Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is an enigma of a poem at first read. It contains many nonsense words and phrases of Carroll’s own invention, and has been interpreted and debated in a variety of ways since its penning, originally part of Through the Looking Glass. Carroll himself made many notes and comments about the supposed meanings of most of the words, and Humpty Dumpty explains them as well within the novel to Alice (though at times his and Carroll’s definitions differ).
Firstly, since the poem is part of Alice’s adventures, and since Alice’s adventures take place during a long, vivid dream, it would make sense that the poem would contain so many strange ciphers. Alice’s subconscious is creating and controlling the world she’s inhabiting, and so combines and rearranges words she may have been fleetingly familiar with during her waking life.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Brillig” is from bryll or broil, and relates to the late afternoon period (four o’clock) when a dinner would typically be prepared (or broiled). “Slithy toves” are slimy/lithe creatures described as being something like badgers, lizards, and corkscrews, and make their nests under sundials. They “gyre and gimble” in the “wabe”, or, “rotate and bore” on the “side of a hill”. The “borogoves” are thin, shabby looking birds with no wings and an upturned beak whom also live in the “wabe”; their “mimsy” is flimsy/misery. “Mome raths” are grave, green-skinned creatures something like pigs or badgers that “outgrabe”, or whistled/bellowed.
This first stanza is so tightly packed with unknown information that without proper acclimation to the nonsense words, the reader nearly veers off the page in confusion. From here, the poem becomes slightly more approachable, telling the tale of a boy going into the dark and gloomy woods to slay the Jabberwock. The poem is engineered like a small fairy tale, and the use of nonsense words adds a whimsical element that further solidifies the element of the fantastic. Employed within an already heavily fantasy-ridden novel, Carroll strips cohesion and familiarity in the reader to the bone.
Despite the risk of alienating the reader, “Jabberwocky” works quite well on its own, even when reading with no prior knowledge of the vernacular. The stanzas are light and comical, relaying an archaic hero’s tale while creating a specific and wholly Carroll-esque world. The rhymes and syllabic rhythms create a bouncing narrative that still effectively engages the reader in imagery, but the fact that much of the words might seem at first glance meaningless means it’s a participatory kind of imagery. The reader has to consciously interact with the poem, filling in the blanks of what they don’t know with their imagination. This makes the poem unique to each person who reads it, since no matter how Carroll might describe the words, we all have differing interpretations of them.
What’s interesting to note also is the kind of effect the poem had on the English language, as at least the words “chortle” (chuckle + snort) and “galumph” (gallop + triumph) have been added into the Oxford English Dictionary since Looking Glass’s publication.
Carroll does an amazing job of playing with the idea of connotation in this poem. He combines words to make new ones, joining definitions that can capture an idea more broadly than if he had just used a singular word. Some are incredible in their forethought, like “manxome” (which is the combination of manly and buxom), denoting both the masculine connotations of the word manly, and combining them with the femininity of the word buxom to leave the reader with a conundrum of a mental balancing act. “Vorpal”, which has never been defined, has trickled into colloquialism in small pockets of popular culture, appearing in everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Japanese video games, always with the implication of a deadly blade.
The poem is a beautiful piece, and has me staring quite hard at words and their etymology in its aftermath. I love how Carroll throws out the “rules” and simply does what he likes to serve his intentions (when’s the last time you were brazen enough in your writing to start outright inventing words?). Not to mention—he got away with it.