A boat, beneath a sunny sky
by Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898
As noted in my October 2015 Diary, November 26th 2015 saw the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, one of the greatest works of imaginative literature in the English language. The book was followed six years later by Through the Looking-Glass, in the same style.
The books and their author have been subject to a vast amount of commentary, research, analysis, and in the case of the author, psychoanalysis. All the essentials can be found in the various editions of Martin Gardner's "annotated Alice" books: The Annotated Alice (1960), More Annotated Alice (1990), and The Annotated Alice 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition. In what follows I have relied on the last one of those three books.
The poem I am reading was placed at the end of Through the Looking-Glass. Says Gardner:
In this terminal poem, one of Carroll's best, he recalls that July 4th boating expedition up the Thames on which he first told the story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to the three Liddell girls … The poem is an acrostic, the initial letters of the lines spelling Alice's full name.
The July 4th referred to was in 1862.
From elsewhere in Gardner's annotations:
Carroll recalls that "golden afternoon" in 1862 when he and his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth (then a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, later canon of Westminster) took the three charming Liddell sisters on a rowing expedition up the Thames. "Prima" was the eldest sister, Lorena Charlotte, age thirteen. Alice Pleasance, age ten, was "Secunda," and the youngest sister, Edith, age eight, was "Tertia." Carroll was then thirty. The date was Friday, July 4, "as memorable a day in the history of literature," W.H. Auden has observed, "as it is in American history."
The date may in fact be wrong. All the participants in the boat trip recalled the day as sunny and blazing hot, as in this poem. However:
When a check was made in 1950 with the London meteorological office (as reported in Helmut Gernsheim's Lewis Carroll: Photographer) records indicated that the weather near Oxford on July 4, 1862, was "cool and rather wet."
… … …
The question remains controversial, however. For a well-argued defense of the conjecture that the day may have been dry and sunny after all, see "The Weather on Alice in Wonderland Day, 4 July 1862," by H.B. Doherty, of the Dublin Airport, in Weather, Vol. 23 (February 1968), pages 75-78 …
I included that just to show the depth of scholarship that has by now accumulated around the Alice books. If you have an opinion about Carroll, or Alice, or the books, just be aware of the extreme unlikelihood that it's original. Every conceivable opinion has been aired, refuted, revived, and argued by generations of Carrollians.
"Life, what is it but a dream?" — This not only closes the poem perfectly, it also alludes to the dream-theme in the two books, e.g. beginning of Chapter Eight in Looking-Glass:
"So I wasn't dreaming after all," she said to herself, "unless — unless we're all part of the same dream. Only I do hope it's my dream and not the Red King's! I don't like belonging to another person's dream," she went on in a rather complaining tone: "I've a great mind to go and wake him, and see what happens!"
Here Carroll is mining an ancient and respectable line of metaphysical inquiry. Socrates in the Theatetus:
There are states, such as madness and dreaming, in which perception is false; and half our life is spent in dreaming; and who can say that at this instant we are not dreaming? Even the fancies of madmen are real at the time. But if knowledge is perception, how can we distinguish between the true and the false in such cases?
Zhuangzi, at the other end of the Eurasian landmass a century later:
Formerly, I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamt that I was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Zhou. Suddenly I awoke, and was myself again, the veritable Zhou. I did not know whether it had formerly been Zhou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Zhou. But between Zhou and a butterfly there must be a difference. This is a case of what is called the Transformation of Things.
I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in your dream.
The dream/reality ambiguity occasionally showed up in science fiction of the Golden Age. Without trying hard I can recall two stories on the theme: Mr & Mrs Henry Kuttner's A Wild Surmise (1953) and Rog Phillips' The Yellow Pill (1958). Presumably the late-20th-century idea that we are living in a computer simulation owes something to these speculations.
I'm not very receptive to this line of thinking. My own dreams, on the rare occasions I recall them, are fragmentary and chaotic. They have no internal logic, not even of the Carrollian type. They don't resemble reality at all.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear —
Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?