5. Later Verse
Lewis Carroll by Derek Hudson

The success of the Alice books made little difference to the life of their author. For the fame that came to him as Lewis Carroll, and for any sort of 'lionizing', he showed a marked distaste. His daily round was exceedingly methodical, not to say pernickety. He gave some of his time to a painstaking matter-of-fact diary. From 1861 onwards he kept a register of all his correspondence, which at his death had reached about 100,000 items. He pursued his mathematical studies, the more important of which concerned Euclid, with extreme conscientiousness. He performed occasional minor duties in the Church as a deacon (emerging as an earnestly effective preacher at the end of his Life).

The theatre continued to remain a passionate interest; he still studied drawing with a stubborn though despairing determination; and up to 1880 he pursued his hobby of photography with remarkable distinction. He went abroad only once, on a trip to Russia with Dr H. P. Liddon, and he found his physical relaxation in long walks in the countryside around Oxford and Guildford (where he made a home for his sisters in 1868) or on holidays at south coast resorts, of which Eastbourne became his favourite.

For mental relaxation, he enjoyed nothing more than the devising of puzzles and games; and if crosswords had been known in his time he would certainly have been an addict.

To picture him as an uncommunicative recluse would, however, be misleading. He visited his artistic, literary and theatrical friends in London, and was ready to make other friends besides—particularly among the parents of young daughters. He had admitted that children were 'three-fourths of my life', and like another Victorian clergyman, the diarist Francis Kilvert, he became increasingly pre-occupied with little girls. Half in play and half in earnest, these friendships could grow rather intense, but he con-ducted them always with a most scrupulous regard for the proprieties and with a tender concern for the happiness of his child-friends.

In College affairs Dodgson was one of those 'difficult' characters who are not uncommonly found in such societies.

He took an uncompromising line in domestic politics, and several of his humorous satires ridicule the reforms sponsored by Dean Liddell and the Governing Body. For ten years he held the onerous post of Curator of the Senior Common Room at Christ Church, a sort of housekeeper to a men's club, in which capacity he showed him self not only efficient but, it must be admitted, on occasion testy and small-minded. There was no end to his complaints against the College servants. He took little interest in the activities of the undergraduates, and was himself the target for a lively satire, Careless, written by one of their number. Yet the sum total of Christ Church opinion would not have been hostile to Dodgson; for it would have had to reckon with genuine modesty and courtesy, wit and kindness, and with a quite remarkable generosity to good causes that appealed to him.

An analysis of this complex character—at once self centred and unselfish, richly endowed emotionally but at the same time emotionally immature—suggests that he suffered much nervous tension, which he had disciplined himself to control but which showed itself in occasional outbursts of irritability. A paradox himself, the dichotomy of his character is revealed in the subtle changes of significance and abrupt reversal of statements in Alice. He followed a lonely bachelor existence with stoic courage. 'College life is by no means unmixed misery,' he wrote, 'though married life has no doubt many charms to which I am a stranger.'

Essentially ambivalent, one feels that he instinctively avoided problems of adult love and intimacy because he knew that in any close relationship something compelled him to seek distance and detachment. Several writers, notably Mr A. L. Taylor, have argued that he was actually in love with Alice Liddell in an adult sense; yet when his nephew and biographer S. D. Collingwood hinted at 'the shadow of some disappointment' in his life, it was to Ellen Terry that he referred, and it is difficult to see his love for Alice as anything but fundamentally Platonic and protective. After she had outgrown her childhood Dodgson saw relatively little of her.

Nevertheless, it is to Alice Liddell's inspiration that we owe the two Alice books, and among his child-friends she held a very special place. Only once again, after Alice Liddell's influence had passed, did Lewis Carroll write an admitted masterpiece. This was The Hunting of the Snark, the longest and best sustained nonsense poem in the English language. The last line came into his mind while he was walking at Guildford in July 1874; the poem was not ready for publication until 1876.

The Hunting of the Snark describes the expedition of the Bellman and his ill-assorted crew in search of that fabulous creature, which proves on discovery to be a particularly dangerous variety, the boojum. The details of the Snark were 'hammered out' by a craftsman of light verse; but, like the best modern art, the poem was both obscurely instinctive and sharply intellectual. Once again, he found inspiration in a little girl, this time Gertrude Chataway; once again, there was method in his madness; the strange Odyssey was carefully organised and gains cumulative effect from its telling, until the final verses reach a climax that is not negligible poetry:

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

Lewis Carroll's verse was collected during his life-time in Phantasmagoria (1869) and Rhymer and Reason? (1883), which included The Hunting of the Snark, while the volume of Collected Verse (1932) brings together nearly all the verse that he wrote in widely differing contexts. This entertaining book displays him as a master of parody, and places him in the English tradition of light verse between Edward Lear and C. S. Calverley. (John Galsworthy, in 1889, aged twenty-two, described Lewis Carroll as his 'favourite poet' in the Confession Album of one of his cousins —"The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy", by H. V. Marrot, London 1935). Even his few serious poems—melancholy and romantic in feeling—and his affectionate occasional trifles, belong to this tradition; but, as with other masters of light verse, they do not show him at his best. Living in a world of lost summers, his wistful nostalgia could become over-lush:

Ever drifting down the stream-
lingering in the golden gleam-
Life, what is but a dream?

Yet, in the context of the Alice books at least, verse and prose are so perfectly dove-tailed that we do not want anything altered; even the supplementary occasional pieces become tolerable.

As an innovator of nonsense verse he remained effective to the last. Amid the disappointment of Sylvie and Bruno he gave us the original verse-epigram which has been called the 'Waterford':

He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk,
Descending from a 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.'
« NEXT » « Lewis Carroll » « Biographies » « Library »