wonderland was, but one very different aspect does appear. Before, Alice's voice of reason was Alice herself; here, the voice of reason changes and the narrator takes on a much more active role, though the characters do interject advice here and there more so than in the previous tale, such as with the Red Queen, who reminds Alice to remember who she is. This is in contrast to the Caterpillar, who constantly asked Alice who she was, and advised her only to keep her temper.

If the central theme in Wonderland was 'change' then the central theme in Looking-Glass is 'believing,' although a commonality that exists between the two books is 'perception' and 'acceptance.' In the second book, Alice must now learn to believe what she sees; in essence, Alice must learn to trust herself:

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen.

Shortly after this conversation, the Queen turns into a sheep and a shop appears up around them. It is interesting that directly following this conversation about believing things all of these impossibilities begin happening. Alice quite obviously believes the things that are happening around her, because they affect her yet she seemed adamant in saying that it is impossible to believe impossible things. Later, once Alice meets the Unicorn, the subject of believing comes up again, when the Unicorn says to Alice, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?" Alice then replies that she would. Slowly, Alice begins to accept and believe that the things happening must be real, or at least they appear real to her, and so we're brought into the idea of perception.

The last point I wish to make from Looking-Glass ties back into the beginning of the tale: words have meaning and power. Alice created the Looking-Glass House by her words and imagination alone. In chapter IX, the Red Queen gives Alice more sound advice: "when you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences." So much happens in the book that is caused by Alice's words or actions, even the end of the tale. Alice takes hold of the Red Queen and tells her that she shall shake her into a kitten, and as she says the words, the thing happens. Alice then wakes up from the dream holding Dinah's black kitten.

So, was it all just "pretend" as Alice kept saying in the beginning, or was it really a "dream" like what was said during the chapter with Tweedledee and Tweedledum? If it started out as make-believe and turned into a dream, at what point did that change occur?

Alice, Dinah, and the kittens, Sir John Tenniel
Alice, Dinah, and the kittens, Sir John Tenniel

The End Poem

The poem that appears at the end of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There does not appear to have a name. It is in a completely different rhyme than the previous two poems, set up in three-line stanzas. If you look closely, the first letter of each line creates an acrostic; in this case, it spells the name Alice Pleasance Liddell, who was the daughter of a friend of Lewis Carroll, and the inspiration for the two Alice books.

The poem itself expresses great sadness and longing for lost youth. It conveys the feeling of how, as children, we lazily glide through life as if in a dream or daydream, and once childhood is gone it cannot be retaken or relived or changed, a very important lesson which is taught through both Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

A boat, beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July-

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear-

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echos fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die.

Ever drifting down the stream-
Lingering in the golden gleam-
Life, what is it but a dream?

The End

I chose to keep "The End" there at the bottom of the poem because this is how Through the Looking-Glass actually ends. The stream symbolizes life, its constant flowing and moving through the course of the world and universe. The children three are again Prima, Secunda, and Tertia from the first poem, eager to hear a story. Their youth is symbolized by 'sunny sky' which fades away as echoes and memories die in old age, just as Autumn 'slays' July.

Alice herself, in the poem, is childhood, now only visible in dreams and memories and representing a sort of nostalgia. "Children yet, the tale to hear," is not the same three children. It is the next generation, the youth that that the old is so envious of yet loves so dearly. The poem repeats itself and loops around, creating a circular narrative. The poem ends in the same situation it began, drifting dreamily beneath sunny skies. The sun will eventually set, on the old generation, those who have grown up, but will always rise again on a new generation.

This is the lesson that Carroll teaches us through his stories and poems, and it is an important lesson for both children and adults. We must accept that things change and will die, but just as they die new life is always around the corner, and so the inevitable end to our stories, our fairy-tales, must not make us sad, but give us more hope for living while we can.

Our Wonderland is what we make of it.

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      Rebekah Mabry 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Thanks Jodah! They are really wonderful books, give them a try when you can!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      What a wonderfully in-depth and interesting hub. I have never read the book Alice's Adventure in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass and only seen the movies. I was not aware of the wonderful poetry within. I found this enthralling that Wonderland is an allegory for life and Alice herself represents childhood etc. Thank you for sharing. I now need to read the book and read what I have missed out on. Voted up.