The Hunting of the Snark

The Hunting of the Snark is a poem written by English writer Lewis Carroll. It is typically categorised as a nonsense poem. Written from 1874 to 1876, the poem borrows the setting, some creatures, and eight portmanteau words from Carroll's earlier poem "Jabberwocky" in his children's novel Through the Looking-Glass.
The plot follows a crew of ten trying to hunt the Snark, which may turn out to be a highly dangerous Boojum. The only one of the crew to find the Snark quickly vanishes, leading the narrator to explain that it was a Boojum after all. The poem is dedicated to young Gertrude Chataway, whom Carroll met at the English seaside town Sandown in the Isle of Wight in 1875. Included with many copies of the first edition of the poem was Carroll's religious tract, An Easter Greeting to Every Child Who Loves "Alice".
The Hunting of the Snark was published by Macmillan in the United Kingdom in late March 1876, with illustrations by Henry Holiday. It had mixed reviews from reviewers who found it strange. The first printing of The Hunting of the Snark consisted of 10,000 copies. There were two reprintings by the conclusion of the year; in total, the poem was reprinted 17 times between 1876 and 1908. Carroll often denied knowing the meaning behind the poem; however, in an 1896 reply to one letter, he agreed with one interpretation of the poem as an allegory for the search for happiness. Henry Holiday, the illustrator of the poem, considered the poem a "tragedy". Scholars have found various meanings in the poem, among them existential angst, an allegory for tuberculosis, and a mockery of the Tichborne case. The Hunting of the Snark has been alluded to in various works and has been adapted for musicals, opera, plays, and music.



The Hunting of the Snark shares its fictional setting with Lewis Carroll's earlier poem "Jabberwocky" published in his children's novel Through the Looking-Glass. Eight nonsense words from "Jabberwocky" appear in The Hunting of the Snark: bandersnatch, beamish, frumious, galumphing, jubjub, mimsiest, outgrabe and uffish. In a letter to the mother of his young friend Gertrude Chataway, Carroll described the domain of the Snark as "an island frequented by the Jubjub and the Bandersnatch—no doubt the very island where the Jabberwock was slain."


The crew consists of ten members, whose descriptions all begin with the letter B: a Bellman, the leader; a "Boots", who is the only member of the crew without an illustration; a maker of Bonnets and Hoods; a Barrister, who settles arguments among the crew; a Broker, who can appraise the goods of the crew; a Billiard-marker, who is greatly skilled; a Banker, who possesses all of the crew's money; a Butcher, who can only kill beavers; a Beaver, who makes lace and has saved the crew from disaster several times; and a Baker, who can only bake wedding cake, forgets his belongings and his name, but possesses courage.


After crossing the sea guided by the Bellman's map of the Ocean—a blank sheet of paper—the hunting party arrive in a strange land, and the Bellman tells them the five signs by which a Snark can be identified. The Bellman warns them that some Snarks are highly dangerous Boojums; on hearing this, the Baker faints. Once revived, the Baker recalls that his uncle warned him that if the Snark turns out to be a Boojum, the hunter will "softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again." The Baker confesses that this possibility terrifies him.
The hunt begins:

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.

Along the way, the Butcher and Beaver, previously mutually wary, become fast friends after they hear the cry of a Jubjub bird and the Butcher ends up giving the Beaver a lesson on maths and zoology. The Barrister, meanwhile, sleeps, and dreams of witnessing a court trial of a pig accused of deserting its sty, with a Snark as its defence lawyer.
During the hunt, the Banker is attacked by a Bandersnatch, and loses his sanity after trying to bribe the creature.
The Baker rushes ahead of the party, and calls out that he has found a Snark, but when the others arrive, he has mysteriously disappeared.

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.


