Sunday, May 15, 2011

From Then: An Absolutely Brillig Post

Because of a conflagurance of eventitudes I find myself lacking in the time to invest the vast resources required to engage in bloggerism this weekend. So I offer a guest post from an earlier me, kind of historical adventure from January of 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.

Lewis Carroll
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. I think hearing you read it would be better than seeing it on my screen.

  2. Well, my friend I find it interesting that you found my site so soon after you vowed to work on "it"! What a great poem! Like you, I don't know what the words in and of themselves mean, yet I can derive the general meaning and mood behind them and paint a wonderful picture story-book in my mind's eye. Just having read your blog for this past year, and judging from some of the wonderful comments you've left on my blog, I can see why you like this one so well! :) I hope you have a wonderful Sunday!

  3. Here's your opportunity to create a sound file so we can hear it read properly and have fun. I think Carol has a good point.

  4. I love this poem too. And I make all my grade eight Drama students read it and *perform* it to demonstrate how their tone of voice can bring meaning to nonsense. Sounds like the same game you were playing with your children. You're a Drama teacher!

  5. I agree with a couple of the others - would love to hear you read this! I think it's great that did this with the kids; doesn't sound like torture to me. I bet they had a lot of fun with it and will remember it always.

  6. I always read it as a battle tale. I've always loved poetry. The one I memorized was "She Walks in Beauty".

    For humorous interpretation in drama competitions I always went with Shel Silverstein.

    I're a drama teacher!


  7. humm,, different post,,,very good,,,i enjoyed,,,interesting to hear,,,

  8. It is amazing what using different tones can do for poetry. I have a neighbor who is a lit professor at Vanderbilt who told me the secret to reading Faulkner is to do it out loud. I would add, also, drunk, but he has a point.

  9. Still the only poem I can recite. Poetry, as someone once said, should make sense to the ear even before it makes sense to the brain. I'll favor the lyrical phrase every time. I'll even lose in Scrabble if I can get a cool word in there over a pedestrian one with lots of points. To this day, I write as though the English lexicon is just a suggestion.