Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
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.
The Bellman, who was almost morbidly sensitive about appearances, used to have the bowsprit unshipped once or twice a week to be revarnished, and it more than once happened, when the time came for replacing it, that no one on board could remember which end of the ship it belonged to. They knew it was not of the slightest use to appeal to the Bellman about it – he would only refer to his Naval Code, and read out in pathetic tones Admiralty Instructions which none of them had ever been able to understand – so it generally ended in its being fastened on, anyhow, across the rudder. The helmsman used to stand by with tears in his eyes; he knew it was all wrong, but alas! Rule 42 of the Code, "No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm," had been completed by the Bellman himself with the words "and the Man at the Helm shall speak to no one." So remonstrance was impossible, and no steering could be done till the next varnishing day. During these bewildering intervals the ship usually sailed backwards.
As this poem is to some extent connected with the lay of the Jabberwock, let me take this opportunity of answering a question that has often been asked me, how to pronounce "slithy toves." The "i" in "slithy" is long, as in "writhe"; and "toves" is pronounced so as to rhyme with "groves." Again, the first "o" in "borogoves" is pronounced like the "o" in "borrow." I have heard people try to give it the sound of the "o" in "worry." Such is Human Perversity.
This also seems a fitting occasion to notice the other hard words in that poem. Humpty-Dumpty's theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all.
For instance, take the two words "fuming" and "furious." Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards "fuming," you will say "fuming-furious;" if they turn, by even a hair's breadth, towards "furious," you will say "furious-fuming;" but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say "frumious."
Supposing that, when Pistol uttered the well-known words –
"Under which king, Bezonian? Speak or die!"
Justice Shallow had felt certain that it was either William or Richard, but had not been able to settle which, so that he could not possibly say either name before the other, can it be doubted that, rather than die, he would have gasped out "Rilchiam!"
1. This office was usually undertaken by the Boots, who found in it a refuge from the Baker's constant complaints about the insufficient blacking of his three pairs of boots.
- Instructive poetry is not much respected today, even though it was originally the primary way any instruction was given since it was easier to teach and learn when writing was unavailable or inconvenient. One of the more famous ancient examples of an instructive poem is Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. More recent examples that don't strike the modern reader as risible are hard to find, not least because instructive poetry was relegated to the teaching of children by the 1800s.
- The bowsprit is a long pole extending from the tip of the prow (that is front) of a ship, used for two purposes: first, to help fly an additional sail; second, to store one or more sails when not in use. More often than not in Carroll's time, english ships would have a narrow, pointed prow and a wider, flattened aft. So the difficulties of the Bellman's crew in determining where to put the bowsprit is remarkable, as would be managing to sail a ship of that shape backwards successfully. In any event, knowing the bowsprit is in fact a pole, which would often be full of one or more sails, the idea of unshipping it as explained further on becomes all the more ludicrous.
- Morally instructive poetry (as opposed to simply instructive poetry) was very much the norm in much of european writing from the period of the catholic church's greatest temporal power to the first world war. Alas, such poetry tended to be unutterably dreadful when it wasn't dreary, and a central feature of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is Lewis Carroll's relentless parodying of famous exemplars of the genre written for children.
- No doubt the arithmetical principles present may be debated, though there is a clear development of the importance of saying the same thing three times, and the curious phenomenon of a Boojum spontaneously disappearing or otherwise gravely altering certain crew members.
- Natural history is a term once used to encompass all observational study of aspects of the non-human world, ranging from geology and botany to zoology and meteorology. Originally the people now called scientists were referred to as "natural philosophers" who studied "natural history." However, this changed in 1833, when William Whewell coined the word "scientist" at the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Laura J. Snyder describes the event and much more in her book The Philosophical Breakfast Club.
- The Bellman has grave need of a rule book to guide his behaviour as a ship's captain, considering he is in origin the local town crier. Before the invention of newspapers, town criers in each small town would shout the news, prefaced by ringing their ever-present hand bells. Before they spread anything similar to what we would call news however, they made announcements on behalf of the law court, which might well be a moving court, one that travels between several towns and so hears cases for several days at a time at intervals.
- Although the use of codes and cyphers was already well established in Carroll's time, in fact he himself wrote at least two academic papers describing codes he had invented or modified, this is clearly not the sort of code referred to. Instead, "Naval Code" appears to be a nickname for a substantial text described below.
- These are the Queen's (or King's) Regulations and Admiralty Instructions, a thick book of rules describing and circumscribing the lives of those individuals who serve in the english royal navy. A 1913 edition of these regulations can be viewed at rootsweb, or better yet if you'd like to see those in force when Carroll had The Hunting of the Snark published, see the 1861 edition at the HMS Surprise simulator. Alas I can't vouch for the simulator itself as it is windows-only, though it does sound like a fascinating project. Incidentally, the peculiar word "admiralty" refers to the government department that once oversaw the english navy, as well as the jurisdiction of law courts dealing with maritime law. Maritime law is a peculiar beast that relates to navigable waters in general, and so may deal with rivers and lakes as well as the ocean.
- Ah, Rule 42. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the King of Hearts makes up a Rule 42 declaring "All persons more than a mile high to leave the court." The number 42 has a starry history in fiction, perhaps most famously as the answer to the question "What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?" from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
- A "lay" is an older poetic form, its earliest examples written by Marie De France in the 12th century, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The same source says they were originally written in "octosyllabic verse." Marie De France is actually the earliest known french poet, in the sense that she wrote in (anglo-norman) french. She stands out for being among the few well-educated women writers to be both recorded by name and to have a body of her work survive.
- "Jabberwock" referring to Jabberwocky as originally presented in Alice's Adventures Through The Looking-glass.
- As opposed of course to Human Nature, which can't be helped, though ironically Human Perversity can't be helped either.
- Here begins a riff on a Shakespeare line from Henry IV Part 2, Act 5, Scene 3, Lines 3521-3526 or so. It's even funnier if you know this section of the play, because there the question is which king, Henry IV or Henry V. Carroll opts for a word pun rather than a numerical one, though it would have been interesting to know if he had a pun in mind making use of the answer "Harry four and a half!"
- "Bezonian" apparently began its existence as a term for spanish and italian mercenaries. The definitions I have found say this word is a mutation of italian bisogno "raw recruit" which of course not only became mispronounced but derogated later on. In the original source of the line Carroll is punning on, Robert Shallow is the one being called a Bezonian, although he is a country justice rather than someone brought in as a mercenary to affect the royal succession.
- A "boots" was a servant who polishes shoes and boots at hotels, an institution that seems peculiarly british and pre-world war one, though it may not be. Readers of Sherlock Holmes will know that the activities of a boots played an important role in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In canada such individuals are called shoe-shiners, and though no longer found in hotels can sometimes be seen plying their trade on the paths between corporate buildings.
- Recently I stumbled on more information about the word "fit" in the context of poetry. A now very much obsolete sense of the word is indeed "a section of a poem" according to my trusty OED. In the section on the word's etymology, my dictionary adds that it may be related to a term once used by weavers to designate the amount of work completed in a day, which is itself related to the word skein. That word is little used these days either, and it refers to a length of yarn.