First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 17 August 1887
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p.144
‘The Poligs of the Oern Vent in dugard to the Brounincinl Coutrick is the colic of the unscrifulouse Gawler.’ So ran the printed slip technically known as a ‘rough proof’. The Aryan had surpassed himself; but, as he read, light filled the mind of the Reader. He had written — ‘The policy of the Government in regard to the Provincial Contract is the policy of the unscrupulous lawyer’, and, behold, with a mere turn of his wrist, the Aryan had glorified, and enriched with the wealth of an exuberant Orientalism that simple sentence, till it stood forth a gem, or rather a collection of gems! ‘The Poligs of the Oern Vent’ — George Meredith might have woven those words into the Shaving of Shagpat, and so made that dazzling piece of broidery yet more gorgeous. ‘Brounincinl Coutrick’ would suit admirably the manager of a travelling-circus. Conceive the effect, on white and red posters of: —‘To-night! To-night!! To-night!!! The Brounincinl Coutrick!’ The words would draw thousands — millions. ‘Unscrifulouse Gawler’ again would furnish an absolutely unique and startling title for a semi-humourous, semi-grotesque, wholly-horrible story, of the American school, let us say. Think for a moment what fashion of ghoulo-demoniacal, triple- Quilpian, Jekyll-and-Hydeous character, the ‘unscrifulouse Gawler’ would be. Out of the incult wantonings of a Punjabi Mahommedan with a box of type, had been bom the suggestions of three Brilliant Notions, did any man care to use them, exactly as ideas for patterns are conveyed to the designer by the chance-ruled twists of the Kaleidescope.
As the Reader was pondering these things, the Revelation smote him between the eyes. The world is very old, and men have been misprinting for more than four hundred years. Who then was the man who, greatly daring, had already utilized misprints. Who but the author of ‘Through the Looking glass’? The Reader turned hastily to the book and read slowly, aloud to himself, the opening verse of that coruscation of genius — Jabberwocky.
‘This thing,’ argued the Reader, full of the new light, ‘was not made by Lewis Carroll. Else would a humble fellow-craftsman hear faintly but none the less clearly, the creaking of the machinery. This thing must have been found by him — a diamond all but clear, and needing only a few polishings, to sparkle on the band on the Crown of Absurdity for ever.’ The Reader consulted the rough-proof in his hand, and thought of the ideas that had been suggested to him thereby.
‘Had Lewis Carroll not been first in the field in that line, I could have made something good of the Oern Vent — an epic perhaps — and all from the first sentence of an ordinary newspaper-article. What Lewis Carroll did must have been this. He must have seen the rough proof of a very vilely written poem and — used it bodily for Jabberwocky. Perhaps, knowing the value of misprints, he made the printer drunk beforehand. The question therefore is, what is the poem that underlies the Jabberwocky?’ The Reader addressed himself to finding it, and his patience was rewarded. His business was to discover the foundation, the bed-rock, whereon the supremely crazy structure had been built — the matrix whence the diamond had been drawn — the writing of the palimpsest (a manuscript in which words have been rubbed out to make room for new ones) .
There are certain rules which regulate the incidence and nature of misprints. These rules, which vary with every type of calligraphy, had first to be discovered and then applied by the Reader to a poem written out in all varieties of hand-writing. Word by word and line by line, came to the surface, as a dead man’s face rises through dark water, the original poem. Lo! Under the cap and bells of Folly, lay the drawn face of human woe, the oldest sorrow of all time. The Reader was filled with remorse for his impertinent curiosity. See now, how the first verse of the reconstructed poem runs, and you will admit that he had reason for his shame. But first let me give the opening stanza of Jabberwocky: —
’T was brillig and the slithy tovesBearing that in mind, read this: —
’T is fitting Arthur slight thy love,A word of explanation is necessary. The first two lines, you will see, are addressed by some happy girl, rich in Arthur’s love, to a proud and passionate woman with a past, a widow, or a mistress betrayed if the allusion to ‘gyve and gin’ have any meaning. Hear the latter’s wailing protest against the hardships of Destiny that fills the last two lines. The memory of those fair days when yet she was all in all to Arthur drives her to meet inevitable scorn, bitter woman’s scorn from Arthur’s bride. On this splendidly dramatic situation the key-note of the verses is struck, and the pitch of passion is sustained throughout. You may, as the Reader did, reconstruct it for yourself. Yes, the whole of Jabberwocky hides a priceless poem, the record of a soul’s tragedy mangled in the first instance by a drunken printer and, in its mutilated form, used with the insight of genius, by Mr Lewis Carroll.
Great Literature! What would he not have produced from the errors of a Punjabi compositor?