A strange quest and a stranger legacy: Lewis Carroll’s Snark Hunt (Column: Bookends)

Poets can count themselves fortunate even if snatches of their works linger on in memory down the years but this poem is unique for it not only influenced popular literature or musicals, opera, theatre, music, including jazz but also figures in physics (a superfluidity phenomenon), mathematics (graph theory), law (a ruling by the US Court of Appeals on a plea by some Guantanamo Bay prisoners), geography (two features in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) and botany (a tree).

Not bad for a long nonsense work, about a strange quest for a stranger creature, written for the amusement of a young child the author met at a seaside resort!

“The Hunting of the Snark” (1876) is among Lewis Carroll’s lesser-known works but no less ingenious for it displays its forte at poetry.

Not only did he create English literature’s most famous fantasy worlds, Carroll (Oxford mathematician and deacon Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) also augmented the effect of mirroring or twisting familiar reality with nonsense parody verse. Readers familiar with Alice in Wonderland will recall the quantity of poetry – mostly moral verse of her time – Alice is forced to recite but not only comes out all wrong, as per her own admission, but comically wrong.

To take one example, what was Robert Southey’s “You are old, father William,” the young man cried,/”The few locks which are left you are grey;/You are hale, father William, a hearty old man;/Now tell me the reason, I pray” becomes “You are old, Father William,” the young man said,/”And your hair has become very white;/And yet you incessantly stand on your head-/Do you think, at your age, it is right?”.

But Carroll was also a dab hand at outright inventions. “Through the Looking Glass”, which has parodies of Sir William Scott’s “Bonnie Dundee” and William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence”, also has the “Jabberworcky” (“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”) and more conventional “The Walrus and the Carpenter”. And it is these that would influence the “Hunting of the Snark”.

Its plot seems simple. A team of nine sets out to capture a creature called the Snark. But being a Carroll work, the quest – termed “An Agony in Eight Fits” – is hardly going to be straightforward. Not only is the crew all named/in an occupation beginning with letter ‘B’ – the Bellman (their leader), a ‘Boots’ (a shoe-polisher), a Bonnets-maker, a Barrister, a Broker, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Beaver, and the ‘Baker/Butcher’, who has forgotten his name and real job, but their quarry is no less mysterious.

You can figure what it is going to be like, as it begins: “‘Just the place for a Snark!’ the Bellman cried,/As he landed his crew with care;/Supporting each man on the top of the tide/?By a finger entwined in his hair.”

The crew members are described in Fit the First (“The Landing”), their leader, their journey so far and target in the second (“Bellman’s Speech”),”The Baker’s Tale” is their forgetful member’s story, fits four and five (“The Hunting”, “The Beaver’s Lesson”) are about abortive tries, “The Barrister’s Dream” extends the suspense, the penultimate “The Banker’s Fate” of what befell one of them and “The Vanishing” concludes the tale.

Caroll’s playful inventiveness is evident throughout. The Snark has five distinguishing features – including a habit of getting up late “you’ll agree/That it carries too far, when I say/That it frequently breakfasts at five-o’clock tea,/And dines on the following day”, its “slowness in taking a jest” and “its fondness for bathing-machines,/Which it constantly carries about,/And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes -…”

No less is the method of collaring it: “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 there is danger if the Snark turns out to be a Boojum, as one of their number always fears.

A masterpiece of deft twisting of the normal to comic effect – such as when the Banker, seeking to escape a flying predator, “offered large discount – he offered a cheque/(Drawn “to bearer”) for seven-pounds-ten..” and many others, the poem has long been enjoyed as it is. Others have sought to interpret it in various ways – an allegory of pursuit of happiness, of fear of losing identity, a satire on contemporary moral issues and so on.

But can we – should we – seek to find sense in what proclaims itself nonsense or are we actually seeking it in ourselves? It is not easy to make out but this is the power of literature – and its allure.

(15.05.2016 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

vd/vm

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