Posted by: emmajem | December 11, 2012

A Portrait of the Artist: Mis-Recitations in Wonderland

Today I just want to discuss an idea that wandered through my head when I was reading the Alice stories for last week.  It might simply be because I have been reading Joyce, but I interpreted Alice’s garbled recitations in a very specific way.

One of the running jokes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is Alice’s inability to correctly recite the poems she learned in the real world.  She tries to give a poem to just about everyone she meets in Wonderland, and each instance is the opportunity for a wonderful display of Carroll’s parodic pen.  Thinking of it in the context of the story, each garbled poem reminds me very much of the opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I will quote the very beginning for you simply because it is so lovely:

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . . .

“His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

“He was baby tuckoo.  The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms

On the little green place.

“He sang that song.  That was his song.

O, the geen wothe botheth.”

Joyce is presenting a much earlier time of childhood (this is supposed to be the earliest memory of the novel’s hero, Stephen Dedalus), and his style is vastly different from Carroll’s.  But they both have their child-hero do the same thing.  For here Stephen, like Alice, is garbling a recitation.  “O, the geen wothe botheth” is “O, the wild rose blossoms” mimicked with a child’s lisp.  But the difference comes not only from the child’s inability to quite speak yet–how “geen” logically comes from “wild” is a mystery.  Thus this “recitation” of Stephen’s becomes his own very early interpretation of a poem–perhaps it could be called the first poem of this artist as a (very) young man.  Thus Joyce presents mis-recitation as the first stage to creation (a thought curiously in line with Harold Bloom’s proposal that every piece of literature is an intentional mis-reading of the masterpieces that came before).

With this in mind, I cannot help but read Alice’s mis-recitations as her own artistic creations, and to see her thus presented as on the first step toward becoming a writer.  The plot thickens when we reach Through the Looking Glass, however, for as the mirror through which Alice steps reverses everything in her in-book reality, it also reverses most of the narrative structure that came before in Wonderland.  Whereas Alice was wandering around reciting parodic poetry to everyone she met in the first book, in the second she is wandering around and is forced to listen to poetry recited by just about every character she meets.  In addition, most of these poems seem to be pure creations from Carroll rather than parodies of other poems.  This switch divests Alice of her creative power and transforms her from a (mis)writer to a reader.  I find the move curiously indicative of Carroll’s own attitude toward writing.  While Alice is still (mostly) a child, she is presented as creative enough to produce something artistic, even if it is parody.  When she is on her journey to growing into a queen–the symbol for her coming of age–she loses that creative spark, and becomes a reader.  Carroll is suggesting that a true writer is always a child, and thus gives us the only portrait of the artist Alice we shall ever see– as a (very) young woman.


  1. I think as we age we loose some of our creativity, we are no longer active players, our games change. I used to pretend I was a genie, and my sister and I would spend hours using our imagination, creating stories. That stopped at a certain age.

  2. It is hard to retain a childlike innocence when one feels forced to bear the brunt of society’s expectations. Thus, I can understand what Carroll is suggesting through the use of Alice forgetting the poetic lines and eventually (in Through the Looking Glass) being bombarded by society’s ideas. Yet I feel at the same time, when exposed to different ideas and opinions, one is able to further cultivate his or her mind instead of looking at things with just one perspective. However, I do agree that by amending your opinion, you lose your initial (childlike) interpretations of it. Although Carroll seems to mourn this process, I feel it is a necessary asset to maturity.

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