Sunday, 17 July 2011

"Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll

This poem from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is a lingering one. There is something about the language which makes me return to the poem over and over. Carroll had a knack for language, inventing words as he went along with great success. He explained his procedure in the preface to The Hunting of The Snark:

As this poem is to some extent connected with the lay of the Jabberwock, let me take this opportunity of answering a question that has often been asked me, how to pronounce "slithy toves." The "i" in "slithy" is long, as in "writhe"; and "toves" is pronounced so as to rhyme with "groves." Again, the first "o" in "borogoves" is pronounced like the "o" in "borrow." I have heard people try to give it the sound of the "o" in "worry. Such is Human Perversity.

This also seems a fitting occasion to notice the other hard works in that poem. Humpty-Dumpty's theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all.

For instance, take the two words "fuming" and "furious." Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards " fuming," you will say "fuming-furious;" if they turn, by even a hair's breadth, towards "furious," you will say "furious-fuming;" but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say "frumious."

Supposing that, when Pistol uttered the well-known words--

Under which king, Bezonian? Speak or die!"

Justice Shallow had felt certain that it was either William or Richard, but had not been able to settle which, so that he could not possibly say either name before the other, can it be doubted that, rather than die, he would have gasped out "Rilchiam!


I interviewed a few people and asked them to go "galumphing", a word coined and frequently used by Carroll. Although none of them knew the word from before, they all did what Eddie Izzard, miming a moving giraffe does here. That is the true mark of linguistic genius.

So, without further ado, on with the poem!

Lewis Carroll


And Alice described it very well:

"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---"
Sources: Preface, Poem, End Quotation

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