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Monday, February 21, 2011

Through the Looking Glass II -- DEAR ALICE A-DISTANCED

This poem, I think, is Carroll's very best "literary" work.  Here he is at his most vulnerable, least satiric, and here it is that he most skillfully and sincerely uses the greatest of his lyrical strength.  It is subtle, lulling, and peaceful, despite the winter storming beyond the "pleasance" of this sitting room.

I don't like to reduce a poem to a chart, especially one so lovely as this, but in this context such is the most efficient way to connect thought to stanza.  If you have comments or questions, reference them by stanza.

Child of the pure unclouded brow 
     And dreaming eyes of wonder!
Though time be fleet, and I and thou
     Are half a life asunder,
Thy loving smile will surely hail
The love-gift of a fairy-tale.

If we take this as a continuation from Wonderland and those final words offered by Alice’s older sister (really Carroll), then this idealization makes sense.  Remember, though only 6 months pass (exactly 6) between the fictional events two books, 6 years have pass between their publication dates, and in reality, Alice, who was 10 when she requested that Wonderland be written, is now actually 19.

I have not seen thy sunny face,
     Nor heard thy silver laughter;
No thought of me shall find a place
     In thy young life's hereafter -
Enough that now thou wilt not fail
To listen to my fairy-tale.

Carroll is pretty meek now, and he seems to assume that he’s made less of an impression than he actually has; however, as he knows Alice as a person,   and what with her child-like mind, despite her forgetfulness of him—i.e.his assumption (accurate) that she’s moved on in her life, and he’s not part of the new one now she’s older—so he knows she will be adequately interested in the new story to read it, and that she will be amused.

A tale begun in other days,
     When summer suns were glowing -
A simple chime, that served to time
     The rhythm of our rowing -
Whose echoes live in memory yet,
Though envious years would say 'forget'.

The summer days not only reference the eponymous golden afternoon in July, but the sunny, un-jaded days of youth.  He’s confident that this particular past is indelible, no matter what’s going on now—or not going on—between them; and those “envious years” are easily those first after they were separated by fiat of Mrs. Liddell.

Come, hearken then, ere voice of dread,
     With bitter tidings laden,
Shall summon to unwelcome bed
     A melancholy maiden!
We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near.

No matter the Freudians, this bed is not the wedding bed, but a reference to the generalized Christian belief  that death is but a sleep: temporary, passive, innocuous.

Without, the frost, the blinding snow,
     The storm-wind's moody madness -
Within, the firelight's ruddy glow,
     And childhood's nest of gladness.
The magic words shall hold thee fast:
Thou shalt not heed the raving blast.

This is the setting that begins chapter 1 of Looking-Glass: winter, indoors, before the fireplace.

And though the shadow of a sigh
     May tremble through the story,
For 'happy summer days' gone by,
     And vanish'd summer glory -
It shall not touch with breath of bale
The pleasance of our fairy-tale.

As he introduces the setting in 5, so he introduces the tone here in 6: this is the belated, melancholy epilogue of the love story—not unrequited, but only outgrown.  He points out that despite the distance and the “winter” (compared to summer's youth) –especially whose weather will surely run throughout the story, though only in tone, not precipitation and temperature— “it shall not touch with breath of bale” (think “baleful,” which is the correlating adjective) the “pleasance,” which, interestingly, is Alice’s middle name, whom he specifically introduces as he did tone and setting, of the tale.

Alice (Liddell) Hargreaves, all grown up.


  1. What do you make of his use of the word, "hereafter?" Is he subtly suggesting that Alice is dead to him? Or is it just a coincidence? Or something else?

  2. That she has changed, that she is distant--even forever distant--yeah, I think so. But "dead to him" has such a negative feel on her side; I expect if anything he'd feel that maybe he is the one who is dead. Of course, the context might indicates something more likely: that her childhood is dead, and that death is what removes her from him.


  3. Right, I was uncomfortable using the phrase because it usually indicates that the person has wronged the other in some way that s/he wishes to forget the person. Dead as in impossibly removed.


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