Against Idleness and Mischief, Alice in Wonderland, Children, Edwardian, Isaac Watts, Lewis Carroll, Oliphaunt, recitation, Tennyson, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Victorian, William Wordsworth
Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
We are always interested in linking JRRT and Middle-earth with things of this earth, from Tolkien’s experience in the Great War to English geography vs that of Middle-earth. In this posting, we begin with an elephant—or, rather, oliphaunt. Which is an elephant—sort of, only bigger and menacing.
“Big as a house, much bigger than a house, it looked to him, a grey-clad moving hill…his great legs like trees, enormous sail-like ears spread out, long snout upraised like a huge serpent about to strike, his small red eyes raging. His upturned hornlike tusks were bound with bands of gold and dripped with blood.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)
As big as the oliphaunt is, the real subject of our post is actually one small part of what might have been JRRT’s Victorian/Edwardian educational experience and its reflection in the form of Sam Gamgee, who, “stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’) and began:
Grey as a mouse
Big as a house
Nose like a snake
I make the earth shake
As I tramp through the grass
Trees crack as I pass
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South
Flapping big ears
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round
Never lie on the ground
Not even to die
Oliphaunt am I
Biggest of all
Huge, old, and tall
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me
If you never do
You won’t think I’m true
But old Oliphaunt am I
And I never lie.”
In the 1890s, when JRRT was a little boy, a mainstay of that education was the combination of memorization and repetition through recitation.
Children were expected to commit to memory—and to be able to perform—any number of poetic works whenever called upon. In what was probably an extreme example, the poet Alfred Tennyson’s (1809-1892)
father is said to have required him to memorize and repeat to him over four mornings all four books of the Roman poet, Horace’s, ( 65-8BC)
(This is a “traditional” portrait of the poet, but probably isn’t really he.)
odes—a hefty chore—that’s 103 poems—in Latin.
It’s not surprising, then, that one little Victorian girl, finding herself in a strange and distorted world, would try to provide herself with both comfort and stability by returning to the familiar: reciting.
“I’ll try and say ‘ How doth the little—'” and she
crossed her hands on her lap as if she were
saying lessons, and began to repeat it…”
This is from Chapter 2, “The Pool of Tears”, of Lewis Carroll’s
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865 (this is an 1866 printing).
What Alice will try to repeat is a poem called “Against Idleness and Mischief”, by the clergyman Isaac Watts (1674-1748),
from his 1715 collection, Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children.
This is what Alice thought that she was going to say:
1 How doth the little busy Bee
2 Improve each shining Hour,
3 And gather Honey all the day
4 From every opening Flower!
5 How skilfully she builds her Cell!
6 How neat she spreads the Wax!
7 And labours hard to store it well
8 With the sweet Food she makes.
9 In Works of Labour or of Skill
10 I would be busy too:
11 For Satan finds some Mischief still
12 For idle Hands to do.
13 In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
14 Let my first Years be past,
15 That I may give for every Day
16 Some good Account at last.
What Alice recited, however, was not quite that:
“but her voice sounded hoarse and strange, and the words did not come the same as they used to do :
” 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.”
which was hardly comforting!
Twice, Alice is called upon by others to recite—in Chapter 5, by a hookah-smoking caterpillar,
who demands that she recite “You are old, Father William”—which is, in itself, topsy-turvy, as, instead of the kind of morally-inspiring poem Victorian children were clearly expected to produce, it’s a parody of William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850), “Resolution and Independence” (1802, published 1807), a poem about an elderly pauper who makes a living collecting leeches (and who perks up the previously-despondent Wordsworth with his sturdy view of life).
Instead of that sturdy view, here is what Alice begins to recite on the subject of Father William’s behavior:
” You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
”And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right ?”
And in Chapter 10, a gryphon
orders her to “Stand up and repeat ‘Tis the voice of the sluggard’, another moral poem by Watts. It should begin:
‘Tis the voice of the sluggard, I heard him complain,
“You have waked 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.
Instead, out comes:
”’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 his buttons, and turns out his toes.””
In each case, what was meant to be comforting or at least dutiful, has turned out distorted and disturbing. As the Caterpillar says—and Alice answers–
” That is not said right,” said the Caterpillar. ”Not quite right, I’m afraid,” said Alice,
timidly; “some of the words have got altered.”
” It is wrong from beginning to end,” said the
Caterpillar decidedly, and there was silence for
This was hardly the expected effect, either for Victorians in general or for Alice, in particular, but, if the Caterpillar is censorious and Alice apologetic, Sam’s master has a completely different reaction to the hobbit’s recitation:
“Frodo stood up. He had laughed in the midst of all his cares when Sam trotted out the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt, and the laugh had released him from hesitation.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter Three, “The Black Gate is Closed”)
We wonder what the Caterpillar’s reaction might have been if Alice had recited “Oliphaunt”.
Thanks, as always, for reading.