“They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care; They pursued it with forks and hope; They threatened its life with a railway share; They charmed it with smiles and soap”. Ever since Lewis Carroll’s nonsense epic appeared in 1876, readers have joined his ten-man Snark-hunting crew and pursued the search with great enthusiasm. What are they hunting for? What is the Snark? Numerous theories have been proposed. Carroll himself provides a helpful preface to the poem and is recorded as having explained to one reader: ‘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’.
If—and the thing is wildly possible—the charge of writing nonsense were ever brought against the author of this brief but instructive poem, it would be based, I feel convinced, on the line (in p.4)
“Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.”
In view of this painful possibility, I will not (as I might) appeal indignantly to my other writings as a proof that I am incapable of such a deed: I will not (as I might) point to the strong moral purpose of this poem itself, to the arithmetical principles so cautiously inculcated in it, or to its noble teachings in Natural History—I will take the more prosaic course of simply explaining how it happened.