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

You probably recognize those lines, even if you’ve never read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. That’s the first stanza of “Jabberwocky,” and it’s possibly the most famous example of a genre of poetry known as nonsense poetry or nonsense verse.

Nonsense poetry uses made-up words, distorted grammar, ambiguity, and non sequitur to paint fanciful scenarios or suggest connections between unrelated words and concepts that lead the reader to draw ridiculous or illogical conclusions. Some of the best-known nonsense poetry resembles “Jabberwocky” in that it tells an essentially ordinary story, such as a hero slaying a monster; the nonsense resides in the invented language that the poet uses in place of standard English nouns, verbs, and adjectives. But not all nonsense poems use made-up words. How about this one?

They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone
(We know it to be true):
If she should push the matter on,
What would become of you?

I gave her one, they gave him two,
You gave us three or more;
They all returned from him to you,
Though they were mine before.

If I or she should chance to be
Involved in this affair,
He trusts to you to set them free,
Exactly as we were.

My notion was that you had been
(Before she had this fit)
An obstacle that came between
Him, and ourselves, and it.

Don’t let him know she liked them best,
For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me.

That’s the poem the White Rabbit presents as evidence against the Knave in the trial scene of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This poem is composed entirely of standard, even common, English words. Its nonsensical aspect arises from its extreme vagueness. Not a single personal pronoun in the poem–and they’re all represented–has a clear referent; even the pronouns which are usually impossible to mistake, such as “I” and “you,” are deliberately stripped of reference earlier in the scene, when the White Rabbit points out that the letter has no recipient written on the front and no signature at the end. With neither author nor addressee, and absolutely no context, this poem is nothing short of mystifying, and it becomes downright silly when considered in its supposed function: as evidence at a trial.

Nonsense verse has a long history. Riddles, often phrased as poetry and usually incomprehensible at first glance, are a tradition in cultures all over the world, and the riddle game is a prominent part of ancient Germanic and Scandinavian folklore: characters exchange “hints” veiled in metaphors and wordplay (a.k.a. riddles) and take turns guessing what these hints are referring to until one of them can’t come up with an answer. More recently, authors such as Douglas Adams have incorporated nonsense poetry into novels like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where a race of aliens known as Vogons compose horrible poetry with lines like “Oh freddled gruntbuggly/thy micturations are to me/As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.”

And of course, who can forget such childhood favorites as the Mother Goose rhyme:

Hey diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Like “They told me you had been to her,” as opposed to “Jabberwocky” or the Vogon verse, this nursery rhyme uses plain English. But unlike any of those poems, the nonsense here lies in the sheer physical impossibility of the event described. Nevertheless, this rhyme has become so popular that hardly any child makes it through the American school system without learning it; it’s been set to music, and numerous illustrated and even animated versions exist. There’s something about nonsense verse that’s wonderfully absurd. We like reading lines that challenge our conception of the world and invite us to imagine an alternate reality–they’re just plain fun.

By Sarah Powell.

CLUJ has even more posts about poetry–read them here.