- "All about fishes"?The Riddle of Humpty Dumpty's Song and Recursive Understanding in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There1
At the conclusion of Alice's adventures in the country behind the looking-glass, she comments, "I had such a quantity of poetry said to me, all about fishes" (p. 243);2 she thus repeats an earlier utterance from chapter 9: "I've had such a quantity of poetry repeated to me today, . . . and it's a very curious thing, I think—every poem was about fishes in some way. Do you know why they're so fond of fishes, all about here?" (p. 235). The statement that "every poem was about fishes" is not quite true: There are no "fishes" mentioned either in the White Knight's Song or in the nursery rhymes.3 Nevertheless, Alice makes this statement, which leads to the impression that all poems she listened to in the country behind the mirror were "about fishes"; and, indeed, her statement immediately follows upon the White Queen's riddle during the banquet in chapter 9, "a lovely riddle—all in poetry—all about fishes" (p. 235; emphasis added):
"First, the fish must be caught."That is easy: a baby, I think, could have caught it. "Next, the fish must be bought."That is easy: a penny, I think, would have bought it.
"Now cook me the fish!"That is easy, and will not take more than a minute. [End Page 81] "Let it lie in a dish!"That is easy, because it is already in it.
"Bring it here! Let me sup!"It is easy to set such a dish on the table. "Take the dish-cover up!"Ah, that is so hard that I fear I'm unable!
For it holds it like glue—Holds the lid to the dish, while it lies in the middle: Which is easiest to do,Un-dish-cover the fish, or dishcover the riddle?(p. 236)
The answer to this riddle is "oyster." 4 The oyster is the fish that can be easily caught, easily bought, prepared, and served. The only difficulty lies in the opening of the oyster, and the last lines of the poem refer to this problem. The top of the oyster is "glue[d]" to the shell, and the poem therefore ends on the (slightly ironic) question of whether it might not be easier, eventually, to solve the riddle than to open the oyster. This last of the poems "about fishes," with its neatly suggested answer to the riddle it presents, invites us to go back to the earlier ones that do not give up their secret quite so easily.
Many of the poems in Through the Looking-Glass resemble a riddle or leave Alice "puzzled" (p. 189), which hints at the setup of the book as a (jigsaw) puzzle and a riddle: the various elements have to be sorted and put together to make sense. Against this background, the following analysis sets out to solve the riddle that is most prominent in the course of Alice's adventures: Humpty Dumpty's Song ("In winter, when the fields are white") in chapter 6 of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.
This song has been regarded as nonsensical, that is, without meaning, and has therefore been largely ignored by critics.5 The problems of understanding and interpreting Humpty Dumpty's poem are manifold: there are aposiopeses, stanzas close on a pause, it is not clear whom the pronouns "I" and "he" refer to, and the poem ends on an incomplete sentence so that the action is neither resolved nor concluded. Humpty Dumpty's Song has therefore been evaluated as "the worst poem in the Alice books." 6 Because of its unsatisfactory ending, there even was a competition by the Spectator to write a final stanza.7 As it stands, the poem apparently turns out to be another "riddle without an answer" (such as the one in the first part of the Alice books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, during the "Mad Tea Party" in chapter 7). But it is not: Humpty...