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Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"

Updated on March 6, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

The Jabberwock

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "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 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."

Jabberwocky

(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 Carroll's "Jabberwocky"

Commentary

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 used 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

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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    Linda Sue Grimes 21 months 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 image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 21 months 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 21 months 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 21 months 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.

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