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Jabberwocky (lit essay)

Posted on January 3, 2010 at 11:25 PM

The 1871 poem Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll, is an example of nonsense verse, or “amphigouri”. Poetic forms of this kind are normally composed for humorous effect, and are “intentionally and overtly paradoxical, silly, witty, whimsical or otherwise strange” (Mills). It is particularly common in English poetry, due to the typically absurdist streak in British humour. The poem is full “nonse words” of Carroll’s own creation, many of them “portmanteau”, which are sounds formed by blending two or more words together. For example, “frumious” could be a mixture of fuming and furious; “chortled” could be a mixture of chuckle and snort; and “burbled” could be a mixture of bleat, murmur and warble (Mills).

Although the Jabberwocky contains many nonsensical words, its structure is perfectly consistent with classic English poetry. The sentence structure is accurate and the poetic forms are observed. For example, the poem contains 7 stanza’s of quatrain verse; it follows a rhyming pattern of ABAB CDCD EFGF HIHI JKLK MNON PQPQ; and it abides by an iambic tertrameter (Griffith). Most of the lines in the poem contain 8 syllables, with the exception of lines 4, 12, 16, 20, 24, and 28 (which contain 6); line 8 (which contains 7); and line 11 (which contains 9). Also, a “story” is somewhat discernible in the flow of events.

The poem seems to describe a young boy who is warned by his father of the vicious and “frumious” creatures that dwell in the nearby woods, especially the Jabberwock, with its “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch”. So the boy takes his “vorpal sword” (perhaps meaning sharp or large) and stands guard by the old “tumtum tree”. All of a sudden a Jabberwock with “eyes of flame” comes “whiffling” and “burbling” out of the woods. The boy stikes his blade deep into the beast, slaying it with a “snicker-snack”, and then goes “galumphing” (perhaps triumphantly galloping) back home. The father, overcome with pride and joy hugs his “beamish” (or beaming) son, and exclaims it a “frabjous day” (perhaps fabulous and joyful). The poem ends as it had begun, with a description of more of these strange, but relatively harmless, creatures (“toves”, “borogroves” and “raths”) scampering around the forest bed.

The story of the poem can be seen as an example of monomyth or “hero’s journey”; that is, a basic narrative pattern that underpins the structure of all mythology. Joseph Campbell examines the construct in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, concluding that “numerous tales from disparate times and regions seem to share a fundamental structure and stages”. The monomyth is of “a hero venture[ing] forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Campbell). A colleague of Carroll, Roger Lancelyn Green, suggests that the rest the poem may have been inspired by an old German ballad, The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains, in which a young shepherd slays a monstrous Griffin (Mills). Nevertheless, what makes Jabberwocky so effective is that it sums up all of these fantastic images and exotic creatures in the readers mind, through the use of non-existent words and phrases, all while abiding perfect poetic form. Words like “gallumphing” and “beamish” are understood emotionally, rather than intelligently, because they strike primal feelings within the reader, even without proper definitions attached to them. As Alice states in Through the Looking-Glass, after hearing the poem for the first time, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don't exactly know what they are!”

The meaning behind Jabberwocky has puzzled fictional characters, literary critics and other poets since it was first read, and since Carroll originally composed it as a parody of what he viewed as “pretentious poetry”, and as an example of how “not to write a poem” (Carroll), one could conclude that it contains no underlying message and is just a bunch of nonsense and incoherent rambling. However, I believe that the main theme of Jabberwocky, whether the author intended it or not, is journey—the journey from childhood to adulthood—and in order to delve deeper into this concept we must look at the very words that we don’t understand. The first stanza of the poem was written years before the rest, while Carroll was staying at Whitburn and may have been inspired by local legend of the Lambton Worm. The poem opens with “twas brillig”, which, in German, refers to the time when supper is starting to be prepared. The term and its origin allow the reader to visualize perhaps a small, calm village on the edge of a grim forest. The last line of the stanza (“and the mome raths outgrabe”) could be interpreted as “dull people... not stupid, but superstitious” and wary of the unseen creatures that haunt the lands beyond their home (Desiree). The second stanza is where the true context of the poem begins. Here the reader is given three obviously mythical creatures, which “from the outside looking in, could represent the fears of the villages” (Desigree, 2). Although the reader cannot understand the meaning of these words (“Jabberwock”, “Jubjub bird” and “Bandersnatch”), they know to fear them, especially the Jabberwock, with its “jaws” and “claws”. Carroll has stated that this creature was inspired by a “large and ancient tree” in the gardens of Christ Church, Oxford; with its “many sprawling, twisted branches and somewhat suggestive of tentacles” (Carroll). The next four stanzas recount how the young boy, against his fathers warnings, seeks out and destroys the legendary beast, and takes its head back to the village to prove its destruction. Upon his return, his father praises him for doing what no other had done.

So how does this all fit in with the concept of the journey? Well, the poem plays off the fears of the reader. Children are afraid to grow up and adults are afraid to let their children go. From either standpoint, the journey is not necessarily a joyous occasion as the father warns the boy of the deadly weapons of the Jabberwock (Desigree). The journey to adulthood is never ending, and there is always going to be obstacles in the way for children and adults alike, which may be why the first and last stanza’s are the same. This poem shows the journey each and every person will take in their lifetime. The creatures may take different forms, but there will always be obstacles to overcome. Lewis Carroll understands this concept of journey and uses it to create a deeper look at the human nature in relation to the mythological creatures that all humans fear.

Categories: ESSAYS, Literature

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