The Victorian Era lasted from 1837 until 1901, which was the time during Queen Victoria's reign in England. The term Victorian has "conveyed connotations of prudish', repress', and old fashioned'"(Landow 1). This era is now seen as a time of " great expansion of wealth, power, and culture"(Landow 1). This change in ideas and politics led to great change in democracy, and saw a rise in other modern movements. Since the era lasted for so long it is comprised of several different periods including Socialism, Darwinism, and scientific Agnosticism. The widespread use of opium during the Victorian period may have influenced or been reflected in Carroll's work. "In Carroll's time five out of six families used opium habitually"(Wohl 34). The Victorian Era, ideology, and politics had a great impact on Lewis Carroll's poetry.
Lewis Carroll, formally Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was born at Daresbury, Cheshire, on January 27, 1832. His parents were Charles and Frances Dodgson. He was the oldest of 11 children.All through his life he loved to write, and take photographs. During 1854 Carroll continued to write and compiled a scrapbook of his best writings, called "Mischmasch". "Mischmasch" included a four line verse, titled "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry". Later this became the first verse of his nonsense poem "Jabberwocky". In 1855, Henry Liddell arrived as the new Dean at Christ Church and Carroll was introduced to his children. He had a son, Harry, and three daughters: Lorina, Alice, and Edith. Carroll had begun to photograph the family and had become especially charmed by the little girl Alice. Alice later become the main character in his most famous works.
In the poem that begins and ends the story of Alice in Wonderland it is obviously seen that Carroll's interaction and fascination with Liddle girls have greatly influenced his writing. The three children are the focus of the beginning poem, "Ah, cruel Three!...Imperious Prima flashes forth...In gentler tones Secunda hopes... While Teritia interrupts the tale"(Carroll 3).Lorina is referred to as "Prima", she was the oldest, Alice is "Secunda", and Edith "Teria". When the story begins in 1862, Alice is seven, and the story is set in May. Through the Looking-Glass takes place in November. "Without, the frost, the blinding snow"(Carroll 103 ).Although the other two girls are mentioned, Carroll chose mainly to focus on Alice. Alice Pleasance Liddle is the full name of the child, "the pleasance of our fairy tale"(Carroll 103). In the closing poem of Through the Looking-Glass in the final chapter "Which Dreamed It?" when read downward, the initial letters of each line spell out Alice's full name,
"A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July-
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear, ..."(Carroll 209)
Other than the influence that the entire Liddle Family had on Carroll's writing there were other incidents that had a great influence on the nonsense in his poems.
During the Victorian Era the use of opium and other mind altering experiences resulting from narcotics could of had a great impact on the ideas behind the Alice books. In Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll brings up many images that can be interpreted as advice to youngsters (Connell 1). "Walrus and the Carpenter" could be read to be a warning to the innocents of people that would mislead them and "eat them all up;"(Carroll 141) just like the Walrus and the Carpenter persuaded all the 'young Oysters to walk with them,'(Carroll 142) a walk that ended in a feast for the Walrus and the Carpenter. Not only did drugs effect this, but the politics of the Victorian Era also influence the "Walrus and the Carpenter."
The tale of the "Walrus and the Carpenter" can be interpreted as a story of political corruption and how the politicians grew fat at the expense of the people. The antagonists of the tale are the Walrus and the Carpenter, one a creature fat and well fed, the friendly type that got the Oysters to trust them and come with them. The other is the Carpenter, an image often encouraged by politicians that are trying to convince the oysters that they are rebuilding and improving society for them, when actually justt wanted to eat them all, even more than the Walrus."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"(Carroll 142). Unfortunately, not all can benefit of the experience of those who have been around if they don't pay attention. Here Carroll show that the young and the innocent are the ones prone to the call of the evils that lurk in the dark.(Graham 77) A bit of his nonsense shown in here, with the passage of the oyster's feet. " 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'"(Carroll 142). Although this poem has shown sense with nonsense, the most nonsensical poem found in Through the Looking Glass is "Jabberwocky".
Most important of the poems in the books is "Jabberwocky". This takes as its first and last verse the "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry" which Carroll had composed in 1854 to amuse his family. The poem indicates Carroll complete disregarded of the Anglo-Saxon language and poetic tradition. In the preface to Through the Looking Glass
"The new words, in the poem "Jabberwocky", have given rise to some differences of opinion as to their pronunciation: so it may be well to give instructions on that point also. Pronounce "slithy" as if it were the two words "sly, the": make the "g" hard in "gyre" and "gimble": and pronounce "rath" to rhyme with "bath".(105)
"Jabberwocky", the strange nonsense poem made more trouble than anything else in the book and some wild claims were made about its origin. Carroll had added to it a few years later from " Mischmasch" during a verse-making game played with his cousins when he was staying with them one summer holiday. In the book Humpty Dumpty actually gives Alice his explanation of the
"Jabberwocky". He explains that the brillig is four o'clock, and this is the time when one starts making dinner, and then he goes on to explain the combination of lithe and slimy "You see- it's like a portmanteau- there are two meanings packed up into one word"(Carroll 161).Critics have come to the conclusion that while some of Carroll's nonsense does make sense, the "Jabberwocky" is just plain nonsense. Objects of words in a game of nonsense and the mind uses words so that " its tendency toward order [will] engage its contrary tendency towards disorder, keeping the latter perpetually in play and so in check"(Sewell 48). Carroll uses lanuage so that words and structure maintain a balance between order and disorder in relation to each other, and the understanding of Carroll's poetry.
There can be sense made out of all nonsense, and some good and justified illustrations of this can be shown through Carroll's poetry . Sometimes it is merely just a game and the " active manipulation , serving no useful purpose, of a certain object or class of objects, concrete or mental, within a limited field of space and time..."(Sewell 27). Either way Lewis Carroll has taken his life experiences and passions and twisted them together with some sense and nonsense to create an interesting story and poetry that will always be open for many differing interpretations.
These differing views can only be made by each individual reader. The reader can take this
nonsense and make sense of it, or they can play along with the word games, and have a few
Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992.
Connell, Kate. "Opium as a Possible influence upon Alice Books" 22 Mar 2000. The Victorian Web. <http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/victov.html>.
Graham, Eleanor. Lewis Carroll and the Writing of Through The Looking Glass Great Britain: Puffin Books, 1981.
Landow, George P. "Victorian and Victorianism" 23 Mar 2000. The Victorian Web. <http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/vn/victor4.html>
Sewell, Elizabeth. The Field of Nonsense London: Chatto and Windus LTD., 1952.