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The Capture of the Snark
An essay by E. Fuller Torrey, M.D. and Judy Miller

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The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll

(This article is based on The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Insanity from 1750 to the Present, by E. Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller, to be published in January 2002 by Rutgers University Press.)

Since it was first published in 1876, Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark has intrigued and baffled scholars. John Pudney, in Lewis Carroll and His World, claimed that “no poem has ever been more analysed.” Its mystery has provided grist for numerous doctoral dissertations, spawned Snark clubs that meet regularly in Oxford, Cambridge, and London, and even provided a name for one of the U.S. Air Force’s guided missiles.

Reviews of the poem at the time of publication called it a “glorious piece of nonsense” and “the most bewildering of modern poems . . . inspired by a wild desire to reduce to idiocy as many readers, and more especially reviewers, as possible.” Various scholars have claimed that the poem is an allegory or satire about vivisection, an Arctic expedition, a contemporary trial, a church controversy, or the author’s sexual repression. Some scholars have maintained that it “is one of the few poems of deliberate nonsense that is an addition to our literature.” Morton Cohen, in his recent biography of Lewis Carroll, labeled it “the longest, most intricate nonsense poem in the English language,” and Michael Holquist claimed it to be “the most nonsensical nonsense which Carroll created.”

Lewis Carroll never explained his poem, although he received numerous requests to do so. In its Preface, he called it “a brief but instructive poem” with a “strong moral purpose.” After its publication, he enjoyed giving elliptical answers when asked what the poem meant. To one correspondent, he wrote that he could not explain the Snark, saying, “Are you able to explain things which you don’t yourself understand?” To some children, he replied: “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense! Still, you know, words mean so much more than we mean to express when we use them: so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant.”

Given Lewis Carroll’s propensity for creating games, puzzles, and brain-teasing mathematical problems, it would be uncharacteristic of him to create a poem of pure nonsense. Previous scholars have failed to focus on one of the most important relationships and profound events of Carroll’s life. With that relationship and event as a starting point, the meaning of The Hunting of the Snark becomes manifest.

Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge was Lewis Carroll’s maternal uncle. Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was named after him. Despite a thirty-year age difference, Lutwidge and Carroll were extremely close friends from the early 1850s until Lutwidge’s death in 1873.

Both men were lifelong bachelors and shared many interests. Lutwidge was deeply religious and a member of the National Society for Promoting Religious Education. Carroll was an ordained Deacon in the Church of England; according to one biographer, “religion was the most important factor in his life.” Lutwidge was a founding member of the London Statistical Society, while Carroll was a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford. And it was Lutwidge who introduced his nephew to photography. Carroll’s diaries are replete with notations of dining with “Uncle Skeffington,” staying with him in London, attending concerts and plays together, and even vacationing together, as they did in 1871 in Scotland.

Skeffington Lutwidge was a lawyer whose occupation from 1845 until his death was as a salaried inspector on the Lunacy Commission. The Commission, created in 1845 by the Lunatics Act, consisted of six professional inspectors (three physicians and three lawyers) whose full-time job was to make unannounced inspections of England’s 177 county, provincial, and metropolitan asylums and madhouses. In their work, the inspectors were described as “rummaging through cupboards, tasting food, and ransacking beds. . . . The board [Lunacy Commission] centered its attention on the physical condition of asylums.” The inspectors also had authority to discharge patients who had been inappropriately admitted and even to recommend the closing of an asylum or madhouse, although these powers were rarely utilized.

In addition to the six inspectors, the Lunacy Commission included up to five other lay members, although these additional positions were not always filled. In the years immediately preceding Skeffington Lutwidge’s death, the commission consisted of ten members: Francis Barlow, William Campbell, John Cleaton, M.D., Colonel Henry Clifford, John Forster, Skeffington Lutwidge, Robert Nairne, M.D., Bryan Procter, Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), and James Wilkes, M.D. Lord Shaftesbury was the chairman of the Commission, having been the primary author of the 1845 Act that created it and being the most outspoken advocate for lunacy reform in England.

On May 21, 1873, while inspecting the Fisherton Lunatic Asylum in Salisbury, Skeffington Lutwidge was attacked by a patient named McKave. According to the Times, McKave “suddenly darted towards him and severely wounded him on the temple with a large rusty nail, the point of which had recently been sharpened.” Lewis Carroll immediately went to Salisbury, where his uncle initially appeared to be recovering. Six days later, however, Lutwidge’s condition rapidly deteriorated and he died. Lewis Carroll recorded in his diary his “dear Uncle’s death.”

