Sunday, January 24, 2010

'Twas Brillig...

I have never been very good at poetry – either writing or reading. There have been very few poems that have really moved me. By and large, I pretty much keep away from poetry. This is a fault that I guess should be corrected, and I vow work on it sometime.

When I was sixteen years old, I picked up a book called ‘The Annotated Alice’. This book had all of the Alice adventures of Lewis Carroll – ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and whatever. What interested me about the book was that it purported to explain the real meanings of the stories. It has long been claimed that Lewis Carroll wrote in code, and the ‘Annotated Alice’ addressed that. True or not, it made interesting reading.

In this book I came across the poem “The Jabberwocky”. I think this was in ‘Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There’. I remember reading the first line.

“ ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…” Huh? I thought this was odd – in fact too odd to continue, so I put the book away. But one Sunday afternoon I was bored and spent most of the afternoon in bed listening to music. For lack of anything else to do, I grabbed the Alice book – and it fell open to the poem. I read the first stanza in a bored and sighing way.

“ ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The first thing I discovered was that it rhymed. I am more comfortable with poems that rhyme. But the wording was kind of hard to get your tongue around. So I set up a little challenge within myself to be able to recite it out loud without stumbling. Soon I was able to do it.

Now I had no idea what it meant – but the words kind of melted together once I could read it. Then I tried to understand whether that first stanza was meant to be soothing, or boisterous, or demanding, or lyrical. So I practiced saying it out loud in different tones – sometimes fast and spitting, sometimes slow and romantic. To me, it seemed to work either way. Thus my fascination began with the poem, “The Jabberwocky”. It became my favorite poem and remains so today.

I have since learned that some of those strange words have Elizabethan era origins, but most are not words at all. I thought about this poem quite a bit. Generally, poetry is an attempt to convey thought in a lyrical way – to move or astound or make you feel as though what was expressed hit you right in the gut. Listen to me, trying to explain poetry. Ha! But I couldn’t figure out any thought to be conveyed within ‘The Jabberwocky’. It made absolutely no sense. Well, it made a little bit of sense…for if you read carefully you could detect a sense of emotional thought. But, what truly intrigued me was the use of words. The “sound” of words was used – much as a musician uses notes. This fascinated me – and still does fascinate me. From that point on – the sound of words became important to me. Many many times I will opt for the sound of words, even when more precise words would have been better. Sometimes I find that a good speaker will do this. The sound of words is important.

I taught my son and daughter “The Jabberwocky” in their pre-teen years. I practiced it with them. They reached a point where they could recite “The Jabberwocky” as a funeral dirge, or as a bombasting oration, or full of hate with venom spitting out, or as a soul encompassing love poem. As I practiced in my youth the sounds and textures of the words, my kids learned to convey any type of meaning they desired in reciting this poem. No – don’t think that this was a torture chamber for them. We had great fun and laughed a lot at the exaggerations in voice tone and gestures while reading the poem.

Since that point, each of them was always the preferred student to be called on to recite narrative or poetry in class. They knew how to pull emotion out of the written word.

The Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogroves,
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. Inspirational to read that (a) some people still like Lewis Carroll, (b) that there are some people out there who, like me, are writers who have never been good at and weren't much into poetry, and (c) pick the lyrical words over the precise ones. That's what makes writing so good. I'd much rather read a sentence that sounds good than conveyed its meaning in the most succinct manner. That's how I write, anyway...

    Glad to know I have something in common with another. I too like Lewis Carroll; in a world of abstract, freestyle poetry that doesn't rhyme or even have a rhythm, Lewis is a breath of stale but still sweet-smelling air. And you write about him and other topics quite well, if I may say.

  2. Thanks for stopping by my blog today and leaving a comment! I haven't read Alice in Wonderland in a long time, not since about 5th grade (yeah, I was an overachiever) and I probably didn't truly get most of it then. But since I love poetry (all of it, well, most of it) I'm familiar with The Jabberwocky. And I like the rhyme and rhythm too. Even though I have no idea what it's about. And I think it's awesome that you not only shared this with your kids, you passed on your appreciation of the written word. That was what I loved most about homeschooling, being able to give them a firm foundation of words.


    PS- You are a wonderfully articulate writer.

  3. Wow! Well, I am very impressed! Poetry was never really my thang...and when they don't use real words? They kinda lose me....

    Great that you taught it to your kids! Ya know what mine can recite?

    "Someone yelled, 'The pizza's here!' and all the pigs began to cheer." (excerpt from Pigs Aplenty, Pigs Galore)

    Not quite as elegant as your poetry, I'm afraid...

  4. Jerry,
    Is there a chance you could drop me a line with your e-mail address? There are several things about you and your blogs which intrigue me.
    I promise I won't bug you or do anything with your address except write to you personally to ask a question or two.
    Wadda ya have to lose? An 86 year old guy can't harm anything.
    Paul Henry
    AKA The Old Professor @

  5. Poetry was something I had not enjoyed, until a friend gave me a copy of "The Eye Of The Prophet" by Kahil Gibran. Since then, have had the oppotunity to begin to enjoy poetry.

    Layla of L.A.