Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Friday, February 16, 2007

An Agony in Eight Fits -- a Poetry Friday post

As I indicate last week, I've been reading The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll,, edited with notes by Martin Gardner.

The beauty of a poem this old is that it's no longer under copyright, so if you'd care to have gander at the text, you can easily find it on the Web. The University of Virginia has a nice version online, and so does The University of Adelaide, although neither appears to include the dedicatory poems to Gertrude Chataway, one of Carroll's (many) female "child-friends."

The first is brief, and reads as follows:

Inscribed to a dear Child:
in memory of golden summer hours
and whispers of a summer sea.

The second is an acrostic poem based on Gertrude Chataway's name. Carroll was a wiz at these, by the way, and wrote many of them for young girls who received copies of his books. Gertrude Chataway was, like Alice Liddell, a particular favorite of Carroll's. She is somewhat singular amongst Carroll's child-friends in that she and Carroll remained close friends even after she hit puberty, whereas Carroll usually lost interest once girls began to become women. Skeevy much? Perhaps. But I digress.

The poem is an excellent bit of nonsense that nonetheless leaves the reader satisfied that they've heard a story through to its conclusion, and perhaps learned a little something along the way. The annotations by Martin Gardner are interesting to read; they offer interpretations and possible shades of meaning to the various characters in the story and to their actions. Gardner relates the poem to other Carroll works (such as the Jabberwocky, with which it shares a bit of its lexicon), and to the work of other writers, as well as to current events at or near the time the poem was written.

One thing Gardner fails to mention is Carroll's -- or rather, his alter ego, Rev. Dodgson's -- membership in the London Philological Society and his participation in the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was so well-documented in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. Carroll's participation in the collection and definition of words used in the English language make it easier to understand why he chose some of his words, and also make looking into the particular words that much more important.

Agony in Eight Fits
For instance, Carroll subtitles his story "An Agony in Eight Fits". "Agony" is probably meant to replace the more typical "Comedy" or "Tragedy" denominations so popular at the time. It also hints at the precise nature of the story, as one of the definitions of "agony" is "the struggle that precedes death." And the "Eight Fits" at first appears to be a simple replacement for "three acts" or something similar, but it's much more than that. "Fit" here primarily refers to "a section of a poem or ballad", a use of the word that was archaic even in Carroll's time, but he'd have known more archaic words than the average bear on account of being in the Philological Society and working on the OED. It also probably modifies "agony", as a fit can be "a sudden accute attack of a disease," "a convulsion," or "a sudden period of vigorous activity." It can therefore be meant to indicate, for want of a better term, "death throes."

In Fit the Third, the Baker's Tale, the Baker relates how his uncle said
'But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away
And never be met with again.'

"Beamish" is sometimes considered a nonsense word (also appearing in Jabberwocky), but it is, in fact, an archaic variant on the word beaming found (where else?) in the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as 1520.

Throughout The Hunting of the Snark, the following stanza is repeated many times. Six, in fact, or two times the three needed to make it true. (Remember what the Bellman said, "What I tell you three times is true.")

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

Martin Gardner, in his notes, posits that the devices used against the Snark are all related to the five primary marks of the Snark enumerated in Fit the Second, the Bellman's Speech. The forks are for eating the Snark (it's first characteristic being taste), the railway shares to appeal to the Snark's ambition, smiles relate to puns, soap is for use in the bathing machines the Snark is so fond of carrying about, and the thimble is used to thump the Snark awake.

Gardner allows that other readings are possible, and so, here is mine:

I believe that the Snark is whatever you say it is. It is, in fact, what you want most, whatever that may be. It may be wealth, fame, glory, success, or something else entirely. Each line discusses the different ways people have of getting what it is they want, and as a metaphor, it works exceedingly well.

"They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care": a thimble is used in sewing to prevent one's finger getting pricked, and to allow for greater speed in sewing. A thimble is, itself, an item showing care. This line, read as a whole, shows that the Snark-seekers try to protect themselves while seeking the Snark, therefore showing care toward their own safety, but they also are probably proceeding with care, as one might do with a powerful personage. (Perhaps this is where Teddy Roosevelt, already established as a fan of The Hunting of the Snark, arrived at his conclusion that one should "speak softly, but carry a big stick"?)

"They pursued it with forks and hope": This is rather a more desperate way of going after something you seek, more the way that villagers might chase after Frankenstein or big game hunters might go all out on safari. Or perhaps it's indicative of how people are willing to try hard to climb their particular ladder, egged on by their hope in fulfilling their own dreams. Maybe it's neither, or maybe it's both. Either way, it shows dedication in pursuing and attaining one's goal.

"They threatened its life with a railway share": A railway share is, in fact, stock in the railroad. Perhaps they are threatening to deplete the Snark's habitat by building a railway through it, or perhaps they are, in fact, trying the bribe the Snark. These are both related to other tactics folks might employ in trying to achieve their ultimate goal, no?

"They charmed it with smiles and soap.": Who, in trying to get ahead, will not occasionally try to charm their way their, whether through good looks, good hygiene, or outright flattery?

This stanza is, as I said before, repeated a number of times. Gardner (and many others) believe that there may be a hidden message in the poem, and that this stanza is the most likely to hold it. I believe it's repeated to remind the reader that the pursuit of the Snark (and whatever it stands for) is ongoing, and involves a number of mixed methods.

Then in Fit the Eighth, The Vanishing, we learn what happens to the Baker, who manages to find what he believes is a Snark, only to find out that it wasn't what it seemed to be:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away --
For the Snark
was a Boojum, you see.

Perhaps what it all means is that in all that chasing and smiling and use of devices, people lose themselves in pursuit of their goals. Sounds like a plausible message, particularly for a member of the clergy in Victorian England, right? I think so. But I could be wrong.

I still have to read the after-matter in The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: The Definitive Edition, which includes other commentaries on the poem. I look forward to reading them and seeing whether they agree with my theory, or whether they have other, equally interesting theories to posit.

In the meantime, I will ponder whether "Miss Snark" means her name to imply her general snarkiness, or whether she is, in fact, holding herself out as something to be sought after. With forks.

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