1 December 2018 Susannah

Lewis Carroll & Jabberwocky

The Jabberwock, as illustrated by John Tenniel

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

’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!

Lewis Carroll in 1855

Lewis Carroll in 1855

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.

Did you know that this famous nonsense poem is actually a part of the Alice books? It was included in the 1871 Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice finds a book that appears to be in a language she cannot understand, but when she holds it up to a mirror, she can read the inverted writing. What she reads is Jabberwocky and of course, she remains puzzled. However, Lewis Carroll had actually written the first verse about a decade before and published it in a little family periodical. He added more verses later. When it was published in the Alice novel, it was illustrated by John Tenniel who made the Jabberwock look like a dinosaur.

This is Alice’s response: “‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!”’(You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.’” Surely this is the response Carroll hoped for from all his readers. Nonsense words that he made up still give us a sense of the meaning (eg, ‘frumious’ is a mix of fuming and furious) – Carroll encourages us to infer meanings and use our imaginations as we read the poem. He even wrote notes on the pronunciation of the words, eg. ‘slithy’ is said ‘sly-thee’, and the g in ‘gyre and gimble’ is a hard sound.

In spite of the nonsense, he still sticks to poetic and syntactical structures. It is thought by some critics to be Carroll’s satirical attack on pretentious literary critics and professors.
The poem has been translated into dozens of languages. That’s a challenge for a translator! This is a French version of the first verse:
Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux
Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave.
Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux
Et le mômerade horsgrave.

Jabberwocky is today considered one of the greatest nonsense poems in English literature. It has been parodied, there have been many intriguing tributes to it including songs and even a short film, and words from the poem have entered the English language (chortled, galumphing). I love this poem – it revels in the sheer sound of words, creates memorable pictures of character and action, and is just such enormous fun. I love using the phrase “O frabjous day” and hope your day has become more ‘frabjous’ as a result of reading this poem.

Listen to Benedict Cumberbatch reading it

or Neil Gaiman (who gets one of those g sounds wrong)

Do you remember enjoying this poem as a child, or even an adult? Have you had a “frabjous day”? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- The Jabberwock, as illustrated by John Tenniel By John Tenniel, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20137
Body image credit- Lewis Carroll in 1855 – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25866

Comments (2)

  1. Miland Joshi

    This poem taught me that words may mean nothing like what I have imagined they might, because of words that sound similar. Thus the first stanza means nothing like “It was a brilliant day, and the slippery turtles spun and gambolled in the wash”. Now I know that toves are not turtles but altogether more aggressive creatures, and that gyred and gimbled is about drilling into the side of a hill, doing violence to nature, not playing in it. Oh dear!

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