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The Barrister's Dream

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.

But the Barrister, weary of proving in vain

That the Beaver's lace-making was wrong,

Fell asleep, and in dreams saw the creature quite plain

That his fancy had dwelt on so long.

He dreamed that he stood in a shadowy Court,

Where the Snark, with a glass in its eye,

Dressed in gown, bands, and wig, was defending a pig

On the charge of deserting its sty.

The Witnesses proved, without error or flaw,

That the sty was deserted when found:

And the Judge kept explaining the state of the law

In a soft under-current of sound.

The indictment had never been clearly expressed,

And it seemed that the Snark had begun,

And had spoken three hours, before any one guessed

What the pig was supposed to have done.

The Jury had each formed a different view

(Long before the indictment was read),

And they all spoke at once, so that none of them knew

One word that the others had said.

"You must know –" said the Judge: but the Snark exclaimed "Fudge!"

That statute is obsolete quite!

Let me tell you, my friends, the whole question depends

On an ancient manorial right.

"In the matter of Treason the pig would appear

To have aided, but scarcely abetted:

While the charge of Insolvency fails, it is clear,

If you grant the plea 'never indebted.'

"The fact of Desertion I will not dispute;

But its guilt, as I trust, is removed

(So far as related to the costs of this suit)

By the Alibi which has been proved.

"My poor client's fate now depends on your votes."

Here the speaker sat down in his place,

And directed the Judge to refer to his notes

And briefly to sum up the case.

But the Judge said he never had summed up before;

So the Snark undertook it instead,

And summed it so well that it came to far more

Than the Witnesses ever had said!

When the verdict was called for, the Jury declined,

As the word was so puzzling to spell;

But they ventured to hope that the Snark wouldn't mind

Undertaking that duty as well.

So the Snark found the verdict, although, as it owned,

It was spent with the toils of the day:

When it said the word "GUILTY!" the Jury all groaned,

And some of them fainted away.

Then the Snark pronounced sentence, the Judge being quite

Too nervous to utter a word:

When it rose to its feet, there was silence like night,

And the fall of a pin might be heard.

"Transportation for life" was the sentence it gave,

"And then to be fined forty pound."

The Jury all cheered, though the Judge said he feared

That the phrase was not legally sound.

But their wild exultation was suddenly checked

When the jailer informed them, with tears,

Such a sentence would have not the slightest effect,

As the pig had been dead for some years.

The Judge left the Court, looking deeply disgusted:

But the Snark, though a little aghast,

As the lawyer to whom the defense was entrusted,

Went bellowing on to the last.

Thus the Barrister dreamed, while the bellowing seemed

To grow every moment more clear:

Till he woke to the knell of a furious bell,

Which the Bellman rang close at his ear.