Two explanations of which event in Carroll's life gave rise to The Hunting of the Snark have been offered. Biographer Morton N. Cohen connects the creation of The Hunting of the Snark with the illness of Carroll's cousin and godson, the twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wilcox. On 17 July 1874, Carroll travelled to Guildford, Surrey, to care for him for six weeks, while the young man struggled with tuberculosis. The next day, while taking a walk in the morning after only a few hours of sleep, Carroll thought of the poem's final line: "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see."
Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller suggest that the event that inspired the poem was the sudden death of Carroll's beloved uncle, Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, caused by a patient in 1873 during Lutwidge's time as an inspector of lunatic asylums. They support their analysis with parts of the poem, such as the Baker's uncle's advice to seek the Snark with thimbles, forks, and soap, which, according to Torrey and Miller, were all items the lunatic asylum inspectors checked during their visits.
Holiday and Carroll had some disagreements on the artwork. Carroll initially objected to Holiday's personification of hope and care, but agreed to the change, when Holiday explained that he had only intended to add another layer of meaning to the word "with". However, Carroll refused his illustration of the Boojum, preferring that the creature go without a depiction, and made him change his initial portrayal of the Broker, as it could be perceived as anti-semitic.
When finally published, the poem comprised 141 stanzas of four lines each, with internal rhymes in the first and third lines of irregular stanzas appearing in the poem from the second fit onwards. Martin Gardner annotated to The Hunting of the Snark that Elizabeth Sewell pointed out in The Field of Nonsense that a line in Carroll's poem has a similarity to a line in a limerick by Edward Lear.


To illustrate the poem Carroll chose Henry Holiday, whom he had met in 1869 or 1870. At the time Carroll approached him to ask if he could create three illustrations for the poem, Carroll had three 'fits', as he called the parts of his poem—fit can mean either canto or convulsion—completed: "The Landing", "The Hunting", and "The Vanishing". He intended to title it The Boojum and include it in his fantasy novel Sylvie and Bruno, which was unfinished at the time. However, in late October 1875, Carroll thought about having it published during Christmas; this proved impossible, as the wood engraving for the illustrations needed three months to be complete. By the time Holiday had completed the sketches and sent them to Carroll, Carroll had already created a new fit requiring an illustration. They worked this way until Holiday had created nine illustrations as well as the front cover and the back cover of the book. Thus, among the ten illustrations shown below, one illustration is not by Holiday. The "Ocean Chart" is typographic art whereas electrotypes made from Joseph Swain's woodblock engravings were used to print Holiday's illustrations.
There is no depiction of the Snark, nor of Boots. However, based on a draft by Carroll, the Snark was allowed to show up in an illustration by Holiday, where it appeared in a dream of the Barrister.
The illustration to the chapter The Banker's Fate might contain pictorial references to the etching The Image Breakers by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, to William Sidney Mount's painting The Bone Player and to a photograph by Benjamin Duchenne used for a drawing in Charles Darwin's 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.

Publication history

Upon the printing of the book on 29 March 1876, Carroll gave away eighty signed copies to his favourite young friends; in a typical fashion, he signed them with short poems, many of them acrostics of the child's name. He dedicated The Hunting of the Snark to Gertrude Chataway, whom he had befriended in summer 1875 at the English seaside town Sandown on the Isle of Wight. He finished the dedication a month after befriending her, a double acrostic poem that not only spelled out her name, but contained a syllable of her name in the first line of each stanza. The stanza of his first draft concluded "Rest on a friendly knee, the tale to ask / That he delights to tell." The poem was printed in The Hunting of the Snark with permission from Chataway's mother.
Included with many copies of the first edition of The Hunting of the Snark was Carroll's three-page, religious tract to his young readers, An Easter Greeting to Every Child Who Loves "Alice". Largely written on 5 February 1876, An Easter Greeting explores the concept of innocence and eternal life through biblical allusions and literary allusions to Romantic writers William Blake and William Wordsworth. Gardner suggests that Carroll included the tract as a way of balancing the dark tone of the poem. Scholar Selwyn Goodacre speculates that, as many copies of first-edition of the poem contain the tract, there is a possibility that all first editions originally had a copy of An Easter Greeting.

