Monday, April 05, 2010

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

Yesterday's poem, "The butterfly obtains" by Emily Dickinson, got me thinking about butterflies and caterpillars (whence butterflies come), and about the latest movie version of Alice in Wonderland, which I mentioned on my blog after I first saw it in 2D with M. (I have since seen it in 3D with hubby, and copied down quite a few quotes while there. Why yes, I am a geek, thank you very much.) But rather than presenting you with the poem sometimes called "Advice from a Caterpillar" but known as well or better as "Father William" or "You Are Old, Father William", I opted to post about the Jabberwocky, which is in a version of hymn meter - as was Dickinson's poem yesterday. (See what I did there?)

By the by: I am nearly certain that all of you know that Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but did you also know that "Lewis Carroll" is derived from "Charles Lutwidge"? Charles in Latin is Carolus, and "Carroll" is a derivation of that. Lutwidge in Latin would be Ludovicus, and "Lewis" is an anglicized derivation there as well. That's right - he put his names into Latin, then pulled them back out again another way. Just what you'd expect from Alice's creator, but I digress. First the poem, then some discussion:

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 cannot get the image of Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen out of my head - and in light of today's poem, I picture Christian Slater's character (the Knave, or Stayne) telling her what the Oracular says about the Frabjous Day, when it is foretold that Alice will slay the Jabberwocky. (She looks up at him and says "My jabberbabywocky?" So great!) Which reminds me of the scene where she repeatedly slaps Stayne in response to his short, declarative phrases that are part of a single sentence, which I found hilarious both times. But again, I digress.

Form: 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).

Discussion: 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. It is now one of the best-known and most 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 been asked 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.

When I do the poem, I'm all alone,and I generally pantomime carrying a severed head in my hand. However, this skit from The Muppet Show does a pretty good job at reflecting the actions described in the poem, and the commentary before and after it reflect the trippy nature of both the poem and their depiction of it:

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