Given the enormous impact Lewis Carroll has had on generations of readers, I would in any case have wanted to include him in this series. I was not however sure that that would be justified in terms of his poetry alone. However, in including him amongst the 100 writers he celebrates in Genius, Harold Bloom pays particular attention to his poetry, which I will take as confirmation that this deserves celebration in its own right.
Much of the poetry appeared in the two Alice books, which are the main reason for Carroll’s fame. The poetry certainly adds to the impact of the book, though that alone would not have been enough to treat Carroll as a great poet. But there is undoubtedly one poem which can be celebrated in its own right, and I will begin with that, though I will also go on to discuss why the poems in the Alice books require inclusion in this series.
The poem of independent virtue, as it were, is The Hunting of the Snark, which is most peculiar because we are given no idea of what a Snark might be. We also do not know if the hunt is successful, because the poem ends on a bizarre note, with one of the hunters vanishing, perhaps into the maws of the Snark, if a Snark might be presumed to have maws.
The sad victim is the Baker, one of a group of characters whose designations begin with B, who band together to hunt the Snark. They hunt it with a vast range of implements, which draw on the various ways in which Victorian society exercised influence. These include railway shares and cutlery.
The poem is in eight parts, which are called ‘fits’. I shall have to content myself with citing only the last, which gives a fair idea of the whole
FIT THE EIGHTH
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
They shuddered to think that the chase might fail,
And the Beaver, excited at last,
Went bounding along on the tip of its tail,
For the daylight was nearly past.
“There is Thingumbob shouting!” the Bellman said,
“He is shouting like mad, only hark!
He is waving his hands, he is wagging his head,
He has certainly found a Snark!”
They gazed in delight, while the Butcher exclaimed
“He was always a desperate wag!”
They beheld him—their Baker—their hero unnamed—
On the top of a neighbouring crag,
Erect and sublime, for one moment of time,
In the next, that wild figure they saw
(As if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm,
While they waited and listened in awe.
“It’s a Snark!” was the sound that first came to their ears,
And seemed almost too good to be true.
Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
Then the ominous words “It’s a Boo—”
Then, silence. Some fancied they heard in the air
A weary and wandering sigh
That sounded like “-jum!” but the others declare
It was only a breeze that went by.
They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
Snarks that were Boojums, it should be mentioned, were supposed to be particularly dangerous. Also worth mentioning is Bloom’s interpretation of the manner of the Baker’s demise, since he connects it to Carroll’s celebration of celibacy, given his attraction to pre-pubescent girls. Bloom declares that ‘Commentary seems unnecessary: “erect,” “spasm,” “chasm” tell one story and one story only’.
Such an interpretation would not immediately have occurred to me, but I realize I am often naïve. However the idea, and many more in the poem, contribute to a world vision of great oddity which can however also be illuminating in a preposterous fashion. The poem, despite its ridiculous air, carries a pervasive note of menace, which I find more illuminating than the other supposedly great quest narrative of the 19th century, Melville’s Moby Dick. The reason for Ahab’s obsession with the White Whale has always struck me as idiosyncratic in a manner that makes it difficult to share in its urgency. Contrariwise, the motives of the Hunters of the Snark are patently ridiculous, which I think is much more illuminating about the obsessions we allow ourselves to be taken over by – which is why the disasters that result are an object lesson about ourselves rather than about some universal morality such as is attached to Melville’s also self indulgent tale.
The Snarkhas some splendid lines which illustrate the way we impose our own visions of the world on ourselves as well as the world. My favourite is that ringing claim to carrying conviction, ‘What I tell you three times is true’, which I have noticed is a common habit of politicians. That need for self conviction perhaps explains also the nature of what they assert without such repetition
Politicians I fear (as perhaps I should, being supposedly one myself) also come to mind in my favourite amongst the poems in the Alice books. This is The Walrus and the Carpenter, an unusual juxtaposition of characters, though the reason for this is suggested in the marvelous drawings which Teniel produced for those volumes. The Walrus looking wonderfully benign with his massive moustache, a perfect foil for the more crafty looking Carpenter, suggests the sort of conviction that mature mentors carry with them. This air of innocent experience is doubtless what convinces the young oysters to accompany the older and wiser pair on their walk, a walk from which they do not return when summoned, since
O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.”
This frightening if realistic aspect of Carroll’s vision, which is why he should be part of this series which is about distinctive perspectives as much as about great poets, is not apparent in all his poems. Perhaps the first one I read, You are old, Father William, is closer to pure entertainment, though even there the irascible old man’s reaction at the end suggests the acerbity of the writer’s general outlook. The first few verses however, a splendid take off of the admonitory poetry of the Victorian age that Carroll deplored, are simply great fun.
” OU are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head–
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”
More thoroughly characteristic of Carroll is the lullaby the Duchess croons to the sneezing baby, which presents a much darker view of childhood than we would normally associate with Carroll and his passion for little girls. But this more violent approach to irritating babies is of a piece with the idealization of the pretty personification of passive innocence. When it changes, it has to be dismissed, and roughly so.
‘Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.’
Carrolls’s vision then is a pursuit of the ideal in full knowledge of its transcience, and the generally less than ideal situation we have to put up with. Hunting Snarks is simply a way of asserting our own selves, and creating objectives of a mythical nature to promote camaraderie and common effort. Standing firm against this aimlessly busy world is the character of Alice, an individualist of great spirit, whose strength of character we hardly appreciate when reading the books as children. The latest film however does bring this out, and I think one reason we continue to cherish the books is that we see more and more in them as we read them in later life.
The poems certainly help to make clear the nature of the world, or rather or what we generally make of it. They do not themselves contribute to Carroll’s sense of the alternative, but that too can be seen in lines that suggest the softer nature of the author. Unfortunately, as with so many elements in life, innocence is rarely as compelling as the alternatives.