Appropriately for a nonsense poem, Lewis Carroll’s Snark came into being last-line-first:
“I was walking on a hill-side, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse — one solitary line — ‘For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.’ I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means now; but I wrote it down: and, some time afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza.”
What the above account (from Carroll’s essay “Alice on the Stage”) doesn’t say is that the walk was taken in a break from caring for his 22-year-old cousin and godson, Charles Hassard Wilcox, who had tuberculosis. After tending his godson, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), managed three hours sleep then went for that walk, whereupon he became, so to speak, “snarked”. This was July 1874; Dodgson heard of his godson’s death on 11th November of the same year, by which time he seems already to have been making plans for The Snark’s publication. A diary entry for 23rd November mentions Ruskin coming round to look at illustrations Dodgson had commissioned from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday. Dodgson initially asked for three pictures, one for each of the (at the time) three “fits”, but kept adding to the poem, and eventually had Holiday produce nine in all, including a frontispiece.
In the end, it wasn’t till October of the following year that Dodgson had the “sudden idea” (as he put it in his diary) to get The Hunting of the Snark published in time for Christmas. It turned out to be too late for that, so it came out at Easter 1876. It would go through eighteen reprints between then and 1910.
Initial reviews were mixed. The Weekly Dispatch, 16th April 1876, for instance:
“Alice in Wonderland was such a delightful volume for all right-minded readers between the ages of four and fourscore, and Through the Looking-glass was such a capital continuation of it, that, while any book their author may write is sure to be eagerly devoured by them, perhaps no book he could write would be altogether satisfactory to them. The Hunting of the Snark, at any rate, is, we think, quite certain to be popular, and quite as certain to disappoint most of those who take it up. The disappointment, however, will not take shape till they have read to the end, and then perhaps it will be quite as much because the eighty pages to which the story does extend are not more evenly crowded with good things.”
Andrew Lang, in The Academy (8th April), perhaps put his finger on it by saying that, if it was “rather disappointing, it is partly the fault of the too attractive title”. Aside, then, from the disappointment of it not featuring Alice — who, I feel, would have punctured the tale from the start by asking the obvious question “What is a Snark?” — there’s a feeling The Hunting of the Snark simply promises more than it delivers. Or, contrariwise, that there ought to be more of it.
In part, I think this is perhaps because, like Chaucer at the start of The Canterbury Tales, Carroll sets up his cast of characters embarking on this nonsensical quest (ten in all) but only gives six of them a lead place in one of the poem’s eight “fits”. We could, charitably, suggest he was sticking to the form of the unfinished Canterbury Tales by leaving gaps in his tale, but Chaucer at least had the excuse of being dead. Carroll, still alive, simply failed to give us a tale for the Boots, the Maker of Bonnets and Hoods, the Broker, and the Billiard-marker. The final “fit” is, really, exactly the sort of let-down ending you’d expect of a shaggy dog tale, but Carroll didn’t make his dog shaggy enough for it to work.
Like so many of the other greats of fantasy poetry I’ve covered in Mewsings, this is the story of a confrontation with a fantastical being. Wilde’s The Sphinx and Poe’s The Raven are all about that moment of confrontation; Keats’s Belle Dame and Rossetti’s Goblin Market are mostly about the devastating aftermath of such an encounter. Like The Snark, Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is all about the lead-up to the object of a quest, but I think the greatest similarity lies with Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater: both start with an extended indulgence in weird exoticism (for Smith) or nonsense (for Carroll), before that very excess of indulgence leads to a final, terrible confrontation with something overwhelming.
What can be said about the nature of Carroll’s Snark? (And I’m conscious that, some years ago, I wrote a mewsings on the dangers of over-interpreting nonsense — “Fallacies of Wonderland” — but I still like to eke out what can be said.)
