Friday, February 09, 2007

The Snark was a Boojum, you see -- a Poetry Friday post

Until I began doing my Poetry Friday posts last May over at my LJ blog, I didn't realize what a Lewis Carroll fan I seem to be. If you were to ask me my favorite poets, then or now, I probably wouldn't list Carroll. And yet. Here it is, another Carrollian post.

This one is because I only yesterday purchased The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll, edited with notes by Martin Gardner. Isn't it pretty?

Or maybe you can't tell from the thumbnail. But take my word for it, it is pretty. It contains scholarly forewords by Martin Gardner from two previous editions, copies of the original illustrations by Henry Holiday, and the entire text of The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carroll, complete with dedicatory poem and the Easter Greeting that accompanied it when it was first published on April Fool's Day, 1876.

As I've not yet read the actual poem in its entirety yet, but merely the prefatory matter and some snippets, I will comment a bit on what I know so far, and invite any of you who are so inclined to read the book along with me, since I plan on returning to it next week to discuss the poem.

First, a word about Carroll's process in writing this particular nonsense poem, which features phenomenal lines like this:

They roused him with muffins -- they roused him with ice --
They roused him with mustard and cress --
They roused him with jam and judicious advice --
They set him conundrums to guess.

From "The Baker's Tale", which was "Fit the Third".

Carroll wrote this poem (roughly) backwards. He was visiting his sister in Guildford, a sad visit because the family was sitting vigil, waiting for the death of Carroll's nephew, who suffered from tuberculosis. On July 18, 1874, Carroll began this poem. Here's what he said of how it came about:

I was walking on a hillside, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse -- one solitary line -- "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see." I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means, now; but I wrote it down: and, some time afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza.

From "Alice on Stage," The Theatre, April 1887.

I must say, who can blame Mr. Dodgson (aka Carroll) for pursuing his rhyme, with an excellent line such as "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see" to start with (or, in his case, to end with)? I would have to chase that line down had it come to me.

And how reassuring to know that Carroll's ideas for poems came to him in dribbles, the way that some of mine do, and that sometimes just one little line can be enough to start a lengthy work.

And now a brief overview of what I (and perhaps you) will find if you read The Hunting of the Snark: A series of eight "fits", which are set in the voice of various crewmates on a ship that has set out to find a Snark, led by The Bellman, and including such shipmates as The Beaver, The Barrister, The Banker and The Baker. The Baker warns his nephew that one must be careful, lest their Snark turn out to be a Boojum:

"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!"

During his lifetime, Carroll insisted that he had no idea what the poem truly meant, but that he liked the theories that had sprung up that it was a metaphor for the pursuit of happiness. Since then, additional theories abound, including one that it was about tuberculosis (TB), since all the named characters have names with initials "TB". Some believe that the Snark is material gain, and that greed swallows one whole. Some believe that it is, in fact, an existentialist poem, and that one finds out in the end that one does not, in fact, exist.

I am looking forward to some time with my lovely new book this week, and I will be back to "tingle my bell" about it next Friday. I hope you'll join me!


Little Willow said...

Great choice! Charles aka Lewis is one of my favorite writers.

Goetz said...

Klaus Reichert, who translated the Snark into German, calls Carroll's statements on his Snark poem a "lime twig" (Reichert: Studien zum literarischen Unsinn - Lewis Carroll, 1974, p145-186 is about the Snark). Carroll's comment on "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see" (the sentence on which he started to build his Snark poem four days after it came into his mind) may be "true" or "false". In 1874, was July 18th a "bright summer day" in Guildford?

Carroll's statemets have to be read cautiously: "It is possible that the author was half-consciously laying a trap, so readily did he take to the inventing of puzzles and things enigmatic; but to those who knew the man, or who have devined him correctly through his writings, the explanation is fairly simple." (Henry Holiday on Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark", January 29th, 1898)

In his Easter Greeting to The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll states, that it is "book of nonsense". The book is "nonsense", but no utterance by Carroll reliably supports the claim, that he and Henry Holiday didn't give any meaning to the Snark. Carroll also wrote (letter to "The Lowrie Children", 1886 or 1887): "A whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant."

Kelly Fineman said...

It would be like Carroll to have created his own mythos about the creation of his story. Thanks for the comment and link!