Sunday Poetry: Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll

Jabberwocky
‘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 maxome foe he sought-
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood a while in thought.

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.

“Has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Calloh! 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.

- by Lewis Carroll

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What is the point of “Jabberwocky”, one of the most beloved poems of the English language? Fun. Read it out loud, and you find yourself performing it. Like the lyrics of a song you know well, it’s hard to read without feeling the rhythm and music, and having them filter into your voice. Reading “Jabberwocky” in a monotone is a joyless but impressive feat of verbal self-control.

Do you want to know what the strange words mean? Unfortunately, Lewis Carroll provided a few definitions, both in his own commentary and in the form of Humpty Dumpty opining on the poem in “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There”.

Personally, I choose not to accept the meanings Carroll offers. “Mimsy” means frivolous and whimsical when I read the poem, and “brillig” means bright and brilliant.

As Alice describes the poem, “… It seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t know exactly what they are.” Well stated, Alice.

One final note before I’ll ask you to go back and read the poem aloud again – note the power of poetic form. The rhymes carry you through the poem, even without meaning, and the “duDAH duDAH duDAH duDAH” of lines like “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!/The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!” give a satisfying beat. And consider the impact of the repeated first stanza – it adds a seriousness and completeness to the poem, even though it is nonsensical. Repetition is the same poetic trick employed so hauntingly by Dylan Thomas in “Do not go gentle into that good night“, and it works in both. While “Jabberwocky” is fun and deserves to be enjoyed as fun, a student of poetry can see that there’s a lot of interesting work going on in its frabjous stanzas.

Now, please take a couple moments and read the poem aloud. I hope it lightens your heart and brings a smile.

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