Carroll’s Distortion of Victorian Poetry
Charles Dodgson was a logical and analytical thinker, a man who liked finding and applying patterns both in his career and in his writing under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. One example of this tendency is how Carroll wrote the poems in Alice in Wonderland. Based off actual poems, the carefully used poems often times have grossly different meanings. The rewritten poems advance the plot and provide the reader with more background information, but the original poems play just as large a role. In more than one scene, Carroll chose didactic poems to transform the story; he mocks the Victorian morals within and creates his own code of conduct. Poetry in Alice in Wonderland comments on Victorian beliefs by changing Alice as a character and defining Lewis Carroll as a writer.
In his altered poem based on that of Isaac Watts, Carroll makes Alice seem predatory and aggressive. The original poem, “Against Idleness and Mischief”, illustrates a bee buzzing around collecting honey to improve her hive. The poem was meant to teach children the value of hard work using phrases such as “the busy bee/ improve each shining hour” and “for Satan finds some mischief still/ for idle hands to do” (Carroll 16). The analogy to bees makes the moralistic poem amusing and easy to remember for young children. This poem expresses values deemed vital for Victorian children. Hard work, diligence, and religion, all themes addressed by the original work are strong moral principles that are warped and distorted by Carroll in “How Doth the Little Crocodile”. The highly moral poem turns into a shorter version with a daunting crocodile waiting to devour fish (Carroll 16). Its “gold scales” and “gently smiling jaws” are present in the average children’s story (Carroll 16). Rather than constructing an obviously dark poem, Carroll uses light, jovial language to paint a threatening image. Alice is somewhat frightened by the scene created from the poem she recites. The Wonderland Alice scares the real Alice; Carroll introduces this connection in the opening of the story and develops the relationship until real Alice blends into Wonderland Alice.
Carroll continues to call Alice’s intelligence into question through the Caterpillar, setting up yet another opportunity to criticize English society. Wanting to test Alice’s aptitude, he asks the young girl to recite “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them”. Alice begins the poem similarly, but rather than crying out, “You are old, Father William”, the young man says it in Alice’s version; a minor detail that changes the context of the future lines (Carroll 35-36). Robert Southey’s young man was respectful and interested in the “Old Man’s Comforts” while the youth in Alice’s oration was doubting and slightly miffed towards the old man. Additionally, the man in the new poem does more peculiar actions than the original man does. Rather than “a hearty old man”, Carroll’s work describes him as fat (35). The old man stands on his head, consumes entire birds and balances eels on his face, these strange tendencies add to the nonsense of Wonderland, but also reflect Alice’s feelings towards elderly people (Carroll 36-39).
Carroll taunts Victorian views on children when he rewrites “Speak Gently” to create “Speak Roughly”. The first, by G. W. Langford, is the original poem and a thoroughly moralistic piece. It reaches the good-natured value of treating people in need courteously. Acting politely towards the sick, the homeless, the elderly and the erring is a principle found in the ideal Victorian society. Carroll reverses the message of the poem through the Duchess. Singing to her pig baby, the women encourages people to “Speak roughly to your little boy” and to “beat him when he sneezes”. (Carroll 46) The Duchess searches for the moral of everything and preaches from the saying, “Take care of the sense and the sound will take care of themselves”. (Carroll 69) This saying originates from an English proverb, “Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves”. This teaches the value of the little things, and Robert Phillips offers that the Duchess twists the meaning to give impractical advice (121). If you, “take care of the sense”, you decide what you will think, if you do this before listening to the actual situation, you are apt to miss the real meaning of what was said (Carroll 69). Put into the context of the kitchen in the story, the moralistic Duchess says to strike the boy for an involuntary reaction to the excess of pepper around him. According to Nina Auerbach, this has to do with Carroll’s thoughts on young boys; he saw them frightful and dirty (31). Carroll’s views also see little girls as perfect, supporting the Victorian ideas (Auerbach 32). Including the chorus in his edition similarly changes the context of the situation. Rather than one narrator, in this case the Duchess, stating their opinion, he places a group of people in agreement with the outlandish caretaker. When the chorus says “Wow! Wow! Wow!”, it isolates Alice and the reader in opposition to the abusive treatment of the boy (Carroll 46). With this inverse of the Victorian ideal, Carroll gives reasoning for all the creatures’ treatment of Alice throughout the story. When she first entered Wonderland, Alice was indeed, a small girl who was unsure of herself. As the inhabitants of Wonderland approached her, they saw the little, insecure child and treated her accordingly. As the storyline progressed, however, the same little girl became a powerful and authoritative figure that the creatures saw as a threat. The difference between the two poems is connected to, and the reason for, the change in the treatment of Alice in the novel.