Reception and legacy

The first printing of The Hunting of the Snark consisted of 10,000 copies. By the conclusion of 1876, it had seen two reprints, with a total of 18,000 or 19,000 copies circulating. In total, the poem was reprinted seventeen times between 1876 and 1908.
The Hunting of the Snark received largely mixed reviews from Carroll's contemporary reviewers. The Academys Andrew Lang criticised Carroll's decision to use poetry instead of prose and its too appealing title. The Athenaeum described it as "the most bewildering of modern poetry," wondering "if he has merely been inspired to reduce to idiotcy as many readers and more especially reviewers, as possible." According to Vanity Fair, Carroll's work had progressively worsened after Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with The Hunting of the Snark being the worst of his works and "not worthy the name of nonsense". While The Spectator wrote that the poem's final line had the potential to become a proverb, it criticised the poem as "a failure" that might have succeeded with more work from the author. The Saturday Review wrote that the poem offered "endless speculation" as to the true identity of the Snark, although the unnamed reviewer felt that the familiar nature of Carroll's nonsense weakened its effect for the reader. Conversely, The Graphic praised the poem as a welcome departure from the Alice books, and called it "a glorious piece of nonsense," that could appeal to all Alice fans.
"The Hunting of the Snark" has in common some elements with Carroll's other works. It shares its author's love of puns on the word 'fit' with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and mentions of "candle-ends" and "toasted cheese" with his supernatural poem Phantasmagoria. Additionally all three works include the number "42". Another of Carroll's children's novels, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded makes a reference to the Boojum.
Other illustrators of The Hunting of the Snark include Peter Newell, Edward A. Wilson, Mervyn Peake, Aldren Watson, Tove Jansson, Helen Oxenbury, Byron Sewell, John Minnion, Harold Jones, Ralph Steadman, Quentin Blake, Frank Hinder and Brian Puttock.

Cultural impact

The Hunting of the Snark has seen various adaptations into musicals, opera, theatre, plays, and music, including a piece for trombone by Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim a jazz rendition, and with music by Michel Puig for five actresses, eight actors and an instrumental ensemble of five players, premiered at the Festival d'Avignon in 1971. The poem was turned into a £2-million budget West End musical The Hunting of the Snark by Mike Batt.
The poem has inspired literature, such as Jack London's The Cruise of the Snark, the science-fiction short story "Chaos, Coordinated" by John MacDougal, Elspeth Huxley's With Forks and Hope and the title of Kate Wilhelm's novella "With Thimbles, with Forks and Hope." American author Edith Wharton was fond of the poem as a child.
Additionally, it has also been alluded to in
Various themes have been suggested by scholars. According to biographer Florence Becker Lennon, the poem's "motif of loss of name or identity" is typical of Carroll's work. Richard Kelly writes that the poem contains a "theme of annihilation." Furthermore, Edward Guiliano feels that the Snark is within the nonsense tradition of Thomas Hood and, especially, W. S. Gilbert, the librettist of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan team. According to him, a case can be made for a direct influence of Gilbert's Bab Ballads on The Hunting of the Snark, based on the fact that Carroll was well-acquainted with the comic writing and the theatre of his age.
In response to various letters asking for the meaning of the poem, Carroll often replied that he did not know. However, in an 1896 reply to one letter, he agreed with one interpretation of the poem as an allegory for the search for happiness.
Widely varying interpretations of The Hunting of the Snark have been suggested: an allegory for tuberculosis, a mockery of the Tichborne case, a satire of the controversies between religion and science, the repression of Carroll's sexuality, and a piece against vivisection, among others. According to Cohen, the poem represents a "voyage of life", with the Baker's disappearance caused by his violation of the laws of nature by hoping to unravel its mysteries. Lennon sees The Hunting of the Snark as "a tragedy of frustration and bafflement," comparable to British actor Charlie Chaplin's early comedies.
According to Kelly, The Hunting of the Snark is "Carroll's comic rendition of his fears of disorder and chaos, with the comedy serving as a psychological defense against the devastating idea of personal annihilation." Kelly writes that the Bellman's Rule of Three and starting each character's name with the letter B are "notable attempts to create a sense of order and meaning out of chaos."
F. C. S. Schiller, writing under the pseudonym "Snarkophilus Snobbs", interprets the poem as an allegory of Man's attempt to understand "the Absolute", and the members of the crew as representing different cultural approaches to the problem. His interpretation of the Sixth Fit, "The Barrister's Dream" is particularly notable: he reads the trial of the pig for deserting its sty as symbolizing the ethical debate about whether suicide should be condemned as an immoral or culpable action. The pig who deserts its sty represents the suicidal person who abandons life.
Martin Gardner sees the poem as dealing with existential angst, and states that the Baker may be Carroll's satire of himself, pointing to the fact that the Baker was named after a beloved uncle, as was Carroll, and that the two were around the same age at the time of the writing of the poem. Alternatively, Larry Shaw of the fan magazine Inside and Science Fiction Advertiser suggests that the Boots, being the Snark, actually murdered the Baker.
Also references to religious issues had been suggested, like the Baker's 42 boxes being a reference to Thomas Cranmer's Forty-Two Articles with a focus on the last article on eternal damnation, and Holiday's illustration to the last chapter containing a pictorial allusion to Cranmer's burning.