T h r o u g h t h e L o o k i n g - G l a s s
And What Alice Found There
by Lewis Carroll
Child of the pure unclouded brow
And dreaming eyes of wonder!
Though time be fleet, and I and thou
Are half a life asunder,
Thy loving smile will surely hail
The love-gift of a fairy-tale.
I have not seen thy sunny face,
Nor heard thy silver laughter;
No thought of me shall find a place
In thy young life's hereafter—
Enough that now thou wilt not fail
To listen to my fairy-tale.
A tale begun in other days,
When summer suns were glowing—
A simple chime, that served to time
The rhythm of our rowing—
Whose echoes live in memory yet,
Though envious years would say 'forget'.
Come, hearken then, ere voice of dread,
With bitter tidings laden,
Shall summon to unwelcome bed
A melancholy maiden!
We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near.
Without, the frost, the blinding snow,
The storm-wind's moody madness—
Within, the firelight's ruddy glow,
And childhood's nest of gladness.
The magic words shall hold thee fast:
Thou shalt not heed the raving blast.
And though the shadow of a sigh
May tremble through the story,
For 'happy summer days' gone by,
And vanish'd summer glory—
It shall not touch with breath of bale
The pleasance of our fairy-tale.
—Lewis Carroll (1832–1898)
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Next: Chapter I: Looking-Glass House ==>
See also: Epilogue
Now, there's folk wisdom that says to avoid reading someone else's opinion before giving yourself a chance to form your own. Reading explanations too soon can also take the beauty out of art. Accordingly, I would like to request that before you read on for my attempt at explication, please go back up and read the poem again, slowly and considering every phrase. Give yourself time for the "magic words" (line 29) to work. Think: how does this poem make me feel? What do I think of this poem? What do I think the author means? What does it mean to me? Ready—go!
OK, done? Good.
For me, there are two ways of reading this poem, as there are two ways of considering any work of art. One is to consider it as complete in itself, and letting it make its impressions on the reader on its own merits. The other is to consider the life and/or circumstances of the author, the time period, the setting, et cetera in an attempt to gain a wider understanding of the poem. I find that both ways are worthwhile and both are enjoyable. I will attempt to share the fruits of both readings.
Impressions and analysis
(from the text only)1
First off, even without trying to understand the poem, images pop up left and right throughout. Ones that immediately catch my eye are:
- 1. pure unclouded brow: try and imagine the difference between a clouded brow and an unclouded one.
- 2. dreaming eyes: this one I see as two eyes that themselves are having dreams. A slightly less fantastical interpretation would be a set of eyes that wander like they are dreaming.
- 8. silver laughter: either laughter that makes the sound of silver (think bells or clinking silverware) or laughter that shines like, or has the lustre of silver.
- 27. firelight's ruddy glow: analogous to sunlight and moonlight ... and inherits the rich imagery thereof. I like how the emphasis is on the fire's light instead of on its warmth as is common.
- 28. childhood's nest of gladness: think birds gathered around their mother listening to stories. What an interesting mix of images.
- 25-32. Wonderful contrast between the raging snow and the calm of the indoors.
- 31. shadow of a sigh: I see a "sigh" personified, a mysterious figure, with a shadowy figure, hard to make out its features.
Have you been catching those images? Hey, there goes one now behind you! Awww . . . you missed it. Better use a dreamcatcher next time.
Talking now about the poem as a whole rather than specific words, the poet definitely tries to invoke a mood and/or setting of childhood. He does this in various ways. He asks the reader to flash back to earlier, more pleasant times, such as the summer boat trip (third stanza); he uses the call to bed (fourth stanza) as a memory of childhood as well. Although the poem is ostensibly set in the present, its fixation with childhood memories sets its tone firmly in a nostalgic past.
Something definitely to notice about this poem is its lilting quality. Try reading a stanza or two out loud. What do you notice? There is a song-like quality to the poem; it's very soothing to listen to. This is due to the rhythm and rhyme of this poem. It seems that rhythm and rhyme here are inextricably linked; even just reading a few lines one hears a natural grouping between each couplet—lines 1 and 2, lines 3 and 4, lines 5 and 6. What's happening here?
- The rhyme scheme is a regular ababcc throughout (brow/thou; wonder/asunder; hail/tale).
- The phrasing is such so that clauses or phrases are two lines each.
These two things are enough to make those connections between the couplets. But there's also another: the rhythm. This poem is predominantly iambic: that is, the metrical feet (beats) are mostly iambs—pairs of one unstressed and one stressed syllable. This gives it that nice "da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM" feel. And there's a pattern to how many feet there are in each line:
CHILD-of the-PURE un-CLOUD ed-BROW (4 feet)
and-DREAM ing-EYES of-WOND-er (3 feet)
though-TIME be-FLEET and-I and-THOU (4 feet)
are-HALF a-LIFE a-SUND-er (3 feet)
thy-LOV ing-SMILE will-SURE ly-HAIL (4 feet)
the-LOVE gift-OF a-FAIR y-TALE (4 feet)
There's always an amphibrach (short-long-short) at the end of lines 2 and 4. And it's always 4-3 4-3 4-4, almost as if there are two long lines and an ending refrain, or three long lines. All this makes the meter more regular than most poetry—in fact, it approaches song in its regularity. Between the meter and the imagery, reading this poem seems almost like listening to music.
The poet misses the subject, to whom the poem is addressed. That much is clear from the first and second stanzas. There is a pain of distance here ("half a life asunder", 4; "I have not seen thy sunny face . . .", 7). There is yearning for the days that by now are long gone—those "other days" (13) "Whose echoes live in memory yet" (17). Almost parent-like, the poet misses those days of the subject's childhood. But he wants to get in one last bedtime story.
