What Good Is Poetry? The Noteworthy Nonsense of ‘Jabberwocky’

By Sean Fitzpatrick
Sean Fitzpatrick
Sean Fitzpatrick
Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals, including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.
November 17, 2021 Updated: November 17, 2021

There exist some loose bits of lyrical nonsense so absurd that they become absolute. That is to say, there can be a foolishness so extreme that it crosses over the equator into the gravity of philosophers, giving sages the task of meditating on owls and pussycats, or poring over the prattlings of Mother Goose instead of Aristotle.

And so, the silly and the serious need not be such strangers, for it is in the lightness of a somersault that the heaviest truths can sometimes find a comfortable tumbling down to earth, and that tripping triviality can somehow manage to plumb some of the depths of eternal profundity.

Such is the happy position of much of the nonsense in Lewis Carroll’s works—or larks, as we should call them—with none so nonsensical and sublime as the eloquent jibber-jabber titled “Jabberwocky.”

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 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.

Now, we could, as Alice did, apply to the venerable Humpty Dumpty to explain this particular and peculiar piece of poetry, for he claims to be able to explain every poem that has ever been invented—and a good many that haven’t been invented yet—and he does a fine job translating, or untangling, the opening words in “Through the Looking Glass.”

But words left alone almost have more meaning, or at least they are more meaningful. Like any murder mystery, the problem is always more intriguing than the solution. And to add a dash of Wordsworth and mix the metaphors in honor of the material, we mustn’t murder to dissect.

Let us, then, rely on our instincts and imaginations and say with head-scratching delight, as Alice said:

“It seems very pretty … 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—”

Somebody did kill something, indeed. That much is clear, and nothing needs further clarification, for in these dancing sounds truth leaps out. In “Jabberwocky’” is embedded all the schemes and tropes and themes of any traditional epic, bearing all the elements that make literature lovely and living.

In “Jabberwocky” booms the perilous yet perfunctory quest to seek and slay a monster. It is a wild coming of age and a wacky coming into heroism. It exults in rustic goodness conquering outlandish evil. The burbling Jabberwock with eyes of flame is the dragon, the beast, the villain. Our beamish boy is Jason, he is Sigurd, he is Beowulf and Gilgamesh and St. George.

The neologisms, coinages, and verbal blendings of the poetry are more eloquent than the words they mimic and morph. And it took a bumbling, stolid mathematician-logician famed for writing farcical fiction—whose name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, stands on its head to become Lewis Carroll—to bring these senseless frivolities to sensible fruition.

LewisCarrollSelfPhoto
Photographic portrait of author Lewis Carroll. (PD-US)

There is something here lurking and laughing in “Jabberwocky” that strikes at the pure power of poetry. It can teach new languages to those with an ear to hear, a heart to thrill, and a snicker-snack” reason ready to draw the zigzags that connect the dazzling chaos of the stars. And it rejoices in the ingenuity to confound through the craziest of impossibilities in order to stand firm in the glories of common sense in the wild, wide world of uncommon nonsense.

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals, including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.