All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little hands are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.
Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?
Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict 'to begin it':
In gentler tone Secunda hopes
'There will be nonsense in it!'
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.
Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast –
And half believe it true.
And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
To put the subject by,
'The rest next time –' 'It is next time!'
The happy voices cry.
Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out –
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.
Alice! A childish story take,
And, with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood's dreams are twined
In Memory's mystic band,
Like pilgrim's wither'd wreath of flowers
Pluck'd in a far-off land.
The epigraph to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is an original poem by Lewis Carroll himself. If you aren't "in the know" about the context in which he wrote this book, the poem probably seems vague and unclear. What's really going on? Well, Carroll began making up stories about the adventures of a fictional little girl named Alice in order to please three real-life little girls, Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell, who were the daughters of his friend and Oxford colleague, Dean Liddell.
The story goes that Dodgson, the three Liddell girls, and Dodgson's friend Reverend Duckworth (parodied as the Duck in Chapter 3) went on a boat trip up the river together on a summer afternoon in 1862. To amuse the little girls, Dodgson began telling silly stories about a pretend Alice, to the delight of the real Alice Liddell sitting in front of him. He continued telling these nonsense stories to the girls on several different occasions, and eventually he wrote them down in manuscript titled Alice's Adventures Underground.
Finally, in 1865, he published a revised version of this manuscript as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. In order to preserve some of the personal feel of the original oral stories for the Liddells, he composed this poem as an epigraph, telling the story of the trip along the river and explaining how the "the tale of Wonderland" grew "slowly, one by one" – which also explains why the story is episodic.
Child of the pure unclouded brow
And dreaming eyes of wonder!
Though time be fleet, and I and thou
Are half a life asunder,
Thy loving smile will surely hail
The love-gift of a fairy-tale.
I have not seen thy sunny face,
Nor heard thy silver laughter:
No thought of me shall find a place
In thy young life's hereafter –
Enough that now thou wilt not fail
To listen to my fairy-tale.
A tale begun in other days,When summer suns were glowing –
A simple chime, that served to time
The rhythm of our rowing –
Whose echoes live in memory yet,
Though envious years would say 'forget.'
Come, hearken then, ere voice of dread,With bitter tidings laden,
Shall summon to unwelcome bed
A melancholy maiden!
We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near.
Without, the frost, the blinding snow,
The storm-wind's moody madness –
Within, the firelight's ruddy glow,
And childhood's nest of gladness.
The magic words shall hold thee fast:
Thou shalt not heed the raving blast.
And though the shadow of a sigh
May tremble through the story,
For 'happy summer days' gone by,
And vanish'd summer glory –
It shall not touch with, breath of bale,
The pleasance of our fairy-tale.
Just as he did for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll composed an original poem as the epigraph to Through the Looking-Glass. However, while the epigraph to the first book tells the story of how Carroll composed the Wonderland stories to amuse the real-life Alice Liddell, the epigraph to the second book describes Carroll's sorrow at Alice's fleeting youth.
This poem is much more emotional and formal than the first epigraph; we might even call it sappy. Carroll uses antiquated language – "I and thou," "Thou shalt not heed," and "pleasance," for example – to give a sentimental tone to the poem, and we can feel his anxiety about the fact that the real-life Alice has grown up and that "childhood's nest of gladness" has given way to a "melancholy maiden."
However, the poem suggests that the book itself can preserve a feeling of childishness. The summer must give way to the winter, and people have to age, but this "shall not touch" the power of the fairy tale that Carroll composes in memory of the little girl he used to know. Not that she's died – but in his eyes, growing up is almost as bad.