Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cultured Literary Doodling

Dear Everyone:

Your teachers, no doubt, emphasized emotion when they taught poetry. Yet, considering how much of it is rhyme and scansion, wouldn’t logic be a better emphasis? And doesn’t it stand to reason that mathematicians would make particularly good poets?

So the following, by Professor Charles Luttwidge Dodgson, who wrote two well-regarded children’s books under a pseudonym, is nothing more than you’d expect, right?

(Epilogue to Through the Looking Glass)
by Lewis Carroll

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July –

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear
Pleased a simple tale to hear –

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream –
Lingering in the golden gleam –
Life what is it but a dream?

Good poem. But did you get it?

No, I don’t mean the fact that it was written about going boating with Alice Pleasance Liddell and her sisters on those golden afternoons when he made up the stories that became Alice in Wonderland. That’s pretty obvious by the fact that the poem first appeared at the very end of that exact same book. Did you get the secret he hid in the poem?

Nor do I mean anything dark and sexual either. Though many people do think that Dodgson was a natural pederast who managed to stifle his impulses. (Then again, the case is not proved; a recent biographer claimed that the man’s dark secret was that he was attracted to adult women, and hung around with little girls because being pre-sexual they were safe.)

Here’s a clue: The poem was cast in triplets of lines in order to draw the eye away from the hidden secret. Which is that it’s an acrostic poem. Look at the first letter of each line. Read straight down. The poem contains its own dedication to the girl who inspired Alice.

Acrostic poems were not at all uncommon in an age when any educated gentleman might be expected to dash off an occasional verse or two. So it wasn’t a terribly big secret – you were expected to get it sooner or later. The trick was to make the poem itself good enough that the acrostic came as a surprise.

All best,


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