Saturday, 16 February 2013

Lewis Carroll: Phantasmagoria

Phantasmagoria, a collection of poems Lewis Carroll published in 1869, is a nice reminder that there’s more to this author than just his ‘Alice’ novels. It’s also a worthwhile reading for those who like his weird, nonsensical poems like “Jabberwocky.” The book showcases Carroll’s topsy-turvy view of the world, his love for world puns, and his absurdist humour.

The book opens with the longest and best poem in the collection, “Phantasmagoria,” a ghost story divided in cantos, in mockery of epic poetry; there’s nothing epic about the poem, though, which is comical in natural. The narrator, the owner of a haunted house, meets a frightened little ghost in charge of haunting it, and the two initiate a conversation about the secret world of ghosts. The ghost expounds on the lives of ghosts, the hierarchies of haunted houses, the ranking of supernatural creatures  (Elves, Spectres, Goblins, etc.), their preference for ruins, and their rules of etiquette. Silly puns abound like the Inn-Spectre, a ghost who haunts inns, and the Knight Mayor (speak their names out loud).

The poem “A Sea Dirge” is an anti-ode to the sea:

There are certain things - as, a spider, a ghost,
The income-tax, gout, an umbrella for three -
That I hate, but the thing that I hate the most
Is a thing they call the Sea.

The poem lists many reasonable reasons for anyone to hate the sea. It’s hilarious because it goes against the normal preconception of the sea as a beautiful theme, as an inspiration for lyrical poetry (poor Pablo Neruda):

Beat a dog till it howls outright -
Cruel, but all very well for a spree:
Suppose that he did so day and night,
That would be like the Sea.

In “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” Carroll, who was a consummate photographer himself, shows everything that can go wrong with just taking a photograph. Here’s the description of the photographer putting the camera together:

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;

But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

Only Carroll’s exceptional mind could make a connection between Euclid and a camera. As the photographer, a family patriarch, tries to take pictures of his relatives, the poem manages to make fun of perfectionism, concepts of beauty and even Ruskin’s aesthetic theories:

First the Governor, the Father:
He suggested velvet curtains
Looped about a massy pillar;
And the corner of a table,
Of a rosewood dining-table.
He would hold a scroll of something,
Hold it firmly in his left-hand;
He would keep his right-hand buried
(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;
He would contemplate the distance
With a look of pensive meaning,
As of ducks that die ill tempests.

Grand, heroic was the notion:
Yet the picture failed entirely:
Failed, because he moved a little,
Moved, because he couldn’t help it.

I read “Melancholetta” as a parody of Romanticism, not of the genial type that gave us Wordsworth and Keats, but of the latter-day pathetic type overflowing with sappy sentiments and vulgar depressions. A narrator laments that nothing can cheer up his sister, lost in woes and sighs of deep melancholia. To save her from her gloom he recruits three young men to take her out to theatre and entertain her. The despair of their failure is summed up by the narrator in my favourite stanza:

I need not tell of soup and fish
In solemn silence swallowed,
The sobs that ushered in each dish,
And its departure followed,
Nor yet my suicidal wish
To be the cheese I hollowed.

“A Valentine” is a poem about friendship, with a unique take. According to Carroll, the poem was “[s]ent to a friend who had complained that I was glad enough to see him when he came, but didn’t seem to miss him if he stayed away:”

And cannot pleasures, while they last,
Be actual unless, when past,
They leave us shuddering and aghast,
With anguish smarting?
And cannot friends be firm and fast,
And yet bear parting?

“A Game of Fives” is a very sad poem although I can’t quite understand why:

Five little girls, of Five, Four, Three, Two, One:
Rolling on the hearthrug, full of tricks and fun.

Five rosy girls, in years from Ten to Six:
Sitting down to lessons - no more time for tricks.

Five growing girls, from Fifteen to Eleven:
Music, Drawing, Languages, and food enough for seven!

Five winsome girls, from Twenty to Sixteen:
Each young man that calls, I say “Now tell me which you mean!”

Five dashing girls, the youngest Twenty-one:
But, if nobody proposes, what is there to be done?

Five showy girls - but Thirty is an age
When girls may be engaging, but they somehow don’t engage.

Five dressy girls, of Thirty-one or more:
So gracious to the shy young men they snubbed so much before!

* * * *

Five passé girls - Their age?  Well, never mind!
We jog along together, like the rest of human kind:
But the quondam “careless bachelor” begins to think he knows
The answer to that ancient problem “how the money goes”!

In “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur” (I don’t know Latin, but I believe it means something like “poet made, not born”), a wise poet gives advice to a younger one on how to become a successful poet:

And would you be a poet
Before you’ve been to school?
Ah, well!  I hardly thought you
So absolute a fool.
First learn to be spasmodic -
A very simple rule.

He also recommends poets to “learn to look at all things/With a sort of mental squint,” which I think is one of the best advices on writing I’ve ever read. In the process he also invents the cut-up technique:

For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.

If this isn’t where the dada artists and Brion Gysin got their ideas from, then it’s an uncanny coincidence. Even the word chance, which was so dear a concept to the Dadaists, is found in the poem.

A poem, the poet explains, must also be ambiguous and hard to understand:

Therefore, to test his patience -
How much he can endure -
Mention no places, names, or dates,
And evermore be sure
Throughout the poem to be found
Consistently obscure.

And this is how contemporary poetry was invented. It’s amazing how in an unpretentious, humorous poem making fun of the poetic creation, Carroll predicted the next 140 years of poetry.

The final poem, “Fame’s Penny-Trumpet,” attacks those who seek recognition and fame before achieving anything worthy:

Fill all the air with hungry wails -
“Reward us, ere we think or write!
Without your Gold mere Knowledge fails
To sate the swinish appetite!”

Carroll also remembers the great thinkers who died penniless and whose posthumous fame has become their only reward:

Be yours the pay: be theirs the praise:
We will not rob them of their due,
Nor vex the ghosts of other days
By naming them along with you.

There are other poems in the book but I’ll leave their discovery to anyone interested in reading it. Phantasmagoria is not as amazing as the ‘Alice’ novels but shouldn’t be neglected. Lewis Carroll wrote so little that everything seems indispensable. This book has everything one should expect from him: humour, light-heartedness, intelligence and a unique way of looking at ordinary things. Lewis Carroll could turn the mundane into something magical and almost every poem here is a testament to this reality-warping gift.


  1. Gee, this is good. I should read it sooner, not later. What fun, how flavorful. Thanks for all of the quotations.

    1. Tom, it is indeed a load of fun; it was my second reading too. I keep wondering where I should go next: Sylvie and Bruno? The Hunting of the Snark?

  2. I haven't read the Sylvie and Bruno books, although I had them off the shelves twice last year. I was poised. That counts for something, yes?

    "The Hunting of the Snark" is a definite Yes.

    1. Tom, I understand Sylvie and Bruno doesn't have a good reputation, but more and more I try not to be bothered by these reputations.

      Still I admit I feel more attracted to The Hunting of the Snark.

  3. Do you have any official published sources for the analysis of A Sea Dirge?