If—and the thing is wildly possible—the charge of writing nonsense were ever brought against the author of this brief but instructive poem, it would be based, I feel convinced, on the line (in p.4)
“Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.”
In view of this painful possibility, I will not (as I might) appeal indignantly to my other writings as a proof that I am incapable of such a deed: I will not (as I might) point to the strong moral purpose of this poem itself, to the arithmetical principles so cautiously inculcated in it, or to its noble teachings in Natural History — I will take the more prosaic course of simply explaining how it happened.
—-Lewis Carroll, Preface to “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits”
Last week, I had one of those days when I’d worked flat out but the piles on my desk never shrank and then I dropped my stapler just right and it exploded into many sharp pieces. I may have said a few things in my special Road Rage voice.
A passing co-worker said, “Tough day?”
“All my snarks have turned out to be Boojums,” I said.
She blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“Snarks? Boojums? Lewis Carroll?” I stared at her. “The guy who wrote Alice in Wonderland?”
“Oh. I didn’t know he wrote another book.”
“He did, but it’s not a book, it’s a poem. Like Jabberwocky.” I paused to check for a flash of recognition. “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the . . . You know what? I’ll send you a link.”
And I did, because holy cow. I mean, how on earth did she spend her childhood? Making friends? Playing outside? Sheesh.
But honestly, “The Hunting of the Snark” is one of the most influential poems no one bothers to read anymore. The title barely registers, which is a shame, because it’s referenced everywhere and bits and pieces of it have found their way into everything from opera to Star Trek, from government hearings to scientific terminology.* It’s part and parcel of Western cultural literacy.
“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”
Just think of all the inside references you’ll miss by not reading this poem. Which you should do, right now, even if you’ve read it before, because the University of Adelaide has provided free access to a beautiful eBook that includes illustrations by Henry Holiday, whose map of the ocean is indeed a wonder.
And if that doesn’t sway you . . . C’mon, it’s Lewis Carroll—the Alice in Wonderland guy, who is a lot less sweetly goofy than Disney would have you think.
“Come, listen, my men, while I tell you again
The five unmistakable marks
By which you may know, wheresoever you go,
The warranted genuine Snarks.
“Let us take them in order. The first is the taste,
Which is meagre and hollow, but crisp:
Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist,
With a flavour of Will-o’-the-wisp.
“Its habit of getting up late you’ll agree
That it carries too far, when I say
That it frequently breakfasts at five-o’clock tea,
And dines on the following day.
“The third is its slowness in taking a jest.
Should you happen to venture on one,
It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed:
And it always looks grave at a pun.
“The fourth is its fondness for bathing-machines,
Which it constantly carries about,
And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes—
A sentiment open to doubt.
“The fifth is ambition. It next will be right
To describe each particular batch:
Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite,
And those that have whiskers, and scratch.
“For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm,
Yet, I feel it my duty to say,
Some are Boojums—” The Bellman broke off in alarm,
For the Baker had fainted away.
Okay, he’s goofy, but sharply intelligent with it—I promise.
And this particular poem becomes spookier and more dangerous as it goes, like a dream that spirals into the stranger areas of one’s subconscious, until the hunters realize the true nature of the prey they’ve been foolishly tracking . . .
“ ‘But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!’
Go on . . . strike a blow for cultural literacy.
You know you want to.
*I’m not sure if this poem is responsible for the contemporary term, “snark,” meaning “the way Sarah voices her opinions on Thomas Hardy’s poetry, genealogists who don’t cite their sources, and people who talk loudly on cell phones in the library,” but it wouldn’t surprise me. Is there an etymologist in the house who would like to do the heavy lifting on this? I’m all tuckered out . . .
11 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Good Snark Hunting”
Why no comments? Great post
Thank you, Watson. Thanks for the FB shout-out, too.
Yes, the Snark deserves more attention, not only because Lewes Carroll, but also because Henry Holiday’s illustrations. However, my comments on the pictorial allusions by Henry Holiday mostly are pictorial as well: http://snrk.de
Those pictorial comparisons are fascinating—do all visual artists find their inspiration like this, or was Mr. Holiday making more pointed references for specific reasons?
I do not know how many artists do that, but there are enough, I guess. I think that visual artists have just as much fun with visual allusions as writers challenge us with textual allusions. E.g. Tom Stoppard’s plays are full of allusions. As for the visual ones, Mahendra Singh, a contemporary Snark illustrator did it openly. http://justtheplaceforasnark.blogspot.com/2009/12/dream-books-nonsense-and-bourbon.html is a page from his blog with a good example. As a side effect of my own snark hunt I also incidentially discovered that J. E. Millais in http://www.ipernity.com/doc/goetzkluge/19554767/ and M. C. Escher in http://www.ipernity.com/doc/goetzkluge/25144755 played the game. There are even quite funny “allusion chains”: http://www.ipernity.com/doc/goetzkluge/23359959/
Regards from Munich
Whoops, I got the wrong page fro Mahendra Singh. Here are better choices:
As for “was Mr. Holiday making more pointed references for specific reasons?”: I don’t know yet. I’ll perhaps dig into that after my retirement in 7 years or so. My assumption is that Holiday cooperated with Dodgson (Carroll) in addressing the challenges to the victorian and anglican belief systems with which Dodgson and the church were struggeling, in different ways. It is about struggeling witt the truth (and getting burned by it, like Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the 42(!) Articles). Perhaps there also are referencs to Darwin’s Beagle voyage, his methods and his findings. Who knows?
Arrrgh! the links to Mahendra Sigh’s work were bad again. Another try:
Regards from Bavaria
As for how visual artists find their inspiration, Matt Groening (The Simpsons) does it too: http://www.simpsonspark.com/en_refs_tableaux_list.php
My previous comment seemingly went lost somewhere. It was about Hery Holiday’s illustrations to The Hunting of the Snark.
WordPress always holds first comments and comments with links in moderation around here, and it tossed your previous comment in the Spam folder, for reasons known only to itself.
Thank you for following up so I could retrieve it!