The Hunting of the Snark

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The Hunting of the Snark
Cover of first edition
AuthorLewis Carroll
IllustratorHenry Holiday
Cover artistHenry Holiday
GenreNonsense poetry
PublisherMacmillan Publishers
TextThe Hunting of the Snark at Wikisource
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The Hunting of the Snark
Cover of first edition
AuthorLewis Carroll
IllustratorHenry Holiday
Cover artistHenry Holiday
GenreNonsense poetry
PublisherMacmillan Publishers
TextThe Hunting of the Snark at Wikisource

The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits) is typically categorized as a nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Written from 1874 to 1876, the poem borrows the setting, some creatures, and eight portmanteau words from Carroll's earlier poem "Jabberwocky" in his children's novel Through the Looking Glass (1871). The plot follows a crew of ten trying to hunt the Snark, an animal which may turn out to be a highly dangerous Boojum. The only one of the crew to find the Snark quickly vanishes, leading the narrator to explain that it was a Boojum after all. The poem is dedicated to young Gertrude Chataway, whom Carroll met at the English seaside town Sandown in the Isle of Wight in 1875.

The Hunting of the Snark was published by Macmillan in late March 1876, with illustrations by Henry Holiday. It had mixed reviews from reviewers who found it strange. The first printing of The Hunting of the Snark consisted of 10,000 copies, with two reprintings by the conclusion of the year; in total, the poem was reprinted seventeen times between 1876 to 1908. Carroll often denied knowing the meaning behind the poem; however, in an 1896 reply to one letter, he agreed with one interpretation of the poem as an allegory for the search for happiness. Scholars have found various meanings in the poem, among them existential angst, an allegory for tuberculosis, and a mockery of the Tichbourne case. The Hunting of the Snark has been alluded to in various works and has been adapted for musicals, opera, plays, and music.



The Hunting of the Snark shares its fictional setting with Lewis Carroll's earlier poem "Jabberwocky" published in his children's novel Through the Looking-Glass (1871).[1] Eight nonsense words from "Jabberwocky" appear in The Hunting of the Snark: bandersnatch, beamish, frumious, galumphing, jubjub, mimsiest (which previously appeared as mimsy in "Jabberwocky"), outgrabe and uffish.[2] In a letter to the mother of his young friend Gertrude Chataway, Carroll described the domain of the Snark as "an island frequented by the Jubjub and the Bandersnatch—no doubt the very island where the Jabberwock was slain."[3]


The crew consists of ten members, whose descriptions all begin with the letter B:[4] a Bellman (the leader), a "Boots", a Bonnet-maker, a Barrister, a Broker, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Butcher, and a Baker, as well as a Beaver. The Boots is the only character who is not shown in any illustration in the original.


Henry Holiday's illustration of the hunt

After crossing the sea guided by the Bellman's map of the Ocean—a blank sheet of paper—the hunting party arrive in a strange land, and the Bellman informs them of the five signs of a Snark: its "meagre and hollow, but crisp" taste; a habit of rising late and taking breakfast during five o'clock tea; "its slowness in taking a jest"; a "fondness for bathing-machines"; and its ambition.[5] The Bellman warns them that some Snarks are highly dangerous Boojums, causing the Baker to faint. Once revived, the Baker recalls that his uncle warned him that if the Snark turns out to be a Boojum, the hunter will "softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again."[6] The Baker confesses that the notion of this sudden vanishment brings him much distress.

With this in mind, they split up to hunt the Snark: "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."[7] Along the way, the Butcher and Beaver—previously mutually wary, as the Butcher can only kill beavers—become fast friends, after the Butcher teaches it more in ten minutes than it could learn from books in seventy years. The Barrister, meanwhile, dreams of the court trial of a pig accused of deserting its sty, whom the Snark is defending. The Snark, however, finds the pig guilty and sentences it to transportation and a fine of forty pound. His dream concludes with the jailer informing the court that the pig has actually been dead for years, to the judge's disgust.

During the hunt, the Banker finds himself attacked by a bandersnatch, and loses his sanity after trying to bribe the creature. At the conclusion of the poem, the Baker calls out that he has found a snark, but when the others arrive, he has mysteriously disappeared, leading the narrator to explain: "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see."[8]


Girt with a boyish garb for boyish task
Eager she wields her spade: yet loves as well
Rest on a friendly knee, intent to ask
The tale he loves to tell.

—Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

Two explanations of which event in Carroll's life gave rise to The Hunting of the Snark have been offered. Biographer Morton N. Cohen connects the creation of The Hunting of the Snark with the illness of Carroll's cousin and godson, the twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wilcox.[9] On 17 July 1874, Carroll travelled to Guildford, Surrey, to care for him for six weeks, while the young man struggled with tuberculosis.[10][11] The next day, while taking a walk in the morning after only a few hours of sleep, Carroll thought of the poem's final line: "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see."[12] Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller suggest that the event that inspired the poem was the sudden death of Carroll's beloved uncle, Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, caused by a violent mentally-ill patient in 1873 during Lutwidge's time as an inspector of lunatic asylums. They support their analysis with parts of the poem, such as the Baker's uncle's advice to seek the Snark with thimbles, forks, and soap, which, according to Torrey and Miller, were all items the lunatic asylum inspectors checked during their visits.[13]

Carroll chose Henry Holiday to illustrate the poem, whom he had met in 1869[14] or 1870.[15] At the time Carroll approached him to ask if he could create three illustrations for the poem, Carroll had three 'fits', as he called the parts of his poem—fit can mean either canto or convulsion[16]—completed: "The Landing", "The Hunting", and "The Vanishing".[15] He intended to title it The Boojum and include it in his fantasy novel Sylvie and Bruno, which was unfinished at the time.[15] However, in late October 1875, Carroll thought about having it published during Christmas; this proved impossible, as the wood engraving for the illustrations needed three months to be complete.[17] By the time Holiday had completed the sketches and sent them to Carroll, Carroll had already created a new fit requiring an illustration. They worked this way until Holiday had created nine illustrations, one for the cover page and one for each fit.[14] The completed poem comprised 141 stanzas of four lines each,[18] with internal rhymes in the first and third lines of irregular stanzas appearing in the poem from the second fit onwards.[19] Holiday and Carroll additionally had some disagreements on the artwork. Carroll initially objected to Holiday's personification of hope and care, but agreed to the change, when Holiday explained that he had only intended to add another layer of meaning to the word "with".[14] However, Carroll refused his illustration of the Boojum, preferring that the creature go without a depiction,[20] and made him change his initial, anti-semitic portrayal of the Broker.[21]

Carroll dedicated The Hunting of the Snark to Chataway, whom he had befriended in summer 1875 at the English seaside town Sandown in the Isle of Wight.[22] He finished the dedication a month after befriending her, a double acrostic poem that not only spelled out her name, but contained a syllable of her name in the first line of each stanza.[23] The stanza of his first draft concluded "Rest on a friendly knee, the tale to ask / That he delights to tell."[3] The poem was printed in The Hunting of the Snark with permission from Chataway's mother.[3]

Upon the printing of the book on 29 March 1876, Carroll sent eighty signed copies to his favourite child friends. In a typical fashion, he signed them with short poems, many of them acrostics of the child's name. Additionally, Carroll inserted on his own expense an "Easter Greeting"[24] into the first edition of his poem after it already was printed: "... And if I have written anything to add to those stores of innocent and healthy amusement that are laid up in books for the children I love so well, it is surely something I may hope to look back upon without shame and sorrow (as how much of life must then be recalled!) when my turn comes to walk through the valley of shadows. ..."

Reception and legacy[edit]

The first printing of The Hunting of the Snark consisted of 10,000 copies.[25] By the conclusion of 1876, it had seen two reprints, with a total of 18,000[26] or 19,000 copies circulating.[27] In total, the poem was reprinted seventeen times between 1876 to 1908.[26]

The Hunting of the Snark received largely mixed reviews from Carroll's contemporary reviewers.[11] The Academy's Andrew Lang criticised Carroll's decision to use poetry instead of prose and its too appealing title.[11] The Athenaeum described it as "the most bewildering of modern poetry," wondering "if he has merely been inspired to reduce to idiotcy as many readers and more especially reviewers, as possible."[11] According to Vanity Fair, Carroll's work had progressively worsened after Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), with The Hunting of the Snark being the worst of his works and "not worthy [of] the name of nonsense".[11] While The Spectator wrote that the poem's final line had the potential to become a proverb, it criticised the poem as "a failure" that might have succeeded with more work from the author.[11] The Saturday Review wrote that the poem offered "endless speculation" as to the true identity of the snark, although the unnamed reviewer felt that the familiar nature of Carroll's nonsense weakened its effect for the reader.[11] Conversely, The Graphic praised the poem as a welcome departure from the Alice books, and called it "a glorious piece of nonsense," that could appeal to all Alice fans.[11]

