“Jabberwocky” is a poem of nonsense verse written by Lewis Carroll, and was a part of his novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872). The book tells of Alice’s travels within the back-to-front world through a looking glass.
While talking with the White King and White Queen (chess pieces), she finds a book written in a strange language that she can’t read. Understanding that she is travelling in an inverted world, she sees it is mirror-writing, finds a mirror, and holds it up to a poem on one of the pages, to read out the reflection of “Jabberwocky”. She finds it as puzzling as the odd land she has walked into, which we later discover is a dreamscape.
It is considered to be one of the greatest nonsense poems written in the English language, and became a source of nonsense words and neologisms such as “galumphing”, “chortle”, and “Jabberwocky” itself.
In 1855, when Carroll was 23, he printed the first stanza of the poem in Mischmasch, a periodical that Carroll wrote and illustrated himself for the amusement of his family. It was entitled “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” and originally read:
“Twas bryllyg and ye slythy toves, Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe: All mimsy were ye borogoves; And ye mome raths outgrabe. ”
The spelling was altered when it was published as part of the later book.
The first stanza was written in Croft on Tees, close to nearby Darlington, where Carroll lived as a boy. The rest of the poem was written during Lewis Carroll’s stay with relatives at Whitburn, near Sunderland.
The story may have been partly inspired by the local Sunderland area legend of the Lambton Worm.
Roger Lancelyn Green suggests that “Jabberwocky” is a parody of the old German ballad “The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains” in which a shepherd kills a griffin that is attacking his sheep.
The ballad had been translated into English in blank verse by Lewis Carroll’s cousin Menella Bute Smedley in 1846, many years before the appearance of the Alice books.
Historian Sean B. Palmer suggests that Carroll was inspired by a section from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, citing the lines: “The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead/Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets” from Act I, Scene i.
John Tenniel reluctantly agreed to illustrate the book in 1871, and his illustrations are still the defining images of the poem.
The illustration of the Jabberwock may reflect the contemporary Victorian obsession with natural history and the fast-evolving sciences of palaeontology and geology.
Stephen Prickett notes that in the context of Darwin and Mantell’s publications and vast exhibitions of dinosaurs, such as those at the Crystal Palace from 1845, it is unsurprising that Tenniel gave the Jabberwock “the leathery wings of a pterodactyl and the long scaly neck and tail of a sauropod.”
Many of the words in the poem are playful nonce words of Carroll’s own invention, without intended explicit meaning.
Although the poem contains many nonsensical words, it holds to English syntax, and poetic forms are observed, such as the quatrain verses, the general abab rhyme scheme, and the iambic meter.
The linguist Lucas notes that the term “nonsense poem” is inaccurate. The poem relies on a distortion of sense rather than “non-sense”.
When Alice has finished reading the poem she gives her impressions:
‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘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’
This may reflect Carroll’s intention for his readership; the poem is, after all, part of a dream.
In later writings, he discussed some of his own created lexicon, commenting that he didn’t know his source for some of the words; the linguistic ambiguity and uncertainty throughout both the book and the poem may largely be the point.
In Through the Looking-Glass, the character of Humpty Dumpty gives comments on the non-sense words from the first stanza of the poem; however, Carroll’s personal commentary on several of the words differ from Humpty’s.
For example, following the poem, a “rath” is described by Humpty as “a sort of green pig”, whereas Carroll’s notes for the original in Mischmasch suggest a “rath” is “a species of Badger” that “lived chiefly on cheese” and had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag.
The appendices to certain Looking Glass editions, however, state that the creature is “a species of land turtle” that lived on swallows and oysters.
Later commentators have added their own interpretations of the lexicon, often without reference to Carroll’s own contextual commentary.
In January 1868, Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan, asking, “Have you any means, or can you find any, for printing a page or two of the next volume of Alice in reverse?” This may suggest that Carroll was wanting to print the whole poem in mirror writing. Macmillian responded that it would cost a great deal more to do, and this may have dissuaded him
Multiple translations into Latin were made within the first weeks of Carroll’s original publication.
Legend of the Lambton Worm: