he author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland produced much nonsense poetry which is still widely known and continues to be enjoyed even today. But the same cannot be said of his more serious pieces - his little known Romantic poems. The sole exceptions are the part joyous and part hauntingly melancholic frame poems which he placed, guardian-like, at the beginnings and close of the two celebrated Alice books. Yet Carroll's forays into the major poetic themes of his time are worth some attention. They may be found collected in his Rhyme and Reason (1883), and his final Three Sunsets and Other Poems (1898). They include various approbations and valedictions: "After Three Days," which responds subtly to Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam; "The Path of Roses," which eulogises Florence Nightingale; "Beatrice," to an eponymous child-friend, and many more. One of his more literary and successful productions, "Stolen Waters," was originally published in the inter-varsity periodical College Rhymes, and is well worth our attention:
The light was faint, and soft the air
With glowing cheek, with gleaming eye,
The trees were thick with many a fruit,
And, in my dream, with silvery voice,
She plucked a branch above her head,
Oh, blind mine eye that would not trace —
I drank the juice; and straightway felt
“Sweet is the stolen draught,” she said:
“Yea, take we pleasure while we may,”
And unawares, I knew not how,
“True love gives true love of the best:
In the gray light I saw her face,
Forth from her, like a hunted deer,
Yet marked I well how strangely seemed
For hers was now my heart, she said,
The sun shot downward through the trees
They call me mad: I smile, I weep,
To die! To die? And yet, methinks,
When yestereve was on the wane,
“A rosy child,
“A sweet pale child —
“An angel-child —
“Be as a child —
Then call me what they will, I know
For if I weep, it is that now
And if I smile, it is that now
May 9, 1862.
These stanzas express a high level of knightly chivalry and romanticism, with an occasional and surprising intrusion of frank eroticism into its moral theme. Whilst the knightly Arthurian setting seems largely imbibed from Carroll's lifelong contemporary and idol Alfred Lord Tennyson (with shades, too, of the departed Sir Walter Scott), individual stanzas carry more than a faint suggestion of notable others.
The opening stanza, for instance brings to mind these well-known lines from the fourth stanza of Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" ("Lamia" and Other Poems, 1820):
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful - a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
The works of Keats were well represented on Carroll's well-stocked bookshelves (Stern: Lots 421, 423), and echoes of Keats's ballad appear elsewhere in Carroll's poem, for example, in the idea that knight is languishing (in Keats's third stanza, the "Belle Dame" notes his white face), and in the provision of reviving sustenance (in Keats's seventh stanza, the knight receives "roots of relish sweet, / And honey wild, and manna-dew".
Illustration by Robert Anning Bell
(click on the image for more details).
In her "Elfin grot," Keats's knight kisses the "Belle Dame" "With kisses four." At this point, Carroll's brief eroticism marks a minor crescendo via his repetitive use of the word "kissed." Only a short time earlier a very similar employment of "kiss" and "sucked" with the heated phrase "sucked and sucked and sucked the more" had formed part of Christina Rosetti's brave poem "Goblin Market" (v5, l. 20, in Goblin Market and Other Poems. On 6 May 1862, just three days before Carroll signed off his own poem, he had visited the much-frequented Rossetti family home in London, meeting family members including Miss Christina (Diaries 4: 66). It seems almost inevitable that the two would have discussed her poem, at Carroll's prompting, and perhaps also his own latest piece. There would never be any doubt of course as to who was the finer poet, and over the following thirty years Lewis Carroll would continue to court Christina Rossetti socially, via correspondence, gifted copies of his own first editions and occasional house calls when he was in town and able to appear at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where the Rossetti family lived in London from November that year (1862).
In the same period when Carroll was forging a lasting connection with Christina Rossetti, difficulties were appearing in the earlier relationship that he had been so determined to make with the poet laureate. Perhaps, in courting the younger poet, he was trying to compensate for his fraying bond with Tennyson, and find another mentor. But, regrettably, there is not enough material for us to reach any definitive conclusion about this.
Christina Rossetti and Carrol were closer contemporaries, with similar and self-chosen unmarried status: it is also tempting to see both as recognising that they shared an unfulfilled spiritual yearning for lost loves - the former's broken engagements come to mind, as do Carroll's disappointments, as reflected in his response to reading Tennyson's Maud in 1855. Carroll certainly remained vulnerable in this respect. Later revenants include Muriel Taylor - his sister's husband's niece, then fifteen years old and in Oxford in 1887. He probably based Lady Muriel, his later principal romantic protagonist, on this earlier Muriel, or at least named the character after her. His feelings for her were expressed indirectly (or, rather, disguised) in many parts of his two-volume saga, Sylvie and Bruno (see Dyer, Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno, 71, n. 7, and Lady Muriel, 75-80).
For many years, correspondence between Christina Rossetti and Lewis Carroll lay largely dormant in the Dodgson Family Collection, until recovered by the more recent efforts of editor Edward Wakeling, after the publication in 1979 of the two-volume The Letters of Lewis Carroll edited by M.N. Cohen and R.L. Green. A related chronological overview of Christina Rossetti's recovered letters is currently in progress.
Link to related material
Carroll, Lewis. Sylvie and Bruno. Macmillan: London, 1889.
Dyer, Ray. Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno with Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. Scholar's Annotated Edition. Vols. 1 & 2. Troubador: Leicester, 2015.
_____ . Lady Muriel. The Victorian Romance by Lewis Carroll. Scholar's Annotated Edition. Vol. 3. Leicester: Troubador, 2016.
Created 15 June 2022