‘Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll is a brilliant nonsense poem. It tells the story of one person’s quest to slay the Jabberwock and the incredible creatures they meet along the way.
It is a seven stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. It is structured by a consistent rhyme scheme that follows a pattern of ABAB CDCD, changing end sounds as Carroll saw fit. This very simple and consistent rhyme scheme is an obvious contrast to the complex and outrageous words and images in the text of the poem.
The meter is also fairly straightforward. The majority of the lines are in iambic tetrameter. This means that the lines contain four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
The poem begins with the speaker using strange and unknown words to describe a scene. There are “toves,” “borogroves” and “raths”. These things move within the landscape in different ways, and make different noises. They are part of a world that is wholly separate from our own.
In the next lines, a speaker jumps into the narrative and tells his son to look out for the “Jabberwock”. It has “ jaws that bite [and]… claws that catch!” The son is going hunting for this creature. He is prepared with his “vorpal sword,” but it takes him a long time to find it. Finally, when he’s taking a break, the Jabberwock appears.
A fight occurs, the son comes out victorious and takes the creature’s head back to the father. When he gets there, the father embraces him and celebrates his slaughter of the Jabberwock.
You can read the full poem here.
Carroll also makes use of a number of other poetic techniques. These include alliteration, enjambment, assonance, and consonance. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in the first stanza “gyre” and “gimble,” and “claws” and “catch” in the second stanza.
Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, in stanza five the transition between lines three and four. A reader has to jump down to the next line to find out what the son is doing with the Jabberwock’s head.
Another element of this poem and one that does not commonly appear within printings of the poem is the letter-combination ye. Carroll chose to use this letter in the original in order to reference an Early-Middle English letter known as thorn.
Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ has been categorized as part of a broader category of literature known as nonsense writing, and more directly nonsense verse. The form of writing originated from traditional nursery rhymes and games but was then evolved by writers such as Edward Lear and later popularized by Lewis Carroll. Largely, this kind of writing has had a young audience, but today children and adults enjoy the style. ‘Jabberwocky’ is considered to be the most popular nonsense poem in the English language.
Carroll plays with the sound, meaning, and lack of meaning, attached to real and nonsense words in ‘Jabberwocky’. Some of these words are simply out of place, or out of order. They might in other contexts make sense. These include “burble” and “tum”.
Others are gibberish, and the only place they’ve even been seen, at least in writing is within ‘Jabberwocky’. These words do not have a specific meaning, it is up to the reader to imbue them with some, or to just appreciate them for the way they sound. The sound of the nonse works becomes especially important when they are spoken out loud. Later, after the poem was published, Carroll provided a few of the words in the poem with definitions.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
’Twas brillig, and the slithy tovesDid gyre and gimble in the wabe:
In the first stanza of ‘Jabberwocky’ Carroll jumps right into the text using strange and nonsensical words. He describes the scene as “brillig” and filled with “slithy toves”. Already, it is clear the speaker is taking the reader somewhere new and very unknown. It is a world that does not make sense through human eyes and the English language. Instead, Carroll had to use new words coined for this occasion. But, that doesn’t mean they are without meaning.
For example, in the first line, a reader can figure out that in the scene there are “slithy,” perhaps meaning slimy or slippery, “toves”. This word could reference a creature or some kind of plant. It sounds similar to another word “grove,” such as a grove of trees. But, in Through the Looking Glass it is defined as a creature similar to a badger, lizard, and corkscrew. A reader should also consider the world “brillig”. The word is later defined by the character Humpty Dumpty as meaning four o’clock in the afternoon.
The “toves” in line number two are said to “gyre,” perhaps meaning gyrate, or dance, “in the wabe”. The word “wabe” is later described as being a grass area around a sundial. There is clearly a magical or mystical element to the scene.
All mimsy were the borogoves,And the mome raths outgrabe.
He goes on to speak about the “borogroves”. It is also not clear at this point if this is creature of some kind or a kind of plant life. They borogroves were “All mimsy” which seems to suggest a way of being. It sounds similar to other words, “whimsy” or “flimsy”.
Last, Carroll adds that the “mome rathes outgrade”. Again, this line are impossible to clearly define. But some other kind of creature is acting in a particular way. Since this poem was written, the word “mome” has been defined as someone who is a fool. But, it was defined by Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass as “from home,” “raths” as a kind of turtle, and “outgrade” as a noise, something like a loud squeak.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!Beware the Jubjub bird, and shunThe frumious Bandersnatch!”
