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A Critique of Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky'

by Barry Stebbings

What is the fascination that people have with this poem? For some it is nonsense rhyme in the genre of comic verse, for others, it is not regarded as ‘poetry’ at all. The ‘made up’ words that occur in this composition could easily be dismissed as gibberish but they are accepted as part of the work. That is to say, they are assimilated and given value within the context of the poem. Why?

Lewis Carroll introduces his poem ‘Jabberwocky’ with three imaginary creatures. The Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, and the Bandersnatch. Then he chooses the Jabberwock. This is a standard storytelling opening and introduces the Jabberwock in a prosaic way, nothing to draw attention to its fictional existence. There is no sudden precipitation into a fantasy that might be rejected as improbable.

The story opens with a fanciful setting, as in the staging of a fairy tale, so there is nothing unfamiliar with this, the poem is introduced in a comfortable and recognizable manner. The story then progresses in a simple linear fashion. The boy fights and kills the Jabberwock, perhaps to impress his father. Then the final stanza, repeating the first, almost implies stability in the setting in which the story is placed.

In this work, the constructed words, ‘i.e., borogoves, Bandersnatch, whiffling, beamish, etc. have a purpose within the poem. They are used as verbs, adjectives, and nouns as any ‘normal’ words are. They are not simply superficial information.

Examining the composition more closely, we see that it is written in a simple rhyming style, about eight syllables per line. Those words that are ‘artificial’ easily fit into this meter and I think this gives a clue as to why they are not rejected as pure nonsense. This means two things. The first is that the poem and words such as ‘frumious’ , ‘galumphing’ and ‘mome raths’ were thoughtfully considered by Lewis Carroll. Writing in meter shows careful construction and careful choice of ‘constructed’ words. They fit both the rhyme and the rhythm of the work by design. They fall comfortably into the overall rhythm and meter of the poem and are read naturally in the flow of the poetry. They are not extraneous superficial add-ons, nor are they random morsels of nonsense thrown in for effect.

The second reason they are not rejected as nonsense words is because they have no meaning of their own. They are not specific, therefore they have no meaning to reject. They do not threaten us with not understanding them, we find our own way of accepting, even associating humor and purpose. It is interesting, I think, that ‘mome raths outgrabe’ consists of words that act as an adjective, a noun, and a verb and that each is used in its proper context in English grammar, even though they are not defined. More than that, their meaning is fluid. What one person understands by a ‘mome rath’ may be different from another’s but the poem may work for both.

If this poem demonstrates anything, I think it shows that our understanding of words relies on more than their definition. In some way, it depends on our expectation of the meaning within the context of its usage. Thus words can be substituted, as sometimes occurs in speech, without loss of the sense of the sentence. It is within this exchange that humor plays; using surprise, unfamiliarity, and clever wordplay. Taking a mundane story to another level.