In the past couple of weeks, there has been – naturally – a discussion of nonsense that has stemmed from our study of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice novels. With Carroll’s extensive employment of nonsensical concepts, scenarios, and even words, it is, of course, essential that we do this – however, I think that much of the value in his work lies not in the nonsensical but rather the familiar found therein. Specifically, the two poems in Through the Looking Glass, “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, are appealing to many for their seemingly inherent evocation of nostalgia and youth.
One of the things that I first asserted in our discussion of nonsense was something similar to what I am asserting here: that the value of many children’s works – and of nonsensical works in particular – is their cultural cache and familiarity. For example, the opening lines of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (The time has come / the walrus said / to talk to many things) are almost universally recognizable among English speakers. Even those who have not read either Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass will recognize these poems, often unaware of their source or context. Is the value or appeal, then, in Carroll’s words to be found in the symbolism or subtext of the poems? Perhaps instead, it is merely the lyrical and rhythmic appeal of his verse; this, too, is where I believe the appeal of nonsense in general lies.
There is room here, too, for the discussion of “the canon of sentiment”; how many of us were excited to read Alice merely to flesh out the context for a story we are so familiar with? While sentimentality and cultural iconography are not entirely conflated, they are certainly borne from similar impulses – and certainly non-academic, in the way that we would traditionally select a work for canon.