For instance, whereas The Canterbury Tales’ pilgrims represent a fair mix of the society of Chaucer’s day, the Bellman’s crew are often ridiculously specialised, and none with skills that might be of help in a hunt. This is epitomised by the Banker who, faced not with the Snark itself but the presumably lesser threat of a Bandersnatch, can only defend himself by offering the creature a “large discount” (on what?) and “a cheque”. They do not form a society, this crew, but a loose collection of isolated individuals.
The poem was conceived in a moment of isolation (“I was walking on a hill-side, alone” — recalling Keats’s “cold hill-side”) and ends with the Baker alone on a similar height (“On the top of a neighbouring crag”) encountering the ultimate loneliness of disappearing from the world altogether. (And it could well be that Dodgson, when he came up with the line, was contemplating the reality of his godson disappearing from the world altogether.) The only character apart from the fated Baker to encounter a Snark is the Barrister, who does so in a dream, where the Snark starts to take on the roles of the entire court — Defence, Prosecution, Jury and Judge — as though it were turning the entire world into one faceless “other”, that other being, ultimately, just oneself by another name. There’s certainly, then, an air of loneliness, absence (the Bellman’s empty map and directionless voyage) and solipsism about the Snark.
And the Snark is also — perhaps can’t help being — the embodiment, or non-embodiment, of nonsense, too: or the thing that awaits when nonsense ceases to be play and becomes a revelation of the meaninglessness of everything, or even, in the case of the Banker, of insanity (“Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity”). A Snark is sought through the purest nonsense of the non-sequitur, the collection of unrelated, random things forced together:
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
It’s as though the way to catch a Snark is to keep assembling unrelated things (including a crew of vastly unrelated professions), until the sheer mass of unrelatedness causes a fissure in reality and the creature, summoned like a demon, appears. (And is this what J G Ballard’s multiple protagonists of The Atrocity Exhibition were doing with their “Terminal documents”? If so, what sort of Snark was Ballard trying to summon?)
The thing that seems, in the poem, to separate nonsense from the wailing void of meaninglessness is the imposition of rules. The rules don’t, though, have to make sense. They can be as arbitrary as the Bellman’s “What I tell you three times is true.” And it’s notable that this rule is the thing that saves — and brings together — the only two characters who emerge from The Hunting of the Snark happier, and less lonely, than before: the Beaver and the Butcher. These two, who are set up as natural enemies (the Butcher’s specialisation is the butchering of beavers), on facing a moment of terror together, get through it by the application of the Bellman’s nonsensical rule (plus a little equally nonsensical mathematics). The point being, it doesn’t matter what gets them through their experience of terror, only that they do it together, and having done so, have punctured the divisions between them. (The Beaver is also the only character not defined by its specialisation. It’s of course an animal, but, though referred to as an “it”, has characteristics that Carroll’s contemporary audience would have associated with being female: it makes lace, and it weeps. The Butcher, meanwhile, recalls his childhood, “That blissful and innocent state”, and in that moment ceases to be a mere social role, and is humanised.)
Of course, the Baker has a nonsensical rule too:
“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!”
And, in a sense, he perishes not of the Snark — which, arguably doesn’t exist — but from the rule, and the fear it engenders. If a Snark doesn’t exist, it cannot be a Boojum; but if it doesn’t exist, it also can’t not be a Boojum, therefore every Snark is, potentially, a Boojum. The “What I tell you three times” rule leads to the truth (or at least a belief that there might be such a thing as truth — “truth” perhaps being definable as a belief that can be shared, and so a way out of isolation), but the “If your Snark be a Boojum” rule leads only deeper into nonsense, and so into isolation.
I think The Snark — particularly in the second fit, “The Bellman’s Speech”, where the Bellman reveals his blank map, and the sixth, “The Barrister’s Dream” — contains some of Carroll’s best nonsense writing, second only to his absolute best, the “Advice from a Caterpillar” chapter of Alice and “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass. And, if I can mention just one more favourite, there’s “The Mad Gardener’s Song”, perhaps the purest nonsense of the lot.