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The Mad Gardener's Song -- Lewis Carroll

... no matter how many times I read this, it still makes me smile...
(Poem #265) The Mad Gardener's Song
He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
'At length I realise,' he said,
The bitterness of Life!'

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister's Husband's Niece.
'Unless you leave this house,' he said,
"I'll send for the Police!'

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
'The one thing I regret,' he said,
'Is that it cannot speak!'

He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
A Hippopotamus.
'If this should stay to dine,' he said,
'There won't be much for us!'

He thought he saw a Kangaroo
That worked a coffee-mill:
He looked again, and found it was
A Vegetable-Pill.
'Were I to swallow this,' he said,
'I should be very ill!'

He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
That stood beside his bed:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bear without a Head.
'Poor thing,' he said, 'poor silly thing!
It's waiting to be fed!'

He thought he saw an Albatross
That fluttered round the lamp:
He looked again, and found it was
A Penny-Postage Stamp.
'You'd best be getting home,' he said:
'The nights are very damp!'

He thought he saw a Garden-Door
That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
A Double Rule of Three:
'And all its mystery,' he said,
'Is clear as day to me!'

He thought he saw a Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
'A fact so dread,' he faintly said,
'Extinguishes all hope!'
-- Lewis Carroll
Incongruity of this order is a high art. Indeed, it's astonishingly difficult to
pull off - there's more to it than just stringing random words together, as any
aspiring nonsense-poet will tell you. And today's poem is one of the very best -
whimsical, unexpected, even bizarre at times, yet consistently matter-of-fact
and deadpan - it's the tone of voice that does the trick, as much as the
incocngruity of the images.

As with the poems of Edward Lear (surely his only rival for the title of High
Priest of the Absurd), notice how simple Carroll's versification is - regular
iambic heptameters, simple masculine end-rhymes, and a well-defined template for
each stanza - the idea being to focus attention on the 'action' (such as it is),
not distract the reader with elaborate metaphors and complex metrical schemes.
That it works as it does is a tribute to Carroll's imagination.

Pope Thomas the First.

(Oops, that's Thomas the Freshly-Washed-In-Mottled-Soap, actually :-))

[Minstrels Links]

The canonical examples of nonsense poetry are Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky,
at poem #52 and Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, at poem #165.


Lewis Carroll is the pseudonym of the English writer and mathematician Charles
Lutwidge Dodgson, b. Jan. 27, 1832, d. Jan. 14, 1898, known especially for
children's books that are also distinguished as satire and as examples of verbal
wit. Carroll invented his pen name by translating his first two names into the
Latin "Carolus Lodovicus" and then anglicizing it into "Lewis Carroll."

The son of a clergyman and the firstborn of 11 children, Carroll began at an
early age to entertain himself and his family with magic tricks, marionette
shows, and poems written for homemade newspapers. From 1846 to 1850 he attended
Rugby School; he graduated from Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1854. Carroll
remained there, lecturing on mathematics and writing treatises and guides for
students. Although he took deacon's orders in 1861, Carroll was never ordained a
priest, partly because he was afflicted with a stammer that made preaching
difficult and partly, perhaps, because he had discovered other interests.

Among Carroll's avocations was photography, at which he became proficient. He
excelled especially at photographing children. Alice Liddell, one of the three
daughters of Henry George Liddell, the dean of Christ Church, was one of his
photographic subjects and the model for the fictional Alice.

Carroll's comic and children's works also include The Hunting of the Snark
(1876), two collections of humorous verse, and the two parts of Sylvie and Bruno
(1889, 1893), unsuccessful attempts to re-create the Alice fantasies.

As a mathematician, Carroll was conservative and derivative. As a logician, he
was more interested in logic as a game than as an instrument for testing reason.
In his diversions as a photographer and author of comic fantasy, he is most
memorable and original--the man who, for example, contributed, in "Jabberwocky,"
the word chortle, a portmanteau word that combines "snort" and "chuckle," to the
English language.

    -- Donald Gray,

A more comprehensive bio can be found at [broken link]

41 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Celine said...

I found this poem extremely entertaining, though I would like to ask if there is metaphorical meaning behind it all. If anyone knows anything about this please let me know.

David Lettvin said...

This is one of my favorite poems. Verse 3 is not as nonsensical as the
others. It is implicit that not being able to understand the snake, 'he'
assumes that the 'Greek' is equivalent to not being able to speak.
Because communication has failed 'he' cannot understand the future.

moores said...

I may read this poem differently than most...but after some thought, all of
the verses make sense.

Verse 3 has already had a nice commentary by David. I agree completely
with him.

Let me take a chance on verse 8. As Donald has stated, one of Lewis
Carroll/Charles Dodgson's many talents was math. He reportedly loved math
and mathematical puzzles. For him, math may have been like a garden.
And the "Double Rule of Three" (an old math phrase for problems with
multiple variables) would have been clear and wonderful. Does that
work for anyone else?


Anonymous said...

I wish I still had my notes, we did a verse by verse analysis of this poem when I was in the 8th grade. I remember that each stanza had to do with different aspects of Carrol's life, his wife , his mother-in-law, his desire for little children, his problems with the church, all sorts of things. I'm sorry I can't remember more, but that was way back in 69.

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Bib Randell said...

To reply to Stan. I seem to remember that verse 8 actually refers to another of Carroll's poems, "The Hunting of the Snark" and "Bellman's Rule". Bellman's Rule is "What I tell 3 times is true" so obviously if I tell you 6 times (double rule of three) it must be indisputable.

Bob Randell

prakash dma said...

Truely speaking, this poem has no intellectual meaning and thought however it has given absurd and ironical meaning on different things which is solely created for entertainment.

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