"The Hunting of the Snark" has in common some elements with Carroll's other works. It shares its author's love of puns on the word 'fit' with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,[28] and mentions of "candle-ends" and "toasted cheese" with his supernatural poem Phantasmagoria.[29] Additionally all three works include the number "42".[30] Another of Carroll's children's novels, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) makes a reference to the Boojum.[31]

Other hands have been responsible for providing illustrations for Carroll's text, among them Mervyn Peake (1941),[32] Tove Jansson (1959)[33] and Ralph Steadman (1975). The main illustrators are:


In Holiday's final illustration, the Baker's hidden face and some part of the Boojum can be seen, according to some scholars.[4][34]

Various themes have been suggested by scholars. According to biographer Florence Becker Lennon, the poem's "motif of loss of name or identity" is typical of Carroll's work.[35] Richard Kelly writes that the poem contains a "theme of annihilation."[36] Furthermore, Edward Guiliano feels that the Snark is within the nonsense tradition of Thomas Hood and, especially, W. S. Gilbert, the librettist of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan team. According to him, a case can be made for a direct influence of Gilbert's Bab Ballads on The Hunting of the Snark, based on the fact that Carroll was well-acquainted with the comic writing and the theatre of his age.[37]

In response to various letters asking for the meaning of the poem, Carroll often replied that he did not know.[38] However, in an 1896 reply to one letter, he agreed with one interpretation of the poem as an allegory for the search for happiness.[39] Widely varying interpretations of The Hunting of the Snark have been suggested: an allegory for tuberculosis,[40] a mockery of the Tichborne case, a satire of the controversies between religion and science, the repression of Carroll's sexuality, and a piece against vivisection, among others.[41] According to Cohen, the poem represents a "voyage of life", with the Baker's disappearance caused by his violation of the laws of nature by hoping to unravel its mysteries.[42] Lennon sees The Hunting of the Snark as "a tragedy of frustration and bafflement," comparable to American actor Charlie Chaplin's early comedies.[43] According to Kelly, The Hunting of the Snark is "Carroll's comic rendition of his fears of disorder and chaos, with the comedy serving as a psychological defense against the devastating idea of personal annihilation."[44] Kelly writes that the Bellman's Rule of Three and starting each character's name with the letter B are "notable attempts to create a sense of order and meaning out of chaos."[4] Martin Gardner sees the poem as dealing with existential angst,[45] and states that the Baker may be Carroll's satire of himself, pointing to the fact that the Baker was named after a beloved uncle, as was Carroll, and that the two were around the same age at the time of the writing of the poem.[46] Alternatively, Larry Shaw of the fan magazine Inside and Science Fiction Advertiser suggests that the Boots, being the Snark, actually murdered the Baker.[47][48]


The Boojum tree in Baja California, Mexico, takes its name from the poem.[49]

The Hunting of the Snark has seen various adaptations into musicals, opera, theatre, plays, and music,[50] including one for trombone by Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim (1975)[51] and a jazz rendition (2009)[52] The poem has also inspired literature, such as Jack London's The Cruise of the Snark (1911),[50] the science-fiction short story "Chaos, Coordinated" (1947) by John MacDougal,[53] and Elsabeth Huxley's With Forks and Hope (1964).[54] American author Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was fond of the poem as a child.[53] "The Soul of Genius" episode of the Oxford-set British TV crime drama Lewis involves the murder of a professor who was fixated on solving the seemingly impossible riddle set by Carroll.[55]

It has also been alluded to in court rulings. Judge Merrick Garland of United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit referred to the Bellman's Rule in his ruling in Parhat v. Gates, saying, "The government suggests that several of the assertions in the intelligence documents are reliable because they are made in at least three different documents ... We are not persuaded. Lewis Carroll notwithstanding, the fact the government has 'said it thrice' does not make the allegation true. In fact we have no basis for concluding that there are independent sources for the documents' thrice-made assertions".[56]

Additionally, references to the poem appear in science. N. David Mermin named a phenomenon in superfluidity after the Boojum.[57][58] A Snark Island and Boojum Rock exist in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.[59]

The poem has also been referred to in video games. In Half-Life exists a monster called snark, which can be used as a weapon.[60]

The Michigan Terminal System, an early time-sharing system, would display the message "Help, Help, Snark in MTS" on the operator's terminal when a crash had occurred.[61]