In the fourth and fifth stanzas, the poet contrasts a raging snowstorm with the warmth of the home. It seems obvious that the poet cares for the subject in a very protective way, as if shelter does not only come from "childhood's nest of gladness" (28) but from the poet himself! Perhaps this is not only protection from the elements. If "within" is "childhood's nest of gladness", it seems only natural to extend the metaphor-- is the "raving blast" (30) "without" representative of adulthood? The burdens of adulthood do seem awfully like a windy snowstorm. The poet seems to see himself as the guardian, whose job it is to shield the child from the heavy matters of adults. The poet is definitely having a hard time letting go of the child of the subject's past, and is trying to hold that child one more time before adulthood takes the child away from him.
This poem really touched me because my childhood was not really a very normal one, and effectively much shorter than I would have liked. Also, despite being young myself, I have had these kinds of "parental" relationships with younger friends—some still exist and some are in the past, but I feel the same feelings as the poet does about his "melancholy maiden" (22). Having grown up is wonderful in its own ways and I'm glad it's happened—to me and to my friends—but somehow, there's something missing. Perhaps it's the sense of wonder that the poet evokes in line 2. I don't know. In the end, what poetry does to a person can never really be explained in words.
- "Foot (prosody)." Wikipedia (English). <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_%28prosody%29>. Accessed 25 January 2005.
- "Iambic pentameter." Wikipedia (English). <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iambic_pentameter>. Accessed 25 January 2005.
- "Meter (poetry)." Wikipedia (English). <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meter_%28poetry%29>. Accessed 25 January 2005.
1 ::sigh:: When I was writing the above, I had to make my historical notes go far far away (by putting a huge chunk of blank paragraphs in between) so that they wouldn't interfere with my attempt at writing an abstract reading of the text. I should have done the abstract first.
These notes are intended to be aids in understanding. I suggest having a copy of the poem at hand, either a printout of this node or a copy of Looking-Glass itself. Then as you read the notes below, match up and cross-reference with your hard copy for context. Once finished with the notes, skim the poem again—hopefully this time around you'll pick up something you didn't before.
- General Notes
This poem did not appear in the first editions of Looking-Glass. I don't know at what date it first did appear, but I would guess by the fact that it was not published in the first editions that it was not, in actuality, considered by Carroll a part of the book itself, but was, instead, a dedication, probably added at a later date. At the same time, it is definitely a prologue by way of symmetry with the epilogue. This is probably by design-- Carroll always did care about the aesthetic form of his work.
- First stanza
1. Child of the pure unclouded brow is Alice Pleasance Liddell, the Alice of Wonderland and the person to whom Lewis Carroll dedicated Looking-Glass. For more information about Alice Liddell, see shokwave's excellent writeup at Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the page about her on Lenny's site, in the sources.
4. Half a life asunder. At first I thought that this might be an indicator of distance. Well, I was right, but it's more than physical distance—it's emotional distance—and an age difference. At the time when Looking-Glass was first published, Carroll was 39 and Alice 19. Since this prologue was added later, one might reasonably think that Carroll was 40 and Alice was 20 when it was written. Guess what? That's exactly half a life asunder! Carroll was a mathematician and it definitely shows in his work.
- Second stanza
7-8. I have not seen . . . silver laughter. By this time, Alice was no longer little. As she had grown older, Mrs. Liddell had limited the contact between Carroll and Alice; it's unclear why. At this point Charles and Alice were only penpals at best.
9-10. No thought of me . . . thy young life's hereafter. By this time, Alice was of marriage age. She had at least a close friendship with Prince Leopold and perhaps more; maybe Carroll was referring to her young life hereafter including a family and kids, leaving no time for thoughts of Carroll. She didn't get married until she was 28, however.
- Third stanza
13. A tale begun in other days. Looking-Glass was the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, first told to Alice when she was only 10. Nine years had passed.
14. When summer suns were glowing. 16. The rhythm of our rowing. This "tale begun in other days" was told on a boat trip in the summer. See "A boat beneath a sunny sky...".
17-18. Whose echoes live in memory yet, / Though envious years would say 'forget'. The boat trip was definitely memorable to both Alice and Carroll, even though the "envious years" in between, during which Mrs. Liddell limited their contact and Alice herself matured, had no doubt caused these memories to fade into "echoes".
- Sixth stanza
31-32. . . . the shadow of a sigh / May tremble through the story. At this point, Carroll knew that the childhood Alice was to be with him for not much longer, and that there would be not be another sequel to the Alice stories. Thus, as much as Looking-Glass was whimsical and fairy-tale-like, for him, writing and telling this story was a point of melancholy and of loss.
33. 'happy summer days'. The words in quotes are the last three words of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
36. The pleasance of our fairy-tale. Both a play on Alice's middle name Pleasance and the similar-sounding word "presence," referring perhaps to the pleasure of Alice's presence or the continuing presence (existence) of the fairy-tale itself (through publication).
- Birenbaum, Joel and the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. Lewis Carroll Home Page: Carroll Texts. <http://www.lewiscarroll.org/texts.html>. Accessed 25 January 2005.
- de Rooy, Lenny. Lenny's Alice in Wonderland Site.. <http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/main.html>. Accessed 24 January 2005.
- Carroll, Lewis and Martin Gardner, ed. The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2000.
Update 13 March 2005: Some additions and corrections from Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice.