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 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 . . .