It also figures prominently in Jacques Rivette's epic film, Out 1.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lennon 1962, p. 176.
  2. ^ Lennon 1962, p. 242.
  3. ^ a b c Gardner 2006, p. 7.
  4. ^ a b c Kelly 1990, p. 67.
  5. ^ Carroll 1898, pp. 19–20.
  6. ^ Carroll 1898, p. 23.
  7. ^ Carroll 1898, p. 32.
  8. ^ Carroll 1898, p. 53.
  9. ^ Cohen 1995, p. 403.
  10. ^ Cohen 1995, pp. 403–404.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Cohen, Morton N. (1976). "Hark the Snark". In Guilano, Edward. Lewis Carroll Observed. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. pp. 92–110. ISBN 0-517-52497-X. 
  12. ^ Cohen 1995, p. 404.
  13. ^ E. Fuller Torrey; Judy Miller (2001). The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. pp. 91–92. ISBN 0-8135-3003-2. 
  14. ^ a b c Holiday, Henry. "Excepts from Henry Holiday's Reminiscences of My Life". In Gardner, Martin. The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: The Definitive Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. pp. 113–115. ISBN 978-0-393-06242-7. 
  15. ^ a b c Clark 1979, pp. 196–7.
  16. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 11.
  17. ^ Gardner 2006, p. xxx.
  18. ^ Kelly 1990, p. 22.
  19. ^ Lennon 1962, p. 240-5.
  20. ^ Clark 1979, pp. 196-97.
  21. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 17.
  22. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 5.
  23. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 5-6.
  24. ^ "The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll". Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  25. ^ Clark 1979, p. 198-9.
  26. ^ a b Williams, Sidney Herbert; Madan, Falconer (1979). Handbook of the literature of the Rev. C.L. Dodgson. Folkestone, England: Dawson. p. 68. ISBN 9780712909068. OCLC 5754676. 
  27. ^ Clark 1979, pp. 198–9.
  28. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 12.
  29. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 22.
  30. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 37.
  31. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 34.
  32. ^ Bibliography, "The Annotated Snark" ed. by Martin Gardner (Penguin Books, 1987), p. 97.
  33. ^ Bibliography, p. 100.
  34. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 70.
  35. ^ Lennon 1962, p. 243.
  36. ^ Kelly 1990, p. 27.
  37. ^ Guiliano, Edward (1987). "Lewis Carroll, Laughter and Despair, and the Hunting of the Snark". In Harold Bloom. Lewis Carroll. New York: Chelsea House. p. 124. 
  38. ^ Gardner 2006, p. xxxvii.
  39. ^ Gardner 2006, p. xxxviii.
  40. ^ Gardner 2006, p. xxiv.
  41. ^ Cohen 1995, pp. 410.
  42. ^ Cohen 1995, p. 400-1.
  43. ^ Lennon 1962, p. 241.
  44. ^ Kelly 1990, pp. 66–7.
  45. ^ Gardner 2006, p. xxxvi.
  46. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 37-8.
  47. ^ Shaw, Larry (September 1956). "The Baker Murder Case". Inside and Science Fiction Advertiser: 4–12. 
  48. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 69.
  49. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 35.
  50. ^ a b Greenarce, Selwyn (2006) [1876]. "The Listing of the Snark". In Martin Gardner. The Annotated Hunting of the Snark ("Definitive Edition" ed.). W. W. Norton. p. 117-147. ISBN 0-393-06242-2. 
  51. ^ "Nordheim list of works". Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  52. ^ All About Jazz (13 December 2009). "NYNDK | The Hunting of the Snark". Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  53. ^ a b Gardner 2006, p. 16.
  54. ^ Gardner 2006, p. 42.
  55. ^ Jace Lacob (5 July 2012). "‘Inspector Lewis’ on PBS's 'Masterpiece Mystery’: TV's Smartest Sleuths". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  56. ^ Bill Mears (30 June 2008). "Court cites nonsense poem in ruling for Gitmo detainee". CNN. Archived from the original on 22 August 2012. Retrieved 22 August 2012. "A federal appeals court has slammed the reliability of U.S. government intelligence documents, saying just because officials keep repeating their assertions does not make them true." 
  57. ^ "E pluribus boojum: the physicist as neologist", Physics Today, Vol. 34, April 1981, pp. 46–53.
  58. ^ N. David Mermin (1990). Boojums all the way through: communicating science in a prosaic age. Cambridge University Press. p. xii. ISBN 0-521-38880-5. 
  59. ^ Gardner 2006, p. xxv.
  60. ^ "Half-Life enemies". GameSpy. IGN Entertainment. Retrieved 2013-10-11. 
  61. ^ Template:Http://


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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The poem read by Robert Garrison, from the LibriVox project.

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