Poetry News

Lewis Carroll's Snark as Pursuer of Happiness

By Harriet Staff


Over at The American Reader, a letter's been published from Lewis Carroll to a young girl named May Barber, in which Carroll explains his poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” Apparently, Carroll had befriended Barber "when he taught at her mother’s boarding school in 1894." They write: "Over the years, the meaning of Carroll’s 'Snark' has been much debated. Carroll, though, avoided explaining his work, for 'a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant,' and he often chose answers that were even more nonsensical than the original work. To the question, though—'What is the Snark?'—Carroll’s answer was almost always the same: 'I don’t know.'” An excerpt of the letter of some explanation:

My dear May,

In answer to your question, “What did you mean the Snark was?” will you tell your friend that I meant that the Snark was a Boojum. I trust that she and you will now feel quite satisfied and happy.

To the best of my recollection, I had no other meaning in my mind, when I wrote it: but people have since tried to find the meanings in it. The one I like best (which I think is partly my own) is that it may be taken as an Allegory for the Pursuit of Happiness. The characteristic “ambition” works well into this theory—and also its fondness for bathing-machines, as indicating that the pursuer of happiness, when he has exhausted all other devices, betakes himself. . . .

Read the full letter here.

Originally Published: January 15th, 2013