Jabberwocky: Analysis

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682px-TheJabberwocky

Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is an enigma of a poem at first read. It contains many nonsense words and phrases of Carroll’s own invention, and has been interpreted and debated in a variety of ways since its penning, originally part of Through the Looking Glass. Carroll himself made many notes and comments about the supposed meanings of most of the words, and Humpty Dumpty explains them as well within the novel to Alice (though at times his and Carroll’s definitions differ).

Firstly, since the poem is part of Alice’s adventures, and since Alice’s adventures take place during a long, vivid dream, it would make sense that the poem would contain so many strange ciphers. Alice’s subconscious is creating and controlling the world she’s inhabiting, and so combines and rearranges words she may have been fleetingly familiar with during her waking life.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Brillig” is from bryll or broil, and relates to the late afternoon period (four o’clock) when a dinner would typically be prepared (or broiled). “Slithy toves” are slimy/lithe creatures described as being something like badgers, lizards, and corkscrews, and make their nests under sundials. They “gyre and gimble” in the “wabe”, or, “rotate and bore” on the “side of a hill”. The “borogoves” are thin, shabby looking birds with no wings and an upturned beak whom also live in the “wabe”; their “mimsy” is flimsy/misery. “Mome raths” are grave, green-skinned creatures something like pigs or badgers that “outgrabe”, or whistled/bellowed.

This first stanza is so tightly packed with unknown information that without proper acclimation to the nonsense words, the reader nearly veers off the page in confusion. From here, the poem becomes slightly more approachable, telling the tale of a boy going into the dark and gloomy woods to slay the Jabberwock. The poem is engineered like a small fairy tale, and the use of nonsense words adds a whimsical element that further solidifies the element of the fantastic. Employed within an already heavily fantasy-ridden novel, Carroll strips cohesion and familiarity in the reader to the bone.

Despite the risk of alienating the reader, “Jabberwocky” works quite well on its own, even when reading with no prior knowledge of the vernacular. The stanzas are light and comical, relaying an archaic hero’s tale while creating a specific and wholly Carroll-esque world. The rhymes and syllabic rhythms create a bouncing narrative that still effectively engages the reader in imagery, but the fact that much of the words might seem at first glance meaningless means it’s a participatory kind of imagery. The reader has to consciously interact with the poem, filling in the blanks of what they don’t know with their imagination. This makes the poem unique to each person who reads it, since no matter how Carroll might describe the words, we all have differing interpretations of them.

What’s interesting to note also is the kind of effect the poem had on the English language, as at least the words “chortle” (chuckle + snort) and “galumph” (gallop + triumph) have been added into the Oxford English Dictionary since Looking Glass’s publication.

Carroll does an amazing job of playing with the idea of connotation in this poem. He combines words to make new ones, joining definitions that can capture an idea more broadly than if he had just used a singular word. Some are incredible in their forethought, like “manxome” (which is the combination of manly and buxom), denoting both the masculine connotations of the word manly, and combining them with the femininity of the word buxom to leave the reader with a conundrum of a mental balancing act. “Vorpal”, which has never been defined, has trickled into colloquialism in small pockets of popular culture, appearing in everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Japanese video games, always with the implication of a deadly blade.

The poem is a beautiful piece, and has me staring quite hard at words and their etymology in its aftermath. I love how Carroll throws out the “rules” and simply does what he likes to serve his intentions (when’s the last time you were brazen enough in your writing to start outright inventing words?). Not to mention—he got away with it.

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10 thoughts on “Jabberwocky: Analysis

  1. “Despite the risk of alienating the reader, “Jabberwocky” works quite well on its own, even when reading with no prior knowledge of the vernacular.” This really gets to the heart of my love for Lewis Carroll. This poem is so fanciful and lyrical that you can’t help but sing it (and I do every time). It is a ballad, complete with a knight who slays a dragon (of sorts). It is beautiful and wonderful, and not nonsensical at all once you pull it apart.

    1. I loved this too. I’ve never read Carroll before (sadly), and this was a great introduction to his whimsical style. I love how the poem works whether you understand the words or not. I read to my six year old son the other night (we’ve been reading him Shel Silverstein lately), and even though he didn’t really “get it” he enjoyd hearing it anyway.

      1. So glad you both appreciate the way Carroll plays with sound — it’s such an integral part of the experience of this piece to me as well.

      2. If you are looking to introduce a little whimsy to your son, Shel Silverstein is wonderful. I also would recommend Maurice Sendak – Where The Wild Things Are is his most popular, but I especially love Chicken Soup With Rice, Pierre, and One Was Johnny. They are all perfect for his age group, and are poetic.

  2. The whimsical, melodic rhythm of the poem is contagious; and I appreciate the mental visuals accompanying this piece. The theme is once we conquer our fears, everything will be better – as represented by the exact first and last stanza. The first stanza represents the creation of the fear, the overcoming of the fear happens during the poem, and the last stanza represents the normal continuation of life.

    1. I agree that it’s contagious. Upon first reading it, it took me a few lines to get into it, but once I started rereading it I couldn’t help but smile at the phonetics and lovely bounce of language Carroll employs. Often poetry can be dense or cryptic, and while there is a fair share of obscurity employed in this poem, it was like a breath of fresh air in its whimsy.

  3. The way this poem is written is so inventive because he wrote it in a way that makes it seem like the poem itself has come from this magical world as well; not that its just about it. I love that he was so creative regardless of “the rules” and just did what he liked. Your right, also, that you don’t need to know what all the silly words mean to know whats happening; which is interesting as well since its almost as if you could change the poem a bit with your own definitions.

    1. This is another great point. The poem does indeed come from the magical world it describes, and since Alice is asleep throughout her adventures (and the adventures themselves are products of her subconscious mind) she is, in fact, the author of the poem. I love the idea that her subconscious blended and mashed words together into new forms. It’s as if, because she was asleep, she was free from the rigid forms of language in the waking world.

  4. “when’s the last time you were brazen enough in your writing to start outright inventing words?). Not to mention—he got away with it.– Great statement Tim! I have to admit this poem threw me for a loop and I had a hard time getting into it. Although truly creative and interesting, the nonsensical words caused me to get lost at times. However the poem does flow in a way which is lyrical and comedic in its tone.

  5. I’m impressed that you got so much out of the poem in your first time approaching it. I want to link to the following in the future as a beautiful example of close reading/explication:

    ““Brillig” is from bryll or broil, and relates to the late afternoon period (four o’clock) when a dinner would typically be prepared (or broiled). “Slithy toves” are slimy/lithe creatures described as being something like badgers, lizards, and corkscrews, and make their nests under sundials. They “gyre and gimble” in the “wabe”, or, “rotate and bore” on the “side of a hill”. The “borogoves” are thin, shabby looking birds with no wings and an upturned beak whom also live in the “wabe”; their “mimsy” is flimsy/misery. “Mome raths” are grave, green-skinned creatures something like pigs or badgers that “outgrabe”, or whistled/bellowed.”

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