In July 1874, Carroll began writing The Hunting of the Snark. At the time, Carroll was helping to nurse his twenty-two-year-old nephew and godson, who was dying from tuberculosis. In the poem, the Baker relates the following:

"A dear uncle of mine (after whom I was named)
     Remarked, when I bade him farewell-"
"Oh, skip your dear uncle!" the Bellman exclaimed,
     As he angrily tingled his bell.
"He remarked to me then," said that mildest of men,
     "'If your Snark be a Snark, that is right:
Fetch it home by all means-you may serve it with greens,
     And it's handy for striking a light.
"'You may seek it with thimbles-and seek it with care;
     You may hunt it with forks and hope;
You may threaten its life with a railway-share;
     You may charm it with smiles and soap-'"
("That's exactly the method," the Bellman bold
     In a hasty parenthesis cried,
"That's exactly the way I have always been told
     That the capture of Snarks should be tried!")
"'But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
     If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
     And never be met with again!'

[View in context]

The Hunting of the Snark is almost certainly a poem about the Lunacy Commission and the death of Skeffington Lutwidge. Snarks are insane patients of whom, Carroll says, “common Snarks do no manner of harm.” However, “Some are Boojums” and “If your Snark be a Boojum! For then / You will softly and suddenly vanish away, / And never be met with again!”

Several members of the Snark-hunting crew are identifiable as members of the Lunacy Commission. The Baker is a composite of Skeffington Lutwidge and Lewis Carroll. He is described as having many different names (Lutwidge had four; Carroll had five, if both his real name and pseudonym are counted), and nobody was certain what name to use. As scholars have noted, the Baker had 42 boxes; Carroll was 42 years old at the time he started the poem. And the Baker is described in a self-deprecating, humorous way: “His form is ungainly-his intellect small.”

The organizer and leader of the Snark-hunting expedition is the Bellman:

The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies-
     Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise,
     The moment one looked in his face!

[View in context]

Despite this stature, the Bellman is ridiculed in the poem as merely tingling his bell, believing that the number three has a sacred power, giving contradictory orders, and steering the ship by a map that is a blank sheet of paper. Lord Shaftesbury, the chairman of the Lunacy Commission, was a well-known aristocrat, widely praised social reformer, and devout Evangelical Christian who prayed twice daily and accepted the Bible, including the Trinity, as the literal Word of God. He was also described by biographers as aloof, humorless, and puritanical; one biographer characterized his outlook as consisting “of a series of negatives [which] thus removed much of the pleasure and color from life.” Although they probably admired Lord Shaftesbury’s commitment to social reform, Lutwidge and Carroll, both of whom loved the theater, would have had less sympathy with his puritanical values and fundamentalist religiosity.

The Butcher and the Beaver are also identifiable as members of the Lunacy Commission. The Butcher is described as a prolific writer:

So engrossed was the Butcher, he heeded them not,
     As he wrote with a pen in each hand,
And explained all the while in a popular style
     Which the Beaver could well understand.

[View in context]

John Forster, a lawyer on the Lunacy Commission, was the son of a Newcastle butcher and was a prolific writer who authored the five-volume Lives of the Statesmen of the Commonwealth, as well as biographies of Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Dickens. His close friend on the Commission was Bryan Procter, who, under the pseudonym Barry Cornwall, published three books of poems. In The Hunting of the Snark, the Beaver is described as assisting his close friend, the Butcher:

The Beaver brought paper, portfolio, pens,
     And ink in unfailing supplies:
While strange creepy creatures came out of their dens,
     And watched them with wondering eyes.

[View in context]

Little information is provided in the poem on other members of the Snark-hunting crew, making it difficult to definitively link them to specific members of the Lunacy Commission. The Banker, who is attacked by the Bandersnatch and becomes insane, may have been Dr. Robert Nairne, a Commission physician who was also the treasurer of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society. Nairne did not, as far as is known, become insane; however, Greville Howard, a lawyer who replaced Lutwidge on the Commission in 1873, did become insane shortly after being appointed. The Barrister, who was “brought to arrange their disputes,” may have been William Campbell, a lawyer and close friend of Lutwidge’s who had served on the Commission with him since 1845. And the maker of Bonnets and Hoods, who prepared to fight the Snark by “ferociously” planning “a novel arrangement of bows,” may have been Henry Clifford, a Member of Parliament and Colonel of the Monmouth Militia.

The method of Snark-hunting recommended by the Bellman is also consistent with the activities of the Lunacy Commission. The method is described as follows:

"'You may seek it with thimbles-and seek it with care;
     You may hunt it with forks and hope;
You may threaten its life with a railway-share;
     You may charm it with smiles and soap-'"

[View in context]

These instructions are repeated six different times, leading “some to suspect that it may conceal a private, cryptic message,” according to Martin Gardner in The Annotated Snark. The use of thimbles, forks, and soap is reminiscent of the activities of the lunacy inspectors as they examined the clothing, bedding, food, and sanitary conditions in the asylums. The railway-share may refer to the fact that the inspectors, who usually traveled by train, were among the railway’s better customers.

The Bellman’s descriptions of Snarks is also loosely consistent with the mental states of many insane persons:

"Come, listen, my men, while I tell you again
     The five unmistakable marks
By which you may know, wheresoever you go,
     The warranted genuine Snarks."

