Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Slithy Toves

In January of this year I wrote a post called “Red Convertibles & Pea Green Boats” about a favorite teacher I had in junior high and the part she played in guiding me toward an appreciation for poetry and drama. I would give anything to once more have the chance to meet that teacher and spend some time together talking, but the possibility of that is very likely far-fetched. In writing about her earlier, one particular seventh grade ‘class topic’ was the focus, but only one of many I recall. It may have been a year later that we in Miss Brumfield’s speech class were introduced to Lewis Carroll and his poem, “Jabberwocky.” That was one that jiggled my brain good, and though none of us ever came away with more than a tenuous grasp on the poem’s meaning (and who does?), it was a wonderful lesson on language and the art of creating fantastic sounds and images with words—even those not found in a dictionary.

“Jabberwocky” is a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll that appeared in his 1872 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. The book is a sequel to his earlier Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. According to English writer G.K. Chesterton, the original purpose of “Jabberwocky” was to satirize both pretentious verse and ignorant literary critics. In later writings Carroll comments that for many of the words in the poem he had no specific meaning or sources in mind. The ambiguity of the poem corresponds with that of the overall book and may have well been Carroll’s intent. After reading the poem Alice herself expresses some confusion, saying…

“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—

Lists of interpretations for “Jabberwocky” and its fantastical vocabulary have been compounded, though they may not—all or any—be the ones the author intended. ‘Brillig’ according to Humpty Dumpty means four o’clock in the afternoon, the time when you begin boiling things for dinner; ‘frabjous’ is possibly a blend of fair, fabulous and joyous; ‘mimsy’ is a combination of flimsy and miserable. And the possibilities go on and on. From a poetic sense, there is a rhyme scheme to the poem that can be identified as iambic meter, in addition to all the obvious examples from a poet’s toolbox, the soundplay, alliteration, created-language and word combinations.

Best I think to forget all the critical concoctions and give yourself over to the sound and taste of the words in your own mouth. That is truly where the enjoyment begins.


’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 manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, 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.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! 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.


  1. Once quite a while ago we stayed in a Bed and Breakfast in Seattle, WA and it was called Jabberwocky. Everything that was written (the breakfast menu, the instructions in the bedroom, etc.) were written so that we had to hold it up to a mirror to read. It was a very interesting concept based on the works of this author. I remember the poem and studying it in high school, but I'm one of the ones that enjoyed the craziness of the wording, but I could never really understand it.......or should I be able to??????

  2. I remember only you memorizing this poem and reciting it at the drop of a hat while we less movtivated poetry lovers merely watched and listened. Always life-changing when a special teacher introduces words and acting them out into the lives of those hungry to learn.

  3. I think my problem is fixed. The old blog should be up and working.
    No more technology for me today. I'm heading for my dusty books . . .


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America