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The Mouse's Tale -- Lewis Carroll

The poetry of mathematics, eh? How about the poetry of mathematicians... ?
(Poem #600) The Mouse's Tale
            Fury said to a mouse,
                 That he met in the
                        house, 'Let us
                           both go to law:
                            I will prosecute
                          you.-- Come, I'll
                         take no denial;
                       We must have
                     a trial: For
                   really this
                 morning I've
               nothing to do.'
                   Said the mouse
                         to the cur,
                           'Such a trial,
                              dear Sir, With
                                  no jury or
                                judge, would
                               be wasting
                           our breath.'
                        'I'll be
                   judge, I'll
                 be jury,'
               Said cunning
             old Fury:
                'I'll try
                  the whole
                    cause, and
-- Lewis Carroll
Possibly the canonical example of emblematic verse - that is, verse
formatted so as to visually resemble its theme. Here's the text that
immediately precedes this charming piece of doggerel:

" "You promised to tell me your history, you know", said Alice, "and why it
is you hate -- C and D", she added in a whisper, half afraid that it would
be offended again.

"Mine is a long and a sad tale!" said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and

"It _is_ a long tail, certainly", said Alice, looking down with wonder at
the Mouse's tail; "but why do you call it sad?" And she kept on puzzling
about it while the Mouse was speaking, so that her idea of the tale was
something like this -- " "

        -- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Curiously enough, "in the original manuscript of the book, an entirely
different poem appears as the tale; in a way, a more appropriate one, for it
fulfills the mouse's promise to explain why he dislikes cats and dogs,
whereas the tale as it appears [in the published version] contains no
reference to cats" [1].

Here's the unpublished original:

        We lived beneath the mat,
        Warm and snug and fat.
        But one woe, and that
        Was the cat!

        To our joys a clog.
        In our eyes a fog.
        On our hearts a log
        Was the dog!

        When the cat's away,
        Then the mice will play.
        But alas! one day;
        (So, they say)

        Came the dog and cat
        Hunting for a rat,
        Crushed the mice all flat,
        Each one as he sat,
        Underneath the mat,
        Warm and snug and fat.
        Think of that! "

        -- Lewis Carroll, draft manuscript of Alice in Wonderland.

(Aren't you glad Carroll chose to go with the revised version in the book?)


[1] Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice.


Several emblematic poems have already featured on the Minstrels:

'Easter Wings' by George Herbert, poem #567
(It was in response to this poem that Anustup Datta pointed out the
technical phrase for the genre, and suggested today's poem for the list.
Thanks, Anustup).

'Landscape: I' by bpNichol, poem #498

'A Prayer to the Sun', by Geoffrey Hill, poem #349

We've visited Lewis Carroll before:
poem #52
poem #265
poem #347
poem #409
The second of these pages has a brief biography of the poet, including the
immortal line "As a mathematician, Carroll was ... derivative" <grin>. A
longer biography can (as usual) be found in Britannica,


Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Dodgson arrived
at this pen name by taking his own names Charles Lutwidge, translating them
into Latin as Carolus Ludovicus, then reversing and retranslating them into

[More Trivia]

You may have heard the story that Queen Victoria loved Alice in Wonderland
so much that she requested a copy of Lewis Carroll's next book; her reward
was a treatise on determinants [1]. Unfortunately, it's just that - a story.
In the second edition of Symbolic Logic, Dodgson writes: "I take this
opportunity of giving what publicity I can to my contradiction of a silly
story, which has been going the round of the papers, about my having
presented certain books to Her Majesty the Queen. It is so constantly
repeated, and is such absolute fiction, that I think it worthwhile to state,
once for all, that it is utterly false in every particular; nothing even
resembling it has ever occurred." .

[1] Different versions of the story name different books - Symbolic Logic,
The Condensation of Determinants, Euclid and his Rivals...

[And Finally]

"'I'll be judge, I'll be jury,'Said cunning old Fury:" is more than a little
reminiscent of Fit the Sixth from the Hunting of the Snark: the Barrister's
Dream. Herewith, the relevant extract:

   He dreamed that he stood in a shadowy Court,
        Where the Snark, with a glass in its eye,
   Dressed in gown, bands, and wig, was defending a pig
        On the charge of deserting its sty.


   But the Judge said he never had summed up before;
        So the Snark undertook it instead,
   And summed it so well that it came to far more
        Than the Witnesses ever had said!

   When the verdict was called for, the Jury declined,
        As the word was so puzzling to spell;
   But they ventured to hope that the Snark wouldn't mind
        Undertaking that duty as well.

        -- Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

'Snark', of course, is probably the greatest piece of nonsense literature
ever written; the full text is at
[broken link]

67 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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Unknown said...

in keeping with the nature of what is posted.......
That last 'posted on ....(date)'
can be changed to :) :)
'posited on....(date)' ;)
sorry if its nonsense

Unknown said...

its 2 difficult 2 understand the deapth f its meaning. it might b possible that mouse is metaphorically used by the poet

alia here

Liz Swanson said...

i was reading the book at the time i read this orginally, very good book and website

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