Lewis Carroll’s Hunting Of The Snark Poem, and Its Layers of Meaning

Lewis Carroll prefaces his ‘far-from-nonsense poem’ with an explanation for one of the lines, which seafaring people of his time (the Victorian era when the British Navy held sway over the seas) may have objected to as being not only improbable but impossible.

He articulates how this could be achieved with all the seriousness of an elementary school teacher. He seems to delight in this role, as an antidote to his more official one as a Don of Oxford College, England.

In the narrative poem, which he divides into The Agony of Eight Fits (reminiscent of course of a ship’s Eight Bells) he has brought us a narrative in the loose rhyming style that is as infectious as that of Dr. Seuss’s, and the likeness does not end there. His poem holds us in a state of suspense for these boatswain as they embark on their fatal voyage. Maybe Lewis had been forced to learn The Ancient Mariner as a child.

If his Alice books were corrections of the woefully over-mannered middle-classes, this poem is a jibe at the seriousness with which the English regarded their Navy. The Navy, which the Kaiser Wilhelm so envied and was determined to thrash, had been responsible for England’s enormous wealth since the Elizabethan era. Its peak achievements in the early nineteenth century, Nelson’s, and its safe-harbouring the hugely successful Slave Trade, made it the darling of most Englishmen especially the grocers. Even today it is hard to write two hundred words without using a nautical word. (see ‘jibe’)

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The poem is written in true Dr. Seuss style (or perhaps it is the other way round?) describing the motley crew in loving detail edged with absurd humour. It is a search, not for a Melville’s 1851 White Whale (and there are many who will symbolize Moby Dick to bits) but for a Snark, and one that could be a Boojum Snark. Boojum sounds to me suspiciously like a Caribbean word, but I do not want to pass on my prejudices. However Carroll must have known, childish champion that he was, of the Water Babies (1863), a pleasant enough tale but featuring a black (in reality a chimney sweep covered in soot) and a white baby finding true happiness under the sea. The Snark does indeed turn out to be a Boojum Snark and true to its fearful legend does disappear the member of the crew who is unlucky enough to find it.

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Moral tale indeed. Heralding the Present Day when we are all eagerly engaged in hunting snarks to the point of our own extinction. Carroll could have also been playing with the idea, or rather reversing it, of hunting wild animals to extinction, an idea just coming into play when he wrote. Of course, he was aware that scholars had been doing that for years at Oxford, and before the Net, but this is what makes his story worthy of attention.

But the poem has more than one moral, or flavour. It also amazingly encompasses the kind of mathematical puzzle which takes us through a series of calculations to end up where we started. A symbol for the circularity and paradoxes of advanced maths.

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by Eliza Wyatt