Lewis Carroll
The Annotated Hunting of the Snark,
edited by Martin Gardner.
W.W. Norton, 192 pages, $27.95

reviewed by X. J. Kennedy

Nonsense may well be the most misunderstood of literary genres. Many have mistaken it for mere loony and meandering piffle—fun, but chaotic stuff. Yet, as the novelist and critic Elizabeth Sewell discovered in her insightful study The Field of Nonsense, a well-made nonsense world is strictly regulated. It resembles a game whose moves are ordained: they can’t go in just any direction. Guests at the Mad Tea-Party have to keep moving on to the next seat; indeed, the plot of Through the Looking-Glass follows the sequence of a game of chess. Sewell sees nonsense as a logical construct which, unlike poetry, excludes deep emotion. If she is right, the phrase “nonsense poem” seems an oxymoron.

Fond of arbitrary...

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