‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is a narrative poem that Carroll included in his 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass. Carroll’s characters, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, recite the poem out loud to Alice. Since it first appeared it has become very popular, appear in a variety of media since its publication.
The characters of the walrus and the carpenter are interesting. Throughout history, there have been several interpretations in regards to who they represent, or if they represent anyone at all. Some have suggested that they are meant to be the Buddha and Jesus Christ.
‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is one of the best examples of nonsense, or nonce, verse that Carroll wrote. Although aimed primarily at younger readers nonsense verse is not just for children. These poems appeal to all age groups due to their outlandish settings, invented words, and otherworldly characters.
They require a suspension of disbelief and willingness to engage with the strange. Personification, song, consistent rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, as well as aspects of story-telling, are all part of this genre of poetry. These elements, as well as many others, are found within this particular poem as well.
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Summary of The Walrus and the Carpenter
The poem begins with the Walrus and his companion the carpenter mourning the presence of so much sand on the beach. They cry over it, unable to come up with a good way to get rid of it. As quickly as their tears began they stop and begin speaking with some oysters. These oysters walk with them, although they do not have legs, down the beach. They pause, decide to have a discussion and then decide to eat.
It is at this point that there is a change in the poem and it is revealed that the two tricked the oysters into coming with them in order to eat them. They distract them the best they can and then eat them all before they remember to apologize.
Structure of The Walrus and the Carpenter
‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ by Lewis Carroll is an eighteen stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABCBDB, with mostly full rhymes, but with a few half-rhymes. The meter alternates throughout the poem between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
Poetic Techniques in The Walrus and the Carpenter
Carroll makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, personification, and imagery. The latter, imagery, refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. For example, the description of the sun and the sea as well as that of the beach.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment 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 instance, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines one and two of the fifth stanza.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. This is one of the most important techniques at play in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. The first lines of the first stanza describe the sun as “shining with all his might”. This makes it seem as though the sun is choosing to shine brighter than it might otherwise. Then, even more prominent, are all the examples of the walrus speaking.
Analysis of The Walrus and the Carpenter
Stanzas One and Two
“The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun.”
In the first stanzas of ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, the poet makes use of enjambment and alliteration in order to bring his story to life. These can be seen through the repetition of words starting with “b” like “best,” “billows,” and “because” and the transitions between lines three and four and five and six.
He also uses sibilance and personification in the first line to describe the sun and how it was shining on the sea.
These lines are connected with those describing the sun. It was “shining sulkily” because it thought the sun was out of place. It shouldn’t be messing with the waters when it was the moon’s time. It’s “rude” the moon spoke. Her opinion of the sun becomes a negative one.
Stanzas Three and Four
The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
If this were only cleared away,’
They said, it would be grand!’
The next two lines the speaker describes the sea, the sands, and the sky. Each is lightheartedly and humorously outlined as “wet as wet could be” or “dry as dry”. The scene is expanded to include the nonexistent birds and the “Walrus and Carpenter”. They were together, walking close to one another. These two characters, who have been interpreted as representing many different people and no one at all, were crying.
In traditional Carroll style, they are caught up in an interesting and strange idea. They’re bothered by the “quantities of sand” around them. It would be a grand place if the sand “were only cleared away”.
Stanzas Five and Six
If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
That they could get it clear?’
I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
O Oysters, come and walk with us!’
The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.’
They consider what it would take to move the sand in the next stanza. The Walrus wonders it would be “seven maids with seven mops” could get the job done if they worked for half a year. This question is meant to be humorous, playing into the genre of nonsense poetry that Carroll is best-known for.
Carroll uses repetition to make these lines feel song-like as if they are part of a larger musical narrative. He speaks on the “pleasant walk” and “pleasant talk” that went on as they travelled “Along the briny beach”.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.
But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn’t any feet.
The oysters that the walrus called to are personified as excited children, ready for an adventure. They climb up to follow the two along the beach. The eldest oyster decided it was not in his best interest to try anything new. One of the most pleasing sections of the poem comes at the end of the eighth stanza as the poet describes the fact that the oysters “shoes were clean and neat” despite the fact that they “hadn’t any feet”.
These lines are fun to read to oneself but they come alive when they are read out loud. This is alluded to by the fact that in the novel the poem is recited to Alice rather than her finding it in a book. The story it tells is a strange one, but not in the context of Wonderland.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.
It seems at first that just a few of the oysters are going to accompany the walrus and the carpenter but that soon changes. There are four, then four more, and then another four. They came on “thick and fast” until there are “more, and more, and more”. The repetition here is musical, but it also helps build up tension, as though something is about to happen.
The strange bunch of characters continue to walk down the beach. They went “a mile or so” until they rested.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’
But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried,
Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!’
No hurry!’ said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
In the eleventh stanza, the walrus sets up a conversation. It is time for all of them to delve into a variety of topics. These include “ships” and “shoes,” which present to the reader another example sibilance”. The perfectly rhymed lines get to the heart of nonsense poetry and the world that Carroll was trying to create. It is about everything and about nothing.
In another very funny moment, the oysters demand a rest because they’re all “fat!”
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said,
Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed —
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.’
But not on us!’ the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!’
The night is fine,’ the Walrus said.
Do you admire the view?
Their rest turns into a meal where they talk about what food they’d liked to have, “chiefly” bread and then prepare it. There is a great use of enjambment in the transition between lines three and four fo the thirteenth stanza. The same can be said of the transition between stanzas thirteen and fourteen
The oysters become worried for a moment that they’re the ones about to be eaten. They do not receive an answer which makes this moment all the stranger on the part of the walrus and carpenter who love to talk. Rather than discuss their question they continue on fixing food and to distract the oysters with the view.
Stanzas Fifteen and Sixteen
It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf —
I’ve had to ask you twice!’
It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
The butter’s spread too thick!’
The next stanzas proceed in the same way and start to all to something being not quite right, for the oysters anyway. The sixteen stanza rivals that it was their intention to eat the little creatures all along. They brought them “out so far” and “play[ed] them such a trick”. The carpenter does not show any regret for what they’ve done and just continues repairing the food. It is only in these stanzas that his character becomes the more dominant one. Up until this point the walrus had done all of the talking.
Stanzas Seventeen and Eighteen
I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:
I deeply sympathize.’
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.”
The poem ends with the carpenter addressing the oysters, trying to apologize to them for what they’re about to do, but it’s too late. Before they know if they have eaten every one and there is no one left to apologize too. The weeping and sympathizing the walrus does in the first stanza easily strikes the reader as false and put on.