Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Lewis Carroll

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What is a Nursery Rhyme?

A nursery rhyme is a short rhyming song or poem that conveys a lesson or tells an amusing story. They are aimed at children.

Like most English nursery rhymes, ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ dates back to the 18th century. The lyrics that are most commonly known today come from a publication in 1805, Original Ditties for the Nursery. Today, many know the names “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. In this novel, they are fat little men who act just as the characters in the rhyme do. They agree to have a fight that never transpires and they are then scared off by a crow. 

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Lewis Carroll

Tweedledum and TweedledeeAgreed to have a battle;For Tweedledum said TweedledeeHad spoiled his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,As black as a tar-barrel;Which frightened both the heroes so,They quite forgot their quarrel.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee by Lewis Carroll

Interpretations of Tweedledum and Tweedledee

As with many nursery rhymes, there are a series of possible interpretations connected with ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’. The names of these two characters are thought to come from the poet John Byrom and his depiction of musicians George Frideric Handel and Giovanni Bononcini. After amusingly expressing the competitiveness between the two, the final lines of verse read:

Strange all this Difference should be

‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

These last two lines may or may not have been written by another author though. Some believe that Jonathan Swift or Alexander Pope should be credited as the real source of the names. 

Structure of Tweedledum and Tweedledee

‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ is a simple, eight-line nursery rhyme that follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD. The lines are of a similar length, just as one would expect with a child’s rhyme, and the rhyme scheme itself falls in line with other similar lyrics. 

Children’s poetry more often than not leans heavily on rhyme, sound, and rhythm in order to embellish the text. These songs are usually read out loud and therefore the assonance, consonance, internal and end rhymes are incredibly important. They make the lines all the more engaging for a young audience. 

Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example the “both” and “so” in line seven.

Poetic Techniques

There are several poetic techniques that have helped to make the rhyme as popular as it is today. These include alliteration, enjambment, and simile. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, the names of the two characters “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” and the words “nice” and “new” in line four.

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There is an example in the sixth line with the phrase “As black as a tar-barrel”. This line refers to the “monstrous crow” and adds to its foreboding presence.

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 example, in ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ the transition between lines three and four. 

Analysis of Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Lines 1-4

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Agreed to have a battle;

For Tweedledum said Tweedledee

Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

In the first four lines of ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee,’ the speaker begins by utilizing the names of the two strange main characters. Some, mostly due to their depiction by Lewis Carroll, view the two as brothers. They agreed, right from the beginning without any lead-up or explanation, “to a have a battle”. By putting the reader, or as is more likely the case, the listener, immediately into the story, the poem/song becomes more exciting. The reason for this “battle” is explained in the fourth line. 

It turns out that one of these characters had “spoiled” the other’s new “rattle”. It is unclear what “spoiled” means exactly in this context. The lines could refer to breaking the rattle, dirtying it, or disturbing it in some way. 

Lines 5-8

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,

As black as a tar-barrel;

Which frightened both the heroes so,

They quite forgot their quarrel.

The whimsical world ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ is taking place in is expressed in the last four lines as a crow swoops down. It is enormously large, and to the main characters, a monster. It is also “black as a tar-barrel”. This simile relates the colour of the bird to the dark black of tar. This is not a complementary comparison and only darkens the bird further, making it more intimidating. 

The two characters certainly felt this way. They became so “frightened” that they forgot what they were fighting about. Thus ends, suddenly, the story of “Tweedledum and Tweedledee”. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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