The second stanza is a little less confusing but is still speaking about a world very different from our own. A speaker jumps into the narrative and tells his son to look out for the “Jabberwock”. The Jabberwock is the most important creature in the poem, but again, Carroll does not give enough context clues, at first anyway to know what exactly it is. All a reader knows is that it has “ jaws that bite [and]… claws that catch!” It is obviously something scary and darkens the overall tone of the poem.
He goes on to add another creature into the text. The “Jubjub bird,” which should be shunned, and the “Bandersnatch” which is described as “frumious”. “Fruminous” is a word that Carroll later revealed meant “fuming and furious”.
He took his vorpal sword in hand;Long time the manxome foe he sought—So rested he by the Tumtum treeAnd stood awhile in thought.
In the third stanza, the speaker describes how “he,” presumably the son mentioned in the previous lines, is going to go hunt these creatures. He is seeking them out with his “vorpal sword” in hand. The word “vorpal” has never been properly defined, but it is obviously a modifier to the word “sword,” defining what kind of sword it is and/or what it can do.
The son spent a long time looking for the Jabberwocky. He is a “maxome foe,” suggesting the Jabberwocky is the ultimate, most dangerous of the animals. In the third line the son is taking a rest by “the Tumtum tree”. He spent a few minutes with his thoughts, likely trying to decide what he’s going to do next. While he’s waiting though, something happened.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,And burbled as it came!
All of a sudden, as the “uffish” perhaps meaning simple or frustrated “thoughts” are in his head, the “Jabberwock” is there. He has flaming eyes that speak to the intimidating nature of the creature and its inherent danger. The symbol of fire makes the Jabberwock seem evil and as something that should be fought back against.
The speaker also says that the Jabberwock moved “whiffling”. This likely means fast, and sounds somewhat onomatopoeic, as if mimicking the sound of air rushing past a surface. The wood is “tufely,” a word that has no clear meaning.
The Jabberwock presents a strange figure as it “burbled” into the speaker’s view. This word does have a meaning today, but likely Carroll did not intend to relate the noises babies make to his intimidating Jabberwocky.
One, two! One, two! And through and throughThe vorpal blade went snicker-snack!He left it dead, and with its headHe went galumphing back.
The son and the Jabberwock are fighting in the fifth stanza. Their bodies move “One, two!” and the blade seems to be piercing the Jabberwock as it goes “through and through”. The blade goes “snicker-snack!” These phrases are all very onomatopoeic. They suggest, through their sound, the actions that are occurring. This is an important element of nonsense verse, and to its origins, nursery rhymes.
The Jabberwock, which was built up as a grand foe, is quickly slain. The son left the body where it fell and took its head with him. He traveled back, “galumphing” to where he came from. The word “galumphing” sounds like an action that would be hard to complete. His footsteps seem heavy and difficult, perhaps because he is carrying the head of the Jabberwock.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?Come to my arms, my beamish boy!O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”He chortled in his joy.
In the sixth stanza, the son’s father is speaking again. He asks the son if he has killed the Jabberwock, and the answer is obviously yes. The father is incredibly proud of his son and tells him to “Come to [his] arms.” He is, the father states, a “beamish boy.” Through context clues, a reader can assume that this is a good thing. It seems to relate to the acting of smiling or beaming. The father is speaking of his son as a source of light.
He goes on to begin wider celebrations. The killing of the Jabberwock is a very big deal for the community and he calls out “Callooh! Callay!” These words seem directly connected to another celebratory phrase “Hip! Hip! Hooray!” He also exclaims that the day the Jabberwocky is killed is a “frabjous day!” which seems to be some combination of fabulous and joyous. The father was so overwhelmed he “chortled” as he spoke.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy tovesDid gyre and gimble in the wabe:All mimsy were the borogoves,And the mome raths outgrabe.
The final stanza is a reiteration of the first. It bookends the poem, taking the reader back to the beginning. It speaks to how the world continues on, with or without the Jabberwock. These lines are also a reminder that the other foes not faced in the text such as the Bandersnatch and the Jubjub bird are still out there.
The poem was included in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. It was Alice who found the poem in a nonsensical book that turned out to be written backward. She held the pages up to a mirror and the reflected image was the poem ‘Jabberwocky’.