ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"

Updated on September 1, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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


Introduction and Text of "Jabberwocky"

The sequel to Lewis Carroll's 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 to 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: "The jaws that bite, the claws that catch," and then the son goes out and slays the Jabberwock.

Not only does the son simply slay the Jabberwock, he cuts off its head and triumphantly returns home: "He left it dead, and with its head / He went galumphing back." The father welcomes his son's victory and is quite proud of the youngster: "'And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? / Come to my arm, my beamish boy! / O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!' / He chortled in his joy."


(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!"

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, 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 borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Reading of "Jabberwocky"


Hailed as the most important nonsense poem in the English language, the poem, "Jabberwocky," serves to exemplify how language works and how it revitalizes itself.

The First Quatrain

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

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 loves" 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 implication without knowledge of 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


Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    3 years ago from U.S.A.

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

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    3 years ago from U.S.A.

    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.

  • lambservant profile image

    Lori Colbo 

    3 years ago from Pacific Northwest

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

  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 

    3 years ago from Queensland Australia

    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.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)