Saturday, November 16, 2013

Lewis Carroll's nonsense - Exactly and perfectly true.

Lewis Carroll is the hard one for me to write about.  When I read the Alice books last year, I had no interest in writing about them, although I had no qualms about using out of context quotations to support unrelated arguments.  And I have called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland the Greatest Novel of the 19th Century, and sometimes even meant it.  It is a defensible position.

I have also called the “Pig and Pepper” chapter the high point of Western civilization, and the “Turtle Soup” poem from the “Lobster-Quadrille” chapter the greatest of the century, or of the English language, maybe, but I was joking.

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
    Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!
    Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!
Soo---oop of the e---e---evening,
    Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

Etc.  Joking to a certain extent.  “’Chorus again!’ cried the Gryphon,” who has critical judgment much like mine.

Adam Roberts, novelist and Victorianist, has been teaching the Alice books.  He said he had trouble finding critical distance from them.  He overcame the problem with a series of essays so good I dread linking to them, since few will return here.  The one where Roberts deduces the shape of the missing third book of the Alice trilogy, Carroll’s Paradiso, using the principle that two points form a line, is something to see.

Carroll’s nonsense is so sensible.  It often has rules and logic, just the wrong rules and bad logic.  Thus the incessant riddles, puzzles, and even math.  Mathematics is to Carroll both utterly logical and a marvelous game.

As one Snark hunter explains to another:

“Taking Three as the subject to reason about –
    A convenient number to state –
We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
    By One Thousand diminished by Eight.
The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
    By Nine Hundred and Ninety and Two:
Then subtract Seventeen, and the number must be
   Exactly and perfectly true.”  (“The Hunting of the Snark” (1876), Fit the Fifth)

Or 3 = 3, or 3 x (a set of calculations equaling 1) = 3.  But in verse.  Every word is true, the calculation accurate, yet the result is nonsense.  Logical, accurate nonsense.

Miguel of St. Orberose wrote about, and posted generous excerpts from, Carroll’s 1869 book Phantasmagoria and Other Poems, a collection more like Gilbert than Lear, satirizing ghost stories, amateur photography (in Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” measure for some reason), and fashionable poetic attitudes.  In “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur,” a novice poet asks advice of an expert:

“For instance, if I wished, Sir
    Of mutton-pies to tell,
Should I say ‘dreams of fleecy flocks
    Pent in a wheaten cell’?”
“Why, yes,” the old man said: “that phrase
    Would answer very well.”

In other words, plenty of nonsense lies elsewhere, in the poems of other people, not Carroll.

Chorus again!  Everyone, sing along!  Careful with ending of the third line.

Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two p
ennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
    Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!
    Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!
Soo---oop of the e---e---evening,
    Beautiful, beauti---FUL SOUP!


  1. I love that rhyme you warn us about! The mutton pies remind me of Ovid's "non albae aves."

  2. Carroll's nonsense gets me less because it's so sensible (although it is) and more because it seems so joyful. Whatever Alice thinks about it all, you can easily see that Carroll is delighted with what's happening. It appeals to me tremendously.

  3. I used to read this with my students each year. I loved it more each time. Some of the students loved it, too, but most of them are much too literal to enjoy such 'nonsense.' They kept trying to force a reasoned critique on Wonderland, while I kept insisting it was all nonsense, just have fun with it.

  4. That rhyme is a wonder, but kinda hard on sight-readers.

    Jenny, I borrowed your comment for today's post. Nonsense is a high form of play. These are joyful, delighted writers, to a person.

    Isn't that funny, CB? I mean, it certainly is possible to construct a lot of systematic criticism around Alice, but that is not the place to start. Wait until you have mastered some of the higher mathematics, so to speak.

  5. Carroll's verse is also fun because of the way he evokes previous poems (Wordsworth and Tennyson) without parodying them, but to ridicule some of the sentimentality by taking it to an extreme.

  6. That's right. There is the formal parody, mostly of popular poems I did not know until I read Martin Gardner's annotated Alice, bu there is also the brilliant parody of the ideas and, I don't know, ethos or mood of the great English poets.