[View in context]

First, their “taste” is “meagre and hollow, but crisp: / Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist.” Second is “its habit of getting up late” and becoming confused about when to eat. “The third is its slowness in taking a jest,” perhaps referring to an impairment in abstract thinking, which is characteristic of the form of insanity now known as schizophrenia. “The fourth is its fondness for bathing-machines,” possibly referring to the paucity of bathing facilities in the asylum. And “the fifth is ambition,” by which Carroll may have been referring to grandiose delusions that are characteristic of some insane individuals.

Lewis Carroll’s interest in insanity, and his sophisticated understanding of insane thought processes, is not surprising. Insanity was surely a regular topic of conversation with Uncle Skeffington, and on at least one occasion, in 1856, Carroll accompanied his uncle on a visit to an asylum. Many scholars have commented on the prominent theme of madness in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, both written in the decade before Skeffington Lutwidge’s death. The Mad Hatter has a tea party, and the Cheshire Cat claims that “we’re all mad here.”

Why, then, did Lewis Carroll write The Hunting of the Snark? At one level, it is an expression of his grief at the loss of his closest friend and intellectual companion. Even the structure of the poem, subtitled “An Agony in Eight Fits,” conveys the tragedy Carroll wished to express amidst the superficially whimsical dialogue and double entendres. “Agony” suggests extreme pain, anguish, a paroxysm of emotion. “Fit” is an archaic word for part of a poem, but it also means a seizure or convulsion. Martin Gardner is correct in calling The Hunting of the Snark “the saddest of Carroll’s writings. . . . One senses terror and despair throughout the overtly humorous Snark.”

At a deeper level, the poem reflects Lewis Carroll’s grappling with the problem of evil in a world he believed to have been created by a benign and merciful God. In such a world, insanity itself is a problem, affecting, as it does, random individuals. Moreover, Carroll was well aware of the issue of increasing insanity, which was being widely debated at the time. Uncle Skeffington had even testified about this issue in 1859 before a Select Committee on Lunatics of the House of Commons.

Lewis Carroll was a devout, obsessive man who was passionately devoted to order. The existence of insanity-the Snark-was deeply upsetting to him. Roger Henkle, in a 1973 article “The Mad Hatter’s World,” observed that “the recurrent preoccupation with anarchy and madness in ‘Wonderland,’ especially, entices us to speculate on the part they played in Carroll’s thought. . . . We have in Carroll a not unusual fear of anarchy and a tendency to equate individual insanity to social chaos.”

One passage in The Hunting of the Snark especially supports this interpretation:

"I engage with the Snark-every night after dark-
     In a dreamy delirious fight:
I serve it with greens in those shadowy scenes,
     And I use it for striking a light:"

[View in context]

Using the Snark “for striking a light” echoes Carroll’s own description of how he wrote Alice in Wonderland: “Sometimes an idea comes at night, when I have had to get up and strike a light to note it down.” Carroll was a well-known insomniac who in 1893 described the kinds of problems that kept him awake:

There are mental troubles, much worse than mere worry, for which an absorbing subject of thought may serve as a remedy. There are skeptical thoughts, which seem for the moment to uproot the firmest faith; there are blasphemous thoughts, which dart unbidden into the most reverent souls; there are unholy thoughts, which torture, with their hateful presence, the fancy that would fain be pure.

Lewis Carroll, then, was wrestling with the problem of evil and what it implied about the existence of a merciful God. Insanity itself, the Snark, was sufficient to challenge his faith but, even worse, some Snarks were Boojums. The death of his uncle, described as a man “whose kindly and generous disposition had endeared him to all his colleagues,” challenged Carroll’s faith much more severely. What kind of God would end such a man’s life by a random, irrational, senseless, pure act of evil? What kind of God would also take the life of Carroll’s dying nephew and godson, whom Carroll was nursing at the time he wrote the initial lines of “The Hunting of the Snark“?

Lewis Carroll could not reconcile his uncle’s death with his religious faith. Thus, when asked to explain the meaning of his poem, Carroll was being honest when he answered, “Are you able to explain things which you don’t yourself understand?” Similarly, Carroll refused to let Henry Holliday, whom he had hired to illustrate the poem, depict the Boojum. Holliday wrote that all of Carroll’s “descriptions of the Boojum were quite unimaginable, and he [Carroll] wanted the creature to remain so.”

It is also significant that Lewis Carroll originally planned to have The Hunting of the Snark published as a Christmas poem. The poem is a plea for faith when confronted by evil. The Hunting of the Snark, then, is not a whimsical, nonsense poem, but rather Lewis Carroll’s cleverly disguised Book of Job.

Copyright © E. Fuller Torrey, M.D. and Judy Miller 2001

E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., is a research psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness. He is the executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, president of the Treatment Advocacy Center, and professor of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He has authored or edited sixteen books, including The Roots of Treason, which was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle as one of the five best biographies for 1983.

Judy Miller is a senior research assistant with the Stanley Medical Research Institute. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband and four children.

This essay may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Capture of the Snark is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the authors. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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