Jabberwocky Poem: Definition & Analysis

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  • 0:05 ''Jabberwocky''
  • 1:13 Nonsense Poetry
  • 2:07 Syntax and Semantics
  • 3:32 Analyzing 'Jabberwocky'
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Lewis Carroll's poem ''Jabberwocky,'' which first appeared in his novel ''Through the Looking-Glass,'' is perhaps the most famous example of nonsense poetry, due to its use of made-up words.

''Jabberwocky''

''Jabberwocky'' is a poem by Lewis Carroll that first appears in Carroll's novel Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In the novel, the main character Alice finds the poem printed backwards in a book and can only read it by holding it up to a mirror. However, when she holds it up to the mirror, she finds she still cannot understand it, since it is made up mostly of fake words, as in its famous first lines:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

Alice spends much of the rest of the novel trying to understand the poem. Since the publication of Through the Looking-Glass, ''Jabberwocky'' has become a classic poem on its own, often published in poetry books separate from Through the Looking-Glass. It's famous because it is considered one of the best examples of nonsense poetry, a form of poetry that plays with the normal rules of language and logic. Many readers, like Alice, have been fascinated by the poem even though they cannot fully understand it.

Nonsense Poetry

Nonsense poetry is a broad term used to describe various forms of poems that, to put it simply, don't make sense. They break the normal rules of writing and speech in some way, usually to humorous effect. It's been around since the beginning of English poetry and it still exists in modern times. John Lennon, for example, wrote the nonsense poem ''The Faulty Bagnose,'' which, like ''Jabberwocky'', uses many made-up words.

But nonsense poetry was especially popular in nineteenth century England. In addition to Carroll, the other most famous writer of nonsense poetry was his contemporary Edward Lear. The nineteenth century was a time when many people were trying to define correct usage of the English language. It was when many of the first textbooks on proper grammar were written. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll rebelled against this tendency to prescribe 'proper' language by writing nonsense poetry. They also used it to experiment with the limits of the English language.

Syntax and Semantics

''Jabberwocky'''s nonsensical nature comes from its use of two different aspects of English grammar: semantics and syntax.

Semantics simply means the meaning of words. When you look up the word 'horse' in the dictionary and it describes 'a large, solid-hoofed, herbivorous quadruped,' you are engaging in the study of semantics. ''Jabberwocky'' is a nonsense poem because most of its words are made up, meaning you can't find them if you look them up in the dictionary. So if you want to understand the poem, you can't use a dictionary, or anything else, to tell you what 'brillig' is or give you a picture of 'slithy toves.' This is what Alice tries to do, and fails at, in Through the Looking-Glass.

But if ''Jabberwocky'' was just a string of fake, funny-sounding words, it wouldn't be very compelling. It would just be gibberish. ''Jabberwocky'' is a poem, the other half of the term nonsense poem, because it does follow the rules of syntax.

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