Friday, January 02, 2009

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

First the poem, then some chat.

by Lewis Carroll

`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 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.

I did not learn this poem as a child, which is a shame. Also, a bit of a shock, since as an adult I learned that it is one of my mother's all-time favorite poems. I never even knew she had favorite poems!

As I was looking through my Annotated Alice, I spied this poem. I was sure I'd posted it before, but I was wrong. I've posted a review of a picture book edition illustrated by Christopher Myers, and I've posted about nonsense poems before, but I've never posted the text. And 2009 seems like a good time to remedy that situation.

Form and function

The poem opens and closes with the same stanza: what starts as an introduction forms almost a benediction at the end. Each stanza is cross-rhymed (ABAB). The first three lines of each stanza have 8 syllables (4 roughly iambic feet), and the fourth line has 6 (3 feet). The poem was intended by its author to be a condemnation/satire of pretentious poetry, a poke at literary critics, and a sort of warning along the lines of "how not to write a poem", but it quickly earned its own reputation, and is one of the best-known and widely-referenced poems in the English language (to the extent that all those portmanteau and nonsense words count as English).

Why this poem rocks for kids

During school visits where I've come in to teach kids about poetry, I frequently open my presentation by reciting (nay, performing) this poem from memory. I do this for several reasons: 1) it's fun; 2) I love this poem; 3) nothing grabs kids' attention more quickly than launching into something that makes them pause long enough to say (or think) "what the hell?", because when they pause, they fall silent and start listening and paying attention, trying to sort things out - it's so much more fun (and interesting) than opening with "now boys and girls, please quiet down so I can lecture you"; and 4) this poem makes kids feel really smart.

But wait, Kelly, you say - what's with that last one? Didn't you just acknowledge how confusing and strange this poem is? You betcha - and yet, if you sit and listen to it all the way through, you can sort out the story. I have confidence in you, you see, because kids as young as first grade have sorted this one out for me. Now, not all first and second graders get it all the way right, but as a whole, a class of kids will totally get this poem, which has lots of action (some of it mildly horrifying, which is better still). And they adore the wordplay in it. In some cases, the younger kids are better with the portmanteau words and nonsense words in the poem than older kids or grownups are. My theory is that this is so because there are just so many, many words that they don't yet know the meaning of that they don't spend as much time thinking "hey! that's not a real word!" Also? Because I actually do perform the poem as opposed to simply reciting it, I incorporate "standing and thinking" poses and swashbuckling and head-carrying actions into what I'm doing, so the visual cues probably help, too.

While I do not have a large cast, and I generally pantomime carrying a severed head, this skit from The Muppet Show does a pretty good job at reflecting the actions described in the poem:


poemhome said...

this was one of my favorite poems in highschool, where I even tried to illustrate, or should I say
Ill-ustrate, it.
I don't know if anyone CAN illustrate it, because it means so many different things to so many different people. I do love the ABAB CDCD rhyme scheme and inventive language not to mention all the other devices he's using.

Kelly Fineman said...

I love this one, too, Douglas. Christopher Myers (Walter's son) illustrated it as a pick-up basketball game, and his illustrator's note included (farcical) information about Mayan basketball being referenced in the margins of Carroll's papers - there was a bit of a kerfuffle when some folks took that as truth instead of as the joke it was intended to be. My review (with links to Pat Lewis's review and a subsequent letter to the NY Times from the head of the Lewis Carroll Society) is here, if you're interested.