the Mad Gardener’s Song

April 25, 2013 § 1 Comment

He thought he saw an Elephant,
  That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
  A letter from his wife.
“At length I realize,” he said,
  “The bitterness of Life!”

He thought he saw a Buffalo
  Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
  His Sister’s Husband’s Niece.
“Unless you leave this house,” he said,
  “I’ll send for the Police!”

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
  That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
  The Middle of Next Week.
“The one thing I regret,” he said,
  “Is that it cannot speak!”

He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk
  Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
  A Hippopotamus.
“If this should stay to dine,” he said,
  “There won’t be much for us!”

He thought he saw a Kangaroo
  That worked a coffee-mill:
He looked again, and found it was
  A Vegetable-Pill.
“Were I to swallow this,” he said,
  “I should be very ill!”

He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
  That stood beside his bed:
He looked again, and found it was
  A Bear without a Head.
“Poor thing,” he said, “poor silly thing!
  It’s waiting to be fed!”

He thought he saw an Albatross
  That fluttered round the lamp:
He looked again, and found it was
  A Penny-Postage Stamp.
“You’d best be getting home,” he said:
  “The nights are very damp!”

He thought he saw a Garden-Door
  That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
  A Double Rule of Three:
“And all its mystery,” he said,
  “Is clear as day to me!”

He thought he saw a Argument
  That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
  A Bar of Mottled Soap.
“A fact so dread,” he faintly said,
  “Extinguishes all hope!”

- Lewis Carroll

Poking out of the dream layer that covers Sylvie and Bruno are stanzas from this poem, which, with its mathematical structure and deadpan delivery, almost becomes the most sensible part of an otherwise fantastical story. Actually, the poem is the invention of a mad gardener who hobbles throughout the fairytale and delivers his song in short spurts (its stanzas sometimes separated by several chapters).

“The Mad Gardener’s Song” is Carroll’s last masterpiece, a nonsense poem that seems to, somehow, make its own sense. It embodies the duality of a man obsessed with mathematics — logical, knowable, systematic — and the extreme mystery of religion and God. A simple, solid structure runs underneath: x sees y; y is actually z. The structure is so strong that by the end, even if the reader feels uneasy about the impossibility of the imagery or the stacking of the non sequiturs, the poem’s logic begins to feel natural, as if the poem has answered its own absurd questions, or has at least invited the reader to relax and not worry about sense. To quote the last stanza:

He thought he saw a Argument
  That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
  A Bar of Mottled Soap.
“A fact so dread,” he faintly said,
  “Extinguishes all hope”

When the Pope, who is possibly the most well-know living religious figure in the world and whom Carroll calls an “Argument” (for the duality of the known and unknown?), enters the stanza only to turn into soap, which is slippery and hard-to-grasp, the reader is forced to “extinguish all hope” in understanding all that the Pope represents. It is as if Carroll is telling the reader to accept that there are things that will always remain ungraspable, and that these things fall outside science and math and are better placed in the realm of the metaphysical. And this, of course, reflects the poems itself with its unbelievable images and silent structure ticking beneath.

“And all its mystery,” he said,
  “Is clear as day to me!”

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§ One Response to the Mad Gardener’s Song

  • I have actually read Sylvie and Bruno, and can say from experience that the novel’s lack of popularity is well-deserved. The poem deserves to be better known, however. Note how the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 is presaged in the “banker’s clerk” stanza – instead of its proper role as a facilitator of the real economy, expressed by the character of the clerk riding the bus, the financial sector became so overgrown that it was eating everyone’s dinner.

    From that same time period, autumn 2008, here’s a verse that is a sort of parody (or homage) that, while seemingly more prosaic than the original, points to a looking-glass quality of our own age.

    He thought he saw a Candidate
    Who’d put an End to War:
    He looked again, and found it was
    The Same Game as Before.
    “If that’s the way it goes, ” he said,
    “Then what is voting for?”

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