Or what happens when an old dog of a Mountain Gazette correspondent gets curiouser and curiouser about language. By M. Michael Brady
In the evenings of days gone by, before the Internet was everywhere, round campfires in American mountains and in cabins in the cordillera of Europe, poetry was recited and songs were sung. This old dog of a Mountain Gazette correspondent recalls that English-speaking mountaineers favored the works of Robert Service and Lewis Carroll.
Robert William Service (1874-1958) was born in Lancashire, England and emigrated to Canada in 1894. He took a job with the Canadian Bank of Commerce, which stationed him in the Yukon for eight years. While there he put Yukon life to verse and his first poems were published in 1907. He knew the constraints of his art; the preface to his collected poems reads:
I have no doubt at all the Devil grins,
As seas of ink I splatter.
Ye gods, forgive my “literary” sins –
The other kind don’t matter.
By that measure, the Devil must be grinning today- The computer age writer’s use of ink probably outstrips that of the old-time penman tenfold. Literary sins do remain.
Also aware of that was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), the mathematician and scholar who also was an ordained deacon of the Church of England. He is best remembered for works written under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll. Mathematicians recognize him as one of the progenitors of symbolic logic, and indeed his text by that name is still in print, the latest edition published in 2014 (ISBN 978-1500637912). But to the world at large he is known as the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, perhaps the most famed of all children’s stories in English.
Not only children enjoy those books; they can be read at several levels from pre school bedtime to graduate school logic. Few fields of his time escaped Carroll’s witty pen. In the first chapter of Through the Looking-Glass he dismissed the gobbledygook of his day by having Alice discover a poem that was written backwards, so it could only be read in a mirror. The title and first two stanzas comprise a warning for all writers:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!
By coincidence, or perhaps not, we’ll never know, the Jabberwocky can be sung to the tune of Greensleeves, the ditty twice mentioned by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor, once in spotlighting the disparity between the words and deeds of Falstaff: “They do no more adhere and keep pace together, than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of Green Sleeves.”
The remark is double entendre: The Hundredth Psalm is a psalm of praise. Doubtlessly the Reverend Dodgson knew that well. Praise does not jibe with Greensleeves; though beautiful, the words of it lament love spurned. Ergo, that which jibes with Greensleeves is criticism. And that the Jabberwocky is. Beware, readers and writers, the fruminous Bandersnatch!