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Guest Post: Wonderland’s Poetry by Alexa Adams

Today’s guest, Alexa Adams, and I’m particularly happy to say I got to stretch my poetry skills and help her modify some of the poems in her latest Pride & Prejudice inspired novel, Darcy in Wonderland.

Please give Alexa a warm welcome.

Thank you so much, Serena, for inviting me here to discuss the poetry in my new book, Darcy in Wonderland (with which I was so fortunate as to benefit from your expert advice).

Alice in Wonderland is chock full of poetry. Lewis Carroll began his publishing career as a poet, only writing his famous children’s stories after a whimsical request from a young friend. It is, therefore, unsurprising that he would choose to include his preferred literary medium in his novels. However, most of the poems in the book are not original compositions, but playful parodies of famous verses of the time that most contemporary readers would immediately recognize. His ready borrowing from others I took as license to subject his lines to the same treatment, turning his parodies into my own and inserting a heavy dose of Jane Austen into them. I thought I’d take this opportunity afforded by Serena to look at two in context, charting their mutation from proper poems, to Carroll’s whimsical renditions, into my Austenesque odes.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), known as “The Father of English Hymnody” (despite his nonconformist faith), was a prolific writer and English minister. Many of his hymns remain in use today, and he is credited with ushering in a new era of English hymnody, one based on original poetry instead of biblical psalms (though his most famous, Joy to the World, is based on Psalm 98). His poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” from Divine Songs for Children was particularly famous in its day. It is not just referenced by Carroll, but also makes an appearance in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.

It is a poem that children would have learned in the schoolroom at quite a young age, both for its moral value and to practice their recitation skills, highly valued at the time. Alice attempts to recite it in the second chapter of the novel, as a test of her memory. As she says, “It comes out all wrong.” This is Carroll’s version:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

Carroll is quite clever in turning a poem about industry and the dangers of idleness into an exotic tale of a languid creature, intuitively going about its business of feeding on its prey. His mockery of Watts’s didactic purpose beautifully suits the overall absurdity of Wonderland, where all morality and natural law is entirely turned on its head. Following in his path, I chose to make my parody a tribute to Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park, or more particularly her pet pug. Both are models of sloth. It felt quite fitting to me.

How doth the little lazy pug
Improve his fine physique,
While snoring all the day away
And nipping at my feet?

This is not the only incidence when Carroll makes Watts the subject for his wit. He parodies another one of Watts’s instructional verses for children later in the book: “The Sluggard” from Divine Songs for Children. Again, it occurs when Alice is attempting to recite a familiar verse to test her memory, this time at the behest of the Gryphon. Here is Watts’s original:

‘Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
“You have wak’d me too soon, I must slumber again.”
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

“A little more sleep, and a little more slumber;”
Thus he wastes half his days, and his hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.

I pass’d by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grown broader and higher;
The clothes that hang on him are turning to rags;
And his money still wastes till be starves or he begs.

I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind:
He told me his dream, talked of eating and drinking;
But he scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart, “Here’s a lesson for me,
This man’s a picture of what I might be:
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding,
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading!”

And here is Carroll’s version:

‘Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare
“You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.”
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and buttons, and turns out his toes.
When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark:
But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,
His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.

I passed by his garden, and marked with one eye,
How the Owl and Panther were sharing a pie:
The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy and meat,
While the Owl had the dish as its share of the treat.
When the pie was all finished, the Owl as a boon,
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon:
While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl,
And concluded the banquet by —

It’s generally assumed that the last line finishes “by eating the owl,” only Alice is interrupted by the Mock Turtle. In my parody, which is based upon the conversation that tales place between Catherine Morland, Mr. Tilney, and Miss Tilney during their walk to Beechen Cliff in Northanger Abbey, I allow her to finish her recitation.

‘Tis the voice of the Lobster: In tones not muted,
“Take no pleasure in novels? Intolerably stupid!”
Like a lady when shopping for muslins and lace,
Our minds shout agreement, even as our hearts race.
“Little boys and girls should be tormented,” he said,
But only so long as it is good for their heads:
“To torment or instruct: words found synonymous.”
All precision of language has now simply gone amiss.

I passed by his garden, and to my surprise,
Something shocking indeed was happening inside.
“Indeed! Of what nature!” The questions were fret.
“More horrible than anything we’ve met with yet.”
“Good heaven! A riot? Give me peace of mind!”
“I expect murder and everything of that kind.”
Laughing, “The riot is only in your own brain!
The confusion there might drive anyone insane.”

I felt this scene from Northanger particularly suited to a parody of “The Sluggard” because it is about novels, and novel reading was traditionally derided as a waste of time and bad for the brain. I also found Mr. Tilney’s highly playful teasing quite at home in Wonderland. Austen’s earlier works, like Northanger, are far more absurd than her latter writings. Her youthful mind is much more in harmony with the atmosphere Carroll creates than her later, more mature novels.

For more derivations of Carroll’s verses, I heartily recommend you visit alice-in- wonderland.net, an excellent resource on the origins of his work, and where there is a page dedicated to the poetry included in his novels.

Thanks again, Serena! I hope your readers found this conversation both enlightening and
entertaining.

Keep in touch with Alexa via her blog, Austen Authors, Alexa Adams Author Page, Facebook, and Twitter

Thank you, Alexa, for joining us today.

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    Fantastic post!

  • Anji Dee

    Congrats to both Alexa and Serena for a very interesting post on the poetry aspect of Alexa’s wonderful sounding new book. It’s fascinating to see the evolution of each of the featured poems in their different styles. Thank you ladies!

  • Pingback: Darcy in Wonderland Excerpt and Giveaway | Austen Authors()

  • Suko http://www.sukosnotebook

    Terrific guest post! This book sounds delightful. And how wonderful that you helped with this collection, Serena!

    Serena, I am taking a blogging break next week, to spend time with family. 🙂

  • Vesper Meikle

    very clever

  • Alexa Adams

    Thank you, Serena, for hosting me!