Decorated initial T

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:

Stolen Waters


The light was faint, and soft the air
That breathed around the place;
And she was lithe, and tall, and fair,
And with a wayward grace
Her queenly head she bare.


With glowing cheek, with gleaming eye,
She met me on the way:
My spirit owned the witchery
Within her smile that lay:
I followed her, I knew not why.


The trees were thick with many a fruit,
The grass with many a flower:
My soul was dead, my tongue was mute,
In that accursëd hour.


And, in my dream, with silvery voice,
She said, or seemed to say,
“Youth is the season to rejoice —”
I could not choose but stay:
I could not say her nay.


She plucked a branch above her head,
With rarest fruitage laden:
“Drink of the juice, Sir Knight,” she said:
“‘Tis good for knight and maiden.”


Oh, blind mine eye that would not trace —
Oh, deaf mine ear that would not heed —
The mocking smile upon her face,
The mocking voice of greed!


I drank the juice; and straightway felt
A fire within my brain:
My soul within me seemed to melt
In sweet delirious pain.


“Sweet is the stolen draught,” she said:
“Hath sweetness stint or measure?
Pleasant the secret hoard of bread:
What bars us from our pleasure?”


“Yea, take we pleasure while we may,”
I heard myself replying.
In the red sunset, far away,
My happier life was dying:
My heart was sad, my voice was gay.


And unawares, I knew not how,
I kissed her dainty finger-tips,
I kissed her on the lily brow,
I kissed her on the false, false lips —
That burning kiss, I feel it now!


“True love gives true love of the best:
Then take,” I cried, “my heart to thee!”
The very heart from out my breast
I plucked, I gave it willingly:
Her very heart she gave to me —
Then died the glory from the west.


In the gray light I saw her face,
And it was withered, old, and gray;
The flowers were fading in their place,
Were fading with the fading day.


Forth from her, like a hunted deer,
Through all that ghastly night I fled,
And still behind me seemed to hear
Her fierce unflagging tread;
And scarce drew breath for fear.


Yet marked I well how strangely seemed
The heart within my breast to sleep:
Silent it lay, or so I dreamed,
With never a throb or leap.


For hers was now my heart, she said,
The heart that once had been mine own:
And in my breast I bore instead
A cold, cold heart of stone.
So grew the morning overhead.


The sun shot downward through the trees
His old familiar flame:
All ancient sounds upon the breeze
From copse and meadow came —
But I was not the same.


They call me mad: I smile, I weep,
Uncaring how or why:
Yea, when one’s heart is laid asleep,
What better than to die?
So that the grave be dark and deep.


To die! To die? And yet, methinks,
I drink of life, to-day,
Deep as the thirsty traveler drinks
Of fountain by the way:
My voice is sad, my heart is gay.


When yestereve was on the wane,
I heard a clear voice singing
So sweetly that, like summer-rain,
My happy tears came springing:
My human heart returned again.


“A rosy child,
Sitting and singing, in a garden fair,
The joy of hearing, seeing,
The simple joy of being —
Or twining rosebuds in the golden hair
That ripples free and wild.


“A sweet pale child —
Wearily looking to the purple West —
Waiting the great For-ever
That suddenly shall sever
The cruel chains that hold her from her rest —
By earth-joys unbeguiled.


“An angel-child —
Gazing with living eyes on a dead face:
The mortal form forsaken,
That none may now awaken,
That lieth painless, moveless in her place,
As though in death she smiled!


“Be as a child —
So shalt thou sing for very joy of breath —
So shalt thou wait thy dying,
In holy transport lying —
So pass rejoicing through the gate of death,
In garment undefiled.”


Then call me what they will, I know
That now my soul is glad:
If this be madness, better so,
Far better to be mad,
Weeping or smiling as I go.


For if I weep, it is that now
I see how deep a loss is mine,
And feel how brightly round my brow
The coronal might shine,
Had I but kept mine early vow:


And if I smile, it is that now
I see the promise of the years —
The garland waiting for my brow,
That must be won with tears,
With pain — with death — I care not how.

                            May 9, 1862.
                          College Rhymes, Vol. 2.

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