For Better for Verse: An interactive learning tool that can help you understand what makes metered poetry in English tick.

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Jabberwocky(1855)

Lewis Carroll

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Meter‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
MeterDid gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
MeterAll mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
MeterAnd the mome raths outgrabe.

Note on line 4: Ten of the words in this stanza never existed until Carroll coined them right here — all the important ones, in fact, since the only dictionary words are the uninformative ’twas, and, the, did, in, all, were. We know how to pronounce the coinages by analogy to familiar English words they look like, but also by virtue of their metrical place in the equally familiar ballad stanza. In other words, sheer prosodic structure tells us to read “brillig” with a stressed first syllable, and “borogoves” with a slack in the middle between two stresses. We’re so good at picking this up that Carroll even counts on us to understand that “mome raths” in line 4 is an adjective-noun pair to be scanned as a spondee. The result is a nice closing thump that he likes so well he brings it back for a reprise in the poem’s last line, where we hail it as an old friend.


“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
Meter“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
MeterThe jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
MeterBeware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
MeterThe frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
MeterHe took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought-
MeterLong time the manxome foe he sought-
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
MeterSo rested he by the Tumtum tree,

Note on line 11: It’s easy to miss what happens at this point to the abab balladic rhyme scheme. Line 3 of this stanza does not rhyme, as it should, with line 1. (It’s therefore marked x in our Rhyme column on the left.) The reason one tends not to notice is that the line rhymes internally with itself, “he” with “tree.” Carroll indulges this effect in several ensuing stanzas, only to snap out of his mock-heroic rapture with the reprise of abab at the close of the poem.

And stood awhile in thought.
MeterAnd stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
MeterAnd as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
MeterThe Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
MeterCame whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
MeterAnd burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
MeterOne, two! One, two! And through and through

Note on line 17: If slaying the Jabberwock seems like hard work to you, go ahead and use spondees in the first two feet. 4B4V prefers iambs here, to make the deed feel easy. It’s all in the wrist. And in the internal rhyming of “two” with “through.”

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
MeterThe vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
MeterHe left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
MeterHe went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Meter“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
MeterCome to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
MeterO frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

Note on line 23: Although a spondee is permissible in the first foot of this line, the iamb is much to be preferred. Why not stress the oh-so eligible “O”? Because the quality of cartoonish, pantomime emotion it expresses can’t stand up to the gait of the ballad meter galumphing its way along. It’s as if the quoted speaker knows s/he is being quoted and is performing the emotion to the hilt, with a vivid sense of how rote the whole scene is.

He chortled in his joy.
MeterHe chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Meter‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
MeterDid gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
MeterAll mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
MeterAnd the mome raths outgrabe.

Rhyme

Resources

video src="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVoBra0I4jU" Click the link above to hear a dramatic reading of the poem by Sir Christopher Lee.
Show Stress    Foot division    Caesura    Syncopation