I Am the Walrus
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Lewis Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, became famous for his experimental writing in the 1800s. Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are two of the most famous pieces of children's literature written to date. His personal life was shrouded in myth and mystery. Some theorized that he was a pedophile because of his obsession with little girls, but others dispute this evidence. Many people see Carroll's literature as being heavily influenced by drugs, like opium, but Lennon's biographer states that his profound visions came from "stimulants no stronger than weak China tea and cucumber sandwiches."
Carroll was also famous for his absurd wordplay and use of portmanteaus. A portmanteau is a blend of two words to make a new word; some of the most common ones that we use today are "smog" (from smoke + fog), "blog" (from web + log), "infomercial" (from information + commercial), etc. Carroll also invented tons of new words in his poems. Take Carroll's famous poem "Jabberwocky," for example:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
As you can see, even though the words are absurd, they somehow make a kind of sense. Just based on the sonic quality of the words and the similarities to real speech, it sounds to us like he's talking about the brilliant coves, the waves, and the creatures who live there. But honestly, these words can mean anything you want them to. They invite you to conjure up a variety of imaginative creatures. Lennon's wordplay in "I Am the Walrus" clearly echoes Carroll's style (and "crabalocker fishwife" sounds a lot like "Jabberwocky" itself, we might add). A more direct influence on the song, Carroll's poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," was recited to Alice by Tweedledee and Tweedledum. In the Disney movie version, it was put to song.
The line, "see how they fly like pigs from a gun, see how they run," is a combination of two different ideas. In the poem, "The Walrus and The Carpenter," the Walrus at one point asks the oysters a number of nonsense questions:
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."
So there's your flying pig imagery. Meanwhile, the second half of the line comes from the old nursery rhyme "Three Blind Mice," which repeats "see how they run" over and over again. The entire song is laced in childhood imagery, with references to gross-out playground songs and pictures that can only be created in the imagination. As far as the rest of the lyrics go, Lennon's biographer puts it best:
"John's own current lifestyle is there; too, drenched in the same contempt as everything else, from 'sitting in an English garden' to 'singing Hare Krishna' and even 'Lucy in the sky': no longer a riverbank goddess but an inciter of urban mayhem. The forces of censorship are challenged with 'stupid bloody Tuesday,' 'pornographic priestess,' and (God save us) 'you let your knickers down.' The 'expert texperts,' agog for hidden meaning, get 'sitting on a cornflake,' 'corporation t-shirts,' 'crabalocker fishwife,' 'elementary penguin,' and 'semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower,' with a recurrent lapse into pure baby-talk ('goo goo g'joob') lest they be in any doubt that 'the joker laughs at you.' Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the other insistent refrain through this aria of fury and derision is 'I'm crying.'"
Like Lewis Carroll, John Lennon understood the power of words, even nonsense words, to profoundly affect people. Just one word can change the whole course of a person's life. Interestingly, when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, their conversation goes as follows:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."
Lennon's lyrics may not always make literal sense, but this song still manages to communicate to its listeners on their own terms. It is a hodge-podge of images, scenes, moods, characters, and colors, which come together to form its unique personality.