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Monday, November 8, 2010

Standing in uffish thought...

Illustration to the poem Jabberwocky by Sir John
Tenniel (1820-1914).  First published in Lewis
Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What
Alice Found There

“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 though 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.

In 1872 a writer named Lewis Carroll wrote a poem using neologisms and nonsense words entitled Jabberwocky.  It is one of two poems that I have committed to memory.   (The other one - Beans, Beans, Musical Fruit – hasn’t come in very handy.)  While traveling in India, I won many a beer by being able to recite this in bars.  (Doesn’t work here, but I know a tongue twister that does!)

There have been several suggestions as to the inspiration for this work, but none conclusive.  Let it suffice that the Lewis Carroll mind needed little to cerebrally boink. 

Despite the words, the poem observes established poetic forms, such as quatrain verses, iambic meter, and an abab rhyme scheme.  Carroll’s sport with this poem has been compared with two of his contemporaries – Edward Lear and Gerard Manley Hopkins – but there is no evidence of interaction. Perhaps it was something in the air, or the water.

Jabberwocky has been translated into many languages, which must be a translator’s nightmare.  Most translators seem to have created their own words to replace Carroll’s invented ones.  It’s even been translated into Chinese by inventing Chinese characters for the nonsense words.

Some scholars believe that the true purpose of Jabberwocky was to make fun of pretentious poetry, and to fool (equally pretentious) literary critics.  It’s also said to be a parody of contemporary Oxford scholarship.  Yet another take on it is that it was designed to teach how NOT to write a poem, which makes the fact that it is included in many classroom poetry curricula ludicrous.  Carroll would’ve loved that!

2001, Pan Books
Many satires have been done on it; one of the funniest ones from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Oh Freddled Gruntuggly
by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz

Oh freddled gruntbuggly they micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee my foonting turlingdromes
And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my
Blurglecrucheon, see if I don’t!

(My spellchecker is burbling dangerously!)

There are many authors who offer interpretations of  the words from Jabberwocky.  The best analysis of the poem, which includes Carroll’s commentary, is in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice.  But I think it best to just read it, or listen to it, with your mind’s translator turned off.  Just let the words flow, and you just might sense what it all means.

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel
Remember, "Feed Your Mind".


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