Title graphic of the Moonspeaker website. Small title graphic of the Moonspeaker website.

Where some ideas are stranger than others...

FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


The Baker's Tale

They roused him with muffins –

they roused him with ice –

They roused him with mustard and cress –

They roused him with jam and judicious advice –

They set him conundrums to guess.

When at length he sat up and was able to speak,

His sad story he offered to tell;

And the Bellman cried "Silence! Not even a shriek!"

And excitedly tingled his bell.

There was silence supreme! Not a shriek, not a scream,

Scarcely even a howl or a groan,

As the man they called "Ho!" told his story of woe

In an antediluvian tone.

"My father and mother were honest, though poor –"

"Skip all that!" cried the Bellman in haste.

"If it once becomes dark, there's no chance of a Snark –

We have hardly a minute to waste!"

"I skip forty years," said the Baker, in tears,

"And proceed without further remark

To the day when you took me aboard of your ship

To help you in hunting the Snark.

"A dear uncle of mine (after whom I was named)

Remarked, when I bade him farewell –"

"Oh, skip your dear uncle!" the Bellman exclaimed,

As he angrily tingled his bell.

"He remarked to me then," said that mildest of men,

" 'If your Snark be a Snark, that is right:

Fetch it home by all means – you may serve it with greens,

And it's handy for striking a light.

" 'You may seek it with thimbles – and seek it with care;

You may hunt it with forks and hope;

You may threaten its life with a railway-share;

You may charm it with smiles and soap –' "

("That's exactly the method," the Bellman bold

In a hasty parenthesis cried,

"That's exactly the way I have always been told

That the capture of Snarks should be tried!")

" '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!'

"It is this, it is this that oppresses my soul,

When I think of my uncle's last words:

And my heart is like nothing so much as a bowl

Brimming over with quivering curds!

"It is this, it is this –" "We have had that before!"

The Bellman indignantly said.

And the Baker replied "Let me say it once more.

It is this, it is this that I dread!

"I engage with the Snark – every night after dark –

In a dreamy delirious fight:

I serve it with greens in those shadowy scenes,

And I use it for striking a light:

"But if ever I meet with a Boojum, that day,

In a moment (of this I am sure),

I shall softly and suddenly vanish away –

And the notion I cannot endure!"


  1. "Cress" is a name applied to a variety of leafy vegetables all in the same family as cabbage. The reason it is a remedy for fainting here is because of its "peppery flavour and aroma" (thanks Wikipedia). According to my copy of Culpeper's Compleat Herbal (OpenLibrary.org has a nice on-line edition) the uses of cresses in early medicine focused around increasing circulation and opening up passages, consistent with the sharp quality of their flavour and smell already noted.
  2. According to my electronic OED, conundrums are difficult questions people ask of each other for fun. I'm not quite sure what to make of the definition, as it is awfully short of detail. Are we talking Zen koans here, or the sorts of clever questions gathered together in games like Mindtrap? In any case, here perhaps the crew is rather ineptly trying to distract the Baker from his distress.
  3. "Antediluvian" means literally "from before the flood" and today is usually used rather sarcastically to refer to obnoxious rules and attitudes reflective of sexism or racism. Here though, that would be inappropriate to the context of the poem, as would taking as meaning the Baker's voice sounds ancient. So perhaps it is best understood as meaning deep sounding and sad, in which case the Baker's tone could be reminiscent of the voice of a witness to the flood. Absurd as the question is, it is arguably a conundrum for anybody performing an audio-book version of the poem.
  4. The Baker is named after his uncle, whose name is not given. As becomes clear, the Baker remains entirely nameless throughout the poem, and in fact so arguably, does the rest of the crew since they are labelled only by category references, not personal names. Nevertheless, of all the crew, only the Baker is explicitly marked by not remembering his name.
  5. "Greens" have become quite trendy lately courtesy of "green smoothies" and that sort of thing. They are most familiar in salads in canada, but in england they would have been more traditionally part of a sort of stew or soup eaten in the spring using the first harvest of greens in season. The brassica greens stand up well to winter storage and could be made into soup or included in other dishes during the winter, hence the famous (or infamous) cabbage soup staple of poor families in europe.
  6. By Lewis Carroll's time, wooden and paper matches were fairly common. As anyone who has taken them camping knows all too well, they are wonderful inventions as long as you have an adequate surface to strike them against and start them burning. People who didn't have matches had a number of options. If they were really hard up, they would have to work with flint and steel, a small piece of hard stone and a piece of metal that when struck together raise a spray of sparks. The sparks are directed onto light kindling and gently blown on to start a small, feedable flame. Better off people could use a spill, a large shaving of soft wood, and light that up at an already started fire or even a gas lamp (the latter likely a very unsafe option). It is still just possible to purchase a "spill plane" from businesses like Lee Valley. I wouldn't dream of not having one of these at a wood-heated cabin, because spills make wonderful kindling.
  7. The best known sort of thimble called by the name is the one worn on the end of the finger or thumb to protect them when sewing, especially when the needle needs to be passed through thicker material. In this case we may have a reference to a shipboard sort of thimble, a type of metal ring with a loop of rope worked around it, according to the OED. I had my doubts about this, until I tracked down a photo reference from Wikipedia, from which it turns out most of us are probably more familiar with nautical or rope thimbles then we realize.

