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Lewis Carroll's Phantasmagoria Poems: Experimentation, Wit and Childlike Wonder

Updated on September 3, 2014
Alice in Wonderland illustration by John Tenniel.
Alice in Wonderland illustration by John Tenniel.

You won’t find such famous Lewis Carroll poems as “Jabberwocky” or “You are Old Father William” in the collection known as Phantasmagoria. Phantasmagoria is a collection of some of his more out of the way poems that amount to a meditation of sorts on poetry itself. But ah, Lewis Carroll—perceptions already form, do they not? I suppose I shall have nothing new to say on the subject of Lewis Carroll, is that not so? Nothing but blah, blah, personification; blah, blah, neologism; blah, blah, political satire; blah, blah, Tim Burton’s happy place. Well, rest assured that I will try not to bore you with things you already know, and if I must tread over such ground, I will endeavor to do so in such a bright and colorful way that you scarcely realize that your time is being wasted.

A discussion about Lewis Carroll’s poems would be incomplete without touching on his treatment of language. Indeed, one of the purposes built into Phantasmagoria seems to be an effort to experiment with and have fun with language. In case you couldn’t guess, the poems within Phantasmagoria are written in good, old-fashioned rhyming verse; none of that newfangled free verse that the ragamuffins of today (with their Xboxes, and their navel piercings, and their Tumblr, and their obsession with my lawn) have been up to for the past one hundred years; but rhyme isn’t the only way that Lewis Carroll experimented with language in Phantasmagoria. In Carroll’s most obvious meditation on poetry itself “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur” (a poet is made, not born) the title itself delves into Latin, mixing it with the English verse. He pushes the bounds of, not only dialect, but spelling in his poem “Ye Carpette Knyghte,” which goes: “I have a saddel—‘Say’st thou soe?/Wyth styrruppes, Knyghte, to boote?/I sayde not that—I answere ‘Noe’—/Yt lacketh such, I woote:/Yt ys a mutton-saddel, loe!/Parte of ye fleecy brute” (7-12). Edmund Spenser would be proud. As for the last poem in the collection, much use of the Scottish accent is made in “The Lang Coortin'.” Just a sample of the accent, which changes the whole tone of the poem, can be seen in the lines: “Said—‘Ladye dear,’ and the salt, salt tear/Cam’ rinnin’ doon his cheek,/‘I have sent thee tokens of my love/This many and many a week” (21-24). And talk about logical leaps! The opening stanza of The Gardener’s Song goes: “He thought he saw an Elephant/That practice on his fife:/He looked again and found it was/A letter from his wife./'At length I realize,' he said/'The bitterness of life'” (1-6). Thank goodness Carroll’s brush with the priesthood did not damper his grasp of the abnormal as I've been told it has done to so many innocent Christians who foolhardily embraced the logical narrative! More than mere experimentation with form and mode of speech, Carroll suggests that poets inspire each other. In the introduction of “Tema Con Variazioni” he suggests that poets employ a practice done in the field of music where a person uses a line from a well known poem, and then adds a few of his own, then goes back to where he left off in the well known poem, and then adds more of his own lines, and so on, to create a new poem. He cements this desire for collaboration and inspiration by doing his own take on Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” in “Hiawatha’s Photographing”.

Minnehaha Feeding Birds by Frances Anne Hopkins. One of the many artistic responses to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha."
Minnehaha Feeding Birds by Frances Anne Hopkins. One of the many artistic responses to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha."

The subject matter in Phantasmagoria is largely childish. Birds, badgers, pigs and camels pop up, just to name a few of the animal kingdom’s representatives. “Phantasmagoria” means bizarre/ever changing images, highly suggestive of a dreamlike state. These flights of fantasy explain much of the childlike focus: knights in armor, talking animals and dolls. Even in poems like “What Tottles Meant” which is about a husband and wife having to deal with an intrusive, spendthrift mother-in-law—not exactly a children's subject—the language is so whimsical that it almost transforms into one. And what’s nice about poetry aimed at children is that the extent of its writer’s angst doesn’t go any further than a simple wish that peas could taste like candy. They do not participate in the great soul-wound exploration of their adult contemporaries. Their goal is to entertain, enchant, and perhaps even educate. There’s nothing wrong with that. I could certainly stand to be enchanted on a more regular basis.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll.

But does this mean that the poems in Phantasmagoria are nothing more than a few fun rhymes strung together to delight children, devoid of any meaning beyond that? In a word: nonsense? Well, what Lewis Carroll does that is so special is that he sculpts nonsense into meaning, unlike the opposite which is much more in vogue. I get the feeling that even when I don’t know what he’s talking about, at least he knew what he was talking about (without the aid of opium), which is comforting. All too often the search for meaning in poetry becomes injured by the fact that the reader gets the cynical feeling that the author doesn’t know what they’re talking about either and therefore forces the reader to follow the old art house survival method (1. Point to the most muddled part of the piece and claim that it is “Wonderfully symbolic.” 2. When asked what it is symbolic of, fake a coughing fit and excuse yourself. 3. Shimmy out the bathroom window and hit the alley at a dead run). But many of his poems have very clear meanings. Take “Doll Song” for instance. It is a very sweet poem in which a girl talks to her doll Matilda Jane, and says that, even though the doll is blind, dumb and deaf, the girl still loves her. Trite on the surface, but I think that’s the heart and soul of the whole collection. It encourages the reader to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary; to imagine, to play and to create. Free verse may have gained steam because certain poets felt trapped within rhymes; clearly Lewis Carroll felt none of that as he bent his poetic genius to experimentation and variation in his own rhyming poems.

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