  1. The "glass" here is a monocle, a single lens held in place by the muscles around the eye. Monocles are out of use nowadays, probably for convenience and comfort, and since buying two lenses in normal frames is now far less expensive than a specially made and framed single lens. In addition, most people who could use a monocle have an astigmatism, a visual distortion caused by the eye being slightly football-shaped rather than a sphere. It matters how the corrective lens is oriented in front of the eyeball for the effective countering of an astigmatism, but since monocles for comfort must be fairly round, they would tend to end up slightly off-line, causing eyestrain and headaches.
  2. That is, barrister's bands, two rectangular pieces of white material attached to a ribbon and tied onto the neck to hang over the shirt front. According to Wikipedia, these frankly ridiculous items are the last remnants of the elaborate ruffs worn in the elizabethan period and worn by the Butcher in his peculiar snark-hunting wardrobe. In canada the bands are called tabs instead, though they seem to be no shorter than their british counterparts as might be expected.
  3. Pigs are highly intelligent animals, and are well-known for their capacity to go feral and breed successfully in the wild. They are also famous for being aggressive and difficult to manage in the event they escape from their sty, which pigs are happy to do at any possible opportunity. Since farm pigs are bred for size, anywhere from 150 to 250 kilograms, an angry farm pig on the loose is no trivial challenge. One thing pigs are famed for but unjustly is for being dirty because they roll in mud. In fact, they aren't dirty so much as prone to overheating and sunburn, and so they roll in mud to cool themselves and create a protective layer over their skin since their fur is not thick. Pigs are recurring characters in Carroll's works, and they are almost always behaving in a scandalous manner.
  4. An indictment, pronounced "inditement" and originally spelt almost exactly that way according to the OED (the earlier spelling was endictment), is the written version of a formal accusation or charge of a crime. In the british legal system, the handing down of the indictment is what begins a formal legal proceeding as the accused must hear the charge against them and respond to it.
  5. As this fit goes on, Lewis Carroll's apparently low opinion of the legal profession and its proceedings is reiterated, his first expression of it being in the trial scene of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This isn't an uncommon view at all, and probably isn't helped by the pomposity of legal proceedings in british-derived court systems and the bizarre clothes and accessories lawyers and judges may wear. Bands have been mentioned above, and there are also robes, wigs, and in some systems even special tail coats, all of them curious carry overs from the standard dress of much earlier times in england.
  6. If you have seen A Christmas Story, then the snark's expletive will invariably bring to mind the famous scene when Ralphie's new BB gun ricochets and knocks his glasses off. However, it turns out the expletive use has an entirely different origin than replacing a more loaded f-word. The OED suggests "fudge" in this sense is an alteration of the verb "fadge" which meant first "to turn out as expected," then "to bring together," and then "to put things together badly." So the snark's expletive is appropriate in content, if not in delivery.
  7. A statute is simply a written law, and derives from the latin past participle "statum" meaning "having been set up." A written law is "set up" by a legislative body of some kind, which in ancient rome meant it was engraved on a tablet and literally set up in the forum.
  8. Manorial rights are a much resented characteristic of the feudal system of land tenure, and are still in effect in much of the united kingdom, to the fury and frustration of many of the people affected by them. They can be invidious, though less so than formerly and are privileges attached to a manor or great house held by a person designated a "lord" by the local monarch. Originally they included things like designated amounts of labour by tenants on the land controlled by the manor and the rape of any woman tenant on the first night of her marriage by the "lord." Today the rights tend to be less personal and more "resource" related, so things like being allowed to hunt on the lands exclusively, or holding mineral or timber rights.
  9. Today "treason" generally means only the act of betraying the country where one is a citizen to another country such as by providing information that leads to the defeat of the home country's army in war. However, accusations of treason have always been used for political means, so that the actual definition of a treasonous act is often very unclear even though it may seem like it should be unambiguous. The ancient greeks crime of "asebia" or impiety was used and ill-defined in much the same way. The reason treason is so unclear is because at root it is about breaking allegiance not to a country or state but to a person. "High" treason was attempting to kill or overthrow a monarch, "petty" treason was attempting to kill or overthrow a lesser figure than a monarch who was nonetheless in an analogous position to the person trying to kill or overthrow them.
  10. Aided and abetted mean the same thing, helping carry out some task, in this case a crime. There are many paired words in english law with the same meaning like this, and the practice comes from the aftermath of the norman conquest. The english of course didn't speak french, and the norman french conquerors insisted their language should be favoured in legal proceedings. However, if they didn't include an english word alongside the french one, the english defendants would be able to claim they couldn't understand the charge or the eventual verdict. To avoid any such quibbling then, the word pairs were written into legal documents.
  11. Insolvency is a state of being unable to pay debts owed, which is not the same as being bankrupt, which is when a court formally declares a person unable to pay their debts. Few declarations were more feared in victorian era england, because the next stop for such an individual was debtor's prison. Debtor's prisons may have been intended to shame people into paying their debts, but in reality they became one more means to wage war on the poor. Entire families could be placed in a debtor's prison, and then each member sent out to work to pay the debt, including small children. Charles Dickens recounts his experience as a child working as a label paster during the time his family was sent to debtor's prison, and went on to press in his novels and many short sketches for an end to such cruelties. However, this was not the worst thing that could happen to people in debtor's prisons. Far worse was what could happen if they died there, for another law allowed their dead bodies to be seized for dissection by medical students. This was particularly heinous because this use of dead bodies began as part of a form of post mortem punishment for specific classes of violent criminal. Besides making a vivid example of them, it was also meant to prevent bodily resurrection at the judgement day, a day christians of the time widely believed in and expected. It was one thing to condemn a murderer to have no resurrection, a wholly other thing to condemn someone who was merely poor and indebted to such a fate.
  12. Alibi is another latin derivative, and curious as it sounds says basically exactly what it means, "at some place else." If the pig has indeed deserted his sty, then it can be fairly said he is someplace else!
  13. It is exceedingly strange that the snark is running the whole court in the Barrister's dream. This is of a piece with the dream being embedded in a surreal poem of course, yet it seems curious to imagine the snark as speaking rather than making some more appalling sound.
  14. By now the snark is playing enough roles in the court proceeding to say like Fury of the mouse's tale in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "I'll be judge, I'll be jury!"
  15. This refers to "penal transportation" a pseudo-euphemism for forced exile. Individuals subjected to this punishment, usually for conviction of a violent crime or of non-violent crimes like forgery, were sent by ship to be dropped off at a distant colony or pretended colonial possession. Originally this meant the americas, later australia, and few transported convicts returned. While this could be a reflection of a low survival rate, especially if they were not merely set loose "in the wilds" but sent as in effect slave labour to work in mines or plantations, it may not always have. There is evidence that especially in the case of convicts dropped off in north america in the earliest period of the practice, they assimilated into the Indigenous groups they encountered instead.
  16. It is quite possible for a legal case to go on far beyond the lifetime of the original individuals, especially in cases where an individual or group of individuals legally challenges a corporation or government. The reason for this is simply that such entities can afford to keep appealing an unfavourable verdict until it reaches the highest courts, and their opponents must keep up or lose the case by default.
  17. "Aghast" is an unusual word, though its origins lie with very old roots in english and other indo-european languages. It means "full of horror or shock" and comes from a now unused verb, gast, which means to cause a state of being full of horror or shock. Another survivor of the word gast is the adjective ghastly, meaning to look such that those who see you are filled with horror and shock. These are all related to "ghost" and "guest" which are in fact the same word to begin with.
  18. "Woke" and "awoke" have been falling together in meaning for some time, with the latter form disappearing except for formulaic statements like "he awoke with a start." Woke is the past tense of "wake" in the sense of wake someone up. Awoke is a past tense as well, but seems to be intransitive and what used to be the form of the verb used to mean a person woke themselves up. So instead of saying "I woke myself" a person could simply say "I awoke."
Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:07