The Bandersnatch and the Cummerbund are terrible creatures with gaping jaws and snapping teeth. Although the Bandersnatch’s list of killings has not been published by its creator, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear has been more forthcoming about his Cummerbund. That horrid monster — his deeds are documented in “The Cummerbund: An Indian Poem” — swallows the Lady Fair whole so that neither skin nor bone is left. Following the death, there is a general air of commiseration for the departed that does not preclude the sense that the lady richly deserved her fate for being such a mimsy.
That idle woman had done nothing but sit upon her “Dobie”, watching the evening star, while all around her the air (full of “Mussak”, probably mosquitoes) did swoon. Compare her with Lear’s “Young Lady of Norway”, who was squeezed flat by a door when she sat casually on the doorway. It must have been a tight squeeze since Lear’s illustration accompanying the limerick shows her with tongue hanging out and hands jutting out at odd angles. But the lady was nonplussed. “What of that?” she said, and thus earned the epithet, “This courageous Young Lady of Norway.”
In Lear’s poems, people are constantly being thumped, smashed, baked alive, devoured or choked to death. Death rarely elicits pity. More often, it generates glee. When characters survive the smashing or the baking, they are praised pithily, as the Young Lady of Norway is. This is a child’s eye view of the universe, where death is an absurdity that fells only weaklings. Faced with extinction, the brave and the adventurous exclaim, “What of that?”
The Romantic glorification of childhood had given way to a tendency to sentimentalize the child’s life in Victorian times. So Little Nell came trailing buckets of tears. In the hands of Lear and Carroll, childhood got back its wickedness, becoming a time of unabashed selfishness filled with violent dreams of adventure in which all villains are adults.
As the authors entered the child’s mind, words deadened by use began moulting and to leap and snarl and swish again. When names have not yet become stuck to the objects they denote — a unique freedom that only childhood offers — the universe jingles with possibilities. Take a few words in a jar, cut off one’s hand, snip off the other’s moustache, hack one’s legs, toss and mix, and lo, a wonderland is born. So Lear could make ‘cummerbund’, a word newly arrived from India, into a frumious monster while Carroll’s ‘mimsy’ from “Jabberwocky” — made by joining ‘flimsy’ and ‘miserable’ — could perfectly bring out the sense of swooning preciousness that neither word in itself could convey.
Don’t you think this is nonsense. If you do, the Bandersnatch may get you.