Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
- Welcome to the vocab-roller-coaster that is this detailed summary. A big part of understanding "Jabberwocky" just has to do with playing around with the language and trying to find different ways of placing the nonsense words into the rest of the poem. Let's begin.
- 'Twas is not a nonsense word – it's just an old contraction for the words "it was."
- But what about brillig? Well, we might be able to parse this by trying to figure out what it sounds like. Brillig sounds a little like…Brillo Pads. But that's probably not it. What else? How about brilliant? Maybe it's "it was brilliant," like a nice day, with warm sun. We'll go with that for now.
- But then we get slithy toves. Slithy sounds like slimy, maybe, or sly. And toves? A little like groves, but slimy groves? Could be – after all, we're in Wonderland. Maybe these are bizarre trees. They could also be bizarre creatures. We can't make heads or tails of it, yet.
- Now how about gyre and gimble? What do those words sound like? Well we can't help but think gyre is a lot like gyrate, which means to move around in a kind of circle. You know, like swinging your hips at a dance. And gimble? Sounds a bit like nimble, but in the context of the line, it's a verb. You can't "nimble" in anything.
- But you can be nimble! So maybe these trees – or creatures – are dancing nimbly around.
- That would give us a kind of fantasy pastoral scene (i.e., a nature passage in which everything seems more or less peaceful).
- This scene seems picturesque, even. Well, except for the fact that we can't quite picture anything here. And that's hard, but it's also part of the magic of the piece. These things can be, to a certain degree, whatever you want them to be, which is why it's so important to play with the language and have fun with it.
- What about wabe? Maybe wood. Or wave, although it doesn't seem like we are in the ocean. This might be some mystery term for the landscape, because the wabe is the place in which all this is going on. Without getting hung up on any of these made-up words, let's keep going and see if we can make sense of the poem as a whole.
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
- Oh dear. Mimsy? Borogoves? Mome raths? We'll go one at a time here.
- Mimsy sounds a little like whimsy, and since it's being used as an adjective here, maybe it means whimsical. This would make sense in context, as the whole thing is whimsical, which means "based in fantasy." Mimsy also sounds…light, like flimsy. Not weak, necessarily, but airy, perhaps.
- So what's mimsy modifying, then? Borogoves. Hmm. Sounds like some kind of grove, but not quite. Maybe it's another kind of tree. A tall, willowy one perhaps. Or maybe it's another creature, like a spindly bird or something. It could be any number of things.
- Then mome raths. Since it's not one word, we might be able to assume that mome is an adjective and then raths is another noun. Mome looks (and sounds) like mum, which means "silent." Or it could be something more like numb. Either way, there's a quietness about it.
- And raths? Another mystery – maybe rats. Or wreaths. It doesn't feel quite like a plant, however, because of the adjective mome. We think it's somewhat likely that raths are some kind of animal.
- And what are these mystery creatures doing? Outgrabe-ing. Apparently. The word out is right in there, so maybe calling out? Making some kind of noise?
- In any case, these two lines also hold up to a kind of ridiculous pastoral. We have animals and/or plants, doing things in a peaceful scene. We just have no real idea how to visualize any of it.