The Victorianists in the Rice English department, both faculty and students, organize a series of events called Victorian Studies Seminars each year. While I get grouchy because such events more often than not require me to give up an entire Saturday, they really are pretty great. We’re ending this year with a mini-conference called “Poetry in the Age of the Novel.”
Now, as a graduate student, the further along you get in the PhD program the more certain the faculty become that you will not embarrass them by saying something inane or downright stupid, and so they begin to ask you to participate in such things.
I’ve agreed to deliver a short paper for the roundtable entitled “Sound and Form.” This panel has the potential to be extremely boring. At least for me. I tend to glaze over when speakers begin to use words like “iamb” and “tetrameter.” And in light of this potential boredom I’ve decided to do what I can to spice things up a little… or at least make things as spicy as a conference on Victorian poetry can be. So instead of talking about poetry on motherhood, which I think the planning commitee assumed I was going to do, I’m going to talk about nonsense poetry. In the true spirit of academia, I have agreed to deliver this paper before I’ve written it or even formulated a thesis.
Nonsense poetry is a new interest which grew out of my recent reading in children’s literature.* Lewis Carroll wrote one of the most famous nonsense poems — a poem known by most as the tune the Cheshire cat** sings as he fades from sight in the Disney movie of Alice in Wonderland. It memorably begins:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
I love the Jabberwocky and fully intend to memorize it, so that someday when I’m a slightly eccentric English professor I can break out and recite the whole thing in the middle of class. But one of the most fantastic things about good nonsense poetry aside from the promise of weirding out future undergraduates is that while most of the words could not be found in the dictionary, it manages to mean something. How can you read gyre and gimble and not understand, on some level, what Carroll meant? As Alice comments after reading the poem, “it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t know exactly what they are.”
This poem is a special case. Carroll originally “published” it in a family newsletter when he was in his 20s, claiming that it was an old Anglo-Saxon poem and providing a definition for each word. (Gyre and gimble mean “to scratch like a dog” and “to screw out holes,” respectively.) And while this first stanza is almost full-on nonsense, the middle stanzas of the poem are written in a language approaching something like standard English. Take, for example, the second stanza, which I find creepy creepy creepy:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
Indeed Jabberwocky is a poem that most claim to understand in a way that seems to contradict the idea of nonsense. This poem actually has been translated into many languages, including Latin, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Welch. And they translate this first stanza. Which is made up almost entirely of words that do not exist. Weird.
Other authors, like Edward Lear in Carroll’s day and the more contemporary Gertrude Stein, have written nonsense poetry, as well, but no nonsense poem seems to have achieved the acclaim of Jabberwocky. In his annotations in my edition of the Alice books, Martin Gardner mentions that much nonsense poetry fails because it seems to be trying too hard, straining for effect. A good nonsense poem, Gardner notes, is like an abstract painting, suggesting vague meanings or simply playing with pleasant (or unpleasant) sounds.
I haven’t decided yet what exactly I’m going to say about nonsense poetry at the conference in the spring, but it will have something to do with the ability of a poet to prioritize sound over sense. I think this could be really interesting in the context of Victorian London, a city that was growing exponentially and, as many recent scholars have pointed out, was becoming louder and louder. Maybe nonsense poets were, in their own way, taking possession of the cacophany by harnessing it and making it fun, funny, or frightening.
Beware the Jabberwock, my friends.
* Check out my spiffy new Owl and Pussycat icon from Edward Lear!
** Interesting factoid about the Cheshire cat: His name may be inspired by Cheshire cheese, which apparently used to be sold in the shape of a cat. As the cheese was sliced and served, the cat gradually disappeared, from tail to nose. I learned this and other rather useless information in the faaaabulous Annotated Alice.