Lewis Carroll: Biography, Poems & Books

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Having written the famous 'Alice in Wonderland' more than 100 years ago, Lewis Carroll remains to this day one of the most popular children's writers. This lesson will discuss his life and works, especially some of his more popular poems and novels.

Biography

Lewis Carroll was actually born Charles L. Dodgson on January 27, 1832, in Daresbury, Cheshire, England. One of 11 children, he was noted as being a shy, yet very creative boy. He often took the liberty of entertaining his younger siblings, making up stories and games. Because their father was a clergyman, the Dodgson children grew up in a church rectory and studied religion. In fact, Charles was ordained a deacon during his schooling, though he never preached.

Charles was also an excellent student. At the age of 20, he attended Christ College on scholarship, where he remained after graduation, as a lecturer of mathematics until retiring in 1881. He never married and died from pneumonia on January 14, 1898, just shy of his 66th birthday.

Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll photograph

Pen Name

Charles chose to write under a pen name because he was a modest and private man. To come up with the name, he translated the first parts of his name into Latin, Carolus Ludovicus, reversed the order, and then translated it loosely back into English. It was actually his first publisher that selected the name, however, after Charles sent him a list of possible pen names, Lewis Carroll among them. Hence Lewis Carroll the writer was created. While he refused to acknowledge he was Lewis Carroll most times, Dodgson's real identity was widely known and hardly kept secret.

Carrol's Love of Children

One of the reasons Carroll was drawn to children is because of his stutter. He was a very bad stammerer, but found that it all but disappeared when he spoke to children. His appreciation of children is what inspired his writing, and one little girl named Alice Liddell, it is said, inspired his most famous works Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which was originally published in 1865. It became so popular that Carroll decided to write its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, published in 1871.

Another passion of Carroll's was photography, which was still extremely new and modern during his lifetime. He especially loved photographing children, sometimes in the nude.

1858 Photograph of Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll
Photograph of Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll

Though there is some more recent speculation as to the extent of his infatuation with children, and whether or not it crossed into the inappropriate, no evidence has been found to support such claims. Carroll's reputation remained positive and even saint-like until his death.

Carroll's Works

Much of Carroll's writing is inspired by his intrigue with logic and mind-games. His writing is playful, fantastical, and witty, even at times nonsensical. While he did publish pieces on mathematics, his most popular writing is that of poetry and children's stories.

Poetry

Carroll's poem 'Jabberwocky' plays on made-up words and humorous language to describe the slaying of the Jabberwocky, a mythical, dangerous creature. This poem remains famous for its creative play on language and makes Lewis Carroll the poster of the literary nonsense genre.

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! (first two stanzas of 'Jabberwocky')

Published in 1876, The Hunting of the Snark was an epic nonsensical poem that wasn't well received. Like most of his other works, it was so carefully crafted and so intriguing that people wanted it to have an underlying meaning. They wanted purpose behind the nonsense, but Carroll never did give them an answer.

This book-length poem is in eight parts, or as Carroll called them, 'fits'. It follows a ship's crew who are being led by a crazed captain in search of the Snark, a mythical creature that might also be a Boojum, which has the ability to make people vanish. At last, one of the crew spots the creature, but too late, vanishing and leaving the readers with unanswered questions.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away--

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see. (last stanza of The Hunting of the Snark)

Other famous poems include 'The Crocodile,' 'Echoes,' A Game of Fives,' A Sea Dirge,' 'The Walrus and the Carpenter,' and 'All in the Golden Afternoon.'

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