  8. Based on the next illustration, the crew will not be hunting just with the ordinary sort of care. There is a female figure in the background with her head in one hand, wearing a sort of veil over her head and a vaguely roman-style drapery. This figure appears to be a rendition of one of the "christian virtues" although "care" isn't one of them, "charity" in latin "caritas" is, so there may be a more complex pun here, especially since in real life Carroll was a deacon.
  9. The next illustration gives a nice cross-section of forks, from pitch forks (for pitching hay, of course) to tuning forks. Oddly, hope, the other allegorical figure who is in the foreground, seems to be carrying not a fork but an anchor, albeit quite a light one. The reference to seeking anything with forks goes back to the grim process of hunting down a condemned or otherwise feared person in a rural village setting where dedicated weapons would be few and well-sharpened farm implements would have to serve.
  10. It is puzzling, even if it is very victorian, for allegorical Hope to be illustrated as a woman in her nightgown with no shoes or slippers on – in fact Hope's nightgown is a bit risqué, for all that. Ah, and having looked up the allegorical figure Hope (which sounds oddly reminiscent of the designation "artist formerly known as Prince") it turns out she is traditionally depicted with an anchor. Since the sources I can find on this version of hope are from sea-faring nations, when loss of loved ones at sea was not uncommon in the 1800s, her anchor could refer to the hope for a safe return for relatives at sea. Or more prosaically, maybe "hope" is supposed to be a sort of anchor in life.
  11. A railway-share is a part ownership in a railway company, which originally could mean as little as one rail-line and the rolling stock serving it. Railways became an early site of modern robber-baronship and pork barrelling, especially in north america, in the 1800s. I had a stubborn impression that a part of the rail track might be referred to as a share, giving an actual object to brandish at the snark. Interesting as that would be, this is a misapprehension on my part probably intentionally encouraged by the poem's author who no doubt had good fun misdirecting his child companions as to what a railway-share actually was.
  12. The unfortunate snark sounds as if it is lonely and poorly bathed, if it can be enchanted by smiles and soap. Soap is a part of lubricating greases, which would have been needed to keep various parts of the ship in order as well, including the ship's rigging. Fancy soaps and perfumes were not uncommon courting gifts in the mid twentieth-century at least, though that doesn't appear to stretch back to the victorian era, probably because people did not reference in any way activities involving unclothed or partially clothed bodies if they were upper class and "proper."
  13. Parenthetical statements were invented and marked with the parenthesis in type and writing quite recently. The OED dates them to the sixteenth century, however according to John Lennard's book But, I Digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse first appeared in print in 1494 and the marks around them are properly called lunulae, while the text inside the lunulae is the parenthesis. (The book is very dry in spite of its sparkling title, but it is well worth reading the first chapter for general interest due to its pithy overview of the history and development of punctuation.)
  14. "Beamish" is another word from the poem Jabberwocky, and by analogy with "peevish" may mean something like "easily beaming, shining." The ending -ish seems to be of controversial origin. Several different dictionaries and etymological texts suggest it isn't a true word-building suffix in the english language and probably came from some sort of mutation that took latin perversus to english peevish. That's quite a reach though, and seems dependent on scribal error or something, and while such errors can become enshrined in language, it just doesn't seem to fit. After all, there are at least two well-known words ending in -ish that come from old english words ending in -isc: english and frankish. They mean respectively "of the angles" and "of the franks."
  15. The "curds" here are probably what is called "cottage cheese" in north america, these being the very earliest stage of cheese making (and awful if you don't have a taste for them). Little Miss Muffet was likely eating this sort of curd in their whey in another famous poem.
  16. Here is a nice example of palilogia, rhetorical emphasis by repetition, which alas the Bellman doesn't appreciate at all. Rhetoric isn't often explicitly taught now, which is a shame because the best defence against manipulation by orators of any kind is to understand their techniques. Rhetorical techniques aren't bad in themselves, they're a necessity for anyone who needs to speak to an audience without putting them to sleep or write a paper or article that makes sense. Unfortunately, they can be abused all the same. For a light-hearted and funny introduction to ten rhetorical techniques, you need look no further than the Monty Python montage on the subject at Open Culture (the sound track occasionally falls behind the movie track, which adds to the charm).
  17. Reading this segment again it dawned on me that the snark is not being served as a dish with greens, which shouldn't have troubled the Baker at all since that suggests the snark had met a thorough end. No, the poor Baker understands that he is supposed to serve the snark like a waiter with a plate (or bowl I suppose) of greens. Phrases with ambiguous meanings to them are a source of frustration for children and second-language learners everywhere.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:06