Carroll did not always reinvent poems to affect the overall plot, in some instances; he uses them simply to add more nonsense while including a personal event. At the tea party, the Hatter recites a short parody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” entitled “The Bat”. This jovial piece is actually a reference to one of the senior professors at Oxford. Bartholomew Price, nicknamed “the bat”, was one of Carroll’s instructors and a friend of the Liddell family. According to a passage from The Annotated Alice, the poem is an allusion to a humorous story involving Price (Carroll & Tenniel 136). The don created a playroom for the small children that often came to visit him; this room included a homemade, flying bat (Phillips 98). One day, the bat ended up flying out of a window and landing on a tea tray. The young man carrying it was frightened and flung the platter, resulting in the fourth line of the poem “like a tea-tray in the sky” (Carroll, 55) (Phillips, 98). Although the anecdote is mainly an inside joke for those who knew of the story, “The Bat”, also further confuses Alice at the Tea Party.
Derived from Mary Howitt’s “The Spider and the Fly”, Carroll shows his literary ability while simultaneously toying with Victorian ideals on children and mirrors the meter flawlessly in his version. The amount of thought applied to preserve this underlying feature of the poem shows Carroll’s literary skill and dedication. The original form of the poem describes a spider inviting a fly into its home. The fly ultimately outsmarts the cunning spider and shows children to beware of strangers. In his adaptation, “The Lobster’s Quadrille”, Carroll uses a similar situation, but with an altered endgame. A whiting tries to convince a snail to join him in a dance where lobsters fling them into the sea (Carroll 77). The fish seems to have no ulterior motives and simply wants the snail join in the ritualistic dance, but the snail is apprehensive to participate because of how slow he is and how far he they’ll throw him into the sea. The whiting cleverly uses logic to reassure the snail when he says, “The further off from England the nearer is to France” (Carroll 78). This not only adds to the wit and crass of the story, but also is the only time the setting is exclusively stated (Carroll 78). This seemingly harmless addition shows that Carroll’s story is not as isolated from reality as most think. It reminds the reader that Alice is only a rabbit-hole away from where her journey began.
In the same scene as “The Lobster Quadrille”, Carroll uses another poem, “The Lobster”, to portray a serious and valuable moral to readers. Isaac Watts’s, “The Sluggard”, is a didactic poem teaching the value of thought and hard work. It describes a vagrant who refuses to wake and assert himself to anything useful. The poem is overly condescending and ends in a lesson as most moralistic poems do. Carroll’s peculiar rendition of the poem features a boasting lobster. The extremely vain crustacean speaks as if he is invincible (Carroll 80). However, when the tide rises and sharks surround him, the brash lobster cowers in fear (Carroll 80). The new poem conveys an equally important moral in a very different manner. Rather than teaching children to be hard working, Carroll shows the importance of humility and character; not acting as if you are someone, you’re not.
The next time Carroll parodies a poem; he does not impart a moral, but rather creates a comical rewrite of a popular song of his day. The original is a sentimental and serious ode to the “star of the evening”. The new version, recited by Mock Turtle, is seriously delivered, but full of senseless content. The “soup of the evening” is irresistible, better than any other course, and is, by all accounts, “beau – ootiful” (Carroll 82). This song does little for the overall plot, but changes Alice’s situation in retrospect. When Alice first met the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, she and the reader perceived a connection between them; they were the most normal characters in the story thus far. After listening to Lobster Quadrille, and then especially after “Soup of the Evening”, there is an apparent obscureness to all characters of Wonderland (Carroll 78 & 82-83).
The final rewriting comes in the form of an unsigned note presented at the trial. The note that Alice “[doesn’t] believe there’s an atom of meaning in”, is similar to William Mee’s “Alice Gray” (Carroll 93). The situation of the poet is clearly analogous to Carroll’s with Alice. He loves being with Alice, but knows she will grow up. When the novellas published, she already was becoming distant and did not share in his feelings. Despite this hardly coincidental origin poem, Carroll’s version of the poem is about the trial on the surface level. Even though the letter is a central piece of evidence, Alice sees it as nonsense. Carroll uses the truly nonsensical poem to grow Alice’s understanding of her surroundings. Through the poem, she understands that there is nothing to understanding and the pattern of Wonderland was random.
Using several varying methods, Lewis Carroll warps the connotations of commonplace poetry in Alice in Wonderland. Alice is a dynamic character anchored in Victorian ideals who Carroll manipulates through both his poems and the poems he based them off. Using his career-grounded analytical skills, Carroll effectively used the poems for two purposes. These dual meanings encompass Victorian morals and criticize their rationality, and these subtle critiques reveal Dodgson’s beliefs through Lewis Carroll.
Phillips, Robert, ed. Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s Dream Child as Seen through the Critics’ Glasses. New York: Vanguard, 1971. Print.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. New York: W. W. Norman & Company, Inc., 2013. Print.
Auerbach, Nina. “Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child.” Victorian Studies. Vol. 17. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1973. 31-47. Print.
Carroll, Lewis, and John Tenniel. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-glass. The Definitive Ed. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.
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