I saw an article the other day about the various artists who have illustrated Alice in Wonderland. Sir John Tenniel drew the classic illustrations and even though they hold a sacred place in our hearts, I loved some of the others. Would we have the same feelings about Alice if we had always read it with different illustrations? Here’s a link to Maria Popova’s wonderful “Brain Pickings” blog so you can see some of them. They range from Salvador Dali to Yayoi Kusama and beyond. My copy of Alice is very old and falling apart; I suspect it was my mother’s.
I loved the poems in Alice and memorized several of them when I was young. I often recite them to myself when I can’t sleep. (It doesn’t help.) The Walrus and the Carpenter was (and is) a favorite, as is the one that begins, “They told me you had been to her and mentioned me to him; she gave me good character but said I could not swim.” And of course the “Jabberwocky“, where the neologisms are so evocative: “my beamish boy,” the “frumious Bandersnatch,” and “as in uffish thought he stood.” I often feel like I have moments of “uffish thought.”
But the Lewis Carroll poem that holds a special place for me is The Hunting of the Snark, not part of the Alice books, but separately published. As a child it mystified me and it was only by reading it over and over as I grew up that I was able to make sense of the story. I have the Ralph Steadman edition with his grotesquely hilarious drawings. If you don’t know the story of this long poem, it’s about a ship with a strange crew that searches for the fabled Snark. I’ve never read an annotated edition, but I’m sure that it tracks the political issues of Carroll’s day and Victorians would recognize the people and the situations. The search for the Snark is futile, and the last line sums it up: “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” How many of us have searched for Snarks but found Boojums instead?
There’s a refrain in the poem about how diligently the crew searched and I think it can be used to sum up any fraught political era, so I reproduce it here.
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.
I thought the part about charming the Snark “with smiles and soap” quite apt for now or maybe “masks and soap” would be better.