Phantasmagoria

On the 150th Anniversary of one of Lewis Carroll’s lesser known works.

Phantasmagoria is Lewis Carroll’s longest poem, weighing in at 140 verses with five lines per verse, as opposed to The Hunting of the Snark, which has one more verse but in which each verse consists only of four lines. All things considered, I prefer the Snark, but Phantasmagoria has its own charms.

The title comes from a popular 18th and 19th century form of theatre entertainment whereby ghostly apparitions are formed. Charles Dodson was very fond of theatre and of magic and so one can easily imagine him linking the two for his own poem. I suspect he also enjoyed the opportunity to put his own stamp on the taxonomy and hierarchy of ghosts, poking a little gentle fun at both the classification systems used by biologists and the hierarchical system of ranking angels promoted by the church.

Though not gaining the popularity of Alice in Wonderland among those people fond of mind altering substances, Phantasmagoria does, as I have noted in various fanzines, find a home with Frances Monkman of the bands Curved Air and Sky. Curved Air’s third album stole the title and some of the feeling of the poem, as Monkman played around with running Sonja Kristina’s voice through an EMS Synthi 100 synthesiser on the following verse which comes straight from Carroll’s poem:

“Oh, when I was a little Ghost,
      A merry time had we!
Each seated on his favourite post,
We chumped and chawed the buttered toast
      They gave us for our tea.”

As illustrated above the poem is made up of quintains with an abaab rhyme scheme. Carroll plays with us by really forcing some of the rhymes. Much as Tom Lehrer would later torture us with cheating rhyming “And you might have thought it tragic/ Not to mention other adjec/tives to think of all the weeping they will do.” Carroll hits us with:

“I’ve tried it, and can only say
      I’m sure you couldn’t do it, e-
ven if you practised night and day,
Unless you have a turn that way,
      And natural ingenuity.

He also teases us into expecting a rhyme. In the following verse you’d rhyme “your” with “door”, “more” and “snore” but, in doing so, we fall into Carroll’s trap because he’s actually rhyming “Curtail your [yer]” with “failure”

If after this he says no more,
      You’d best perhaps curtail your
Exertions—go and shake the door,
And then, if he begins to snore,
      You’ll know the thing’s a failure.

The rhymes can also give us a clearer idea of pronunciations in Victorian England. A limerick that has long bothered me – not, I hasten to add, attributable to Lewis Carroll – is:

There once was a lass from Madras
Who had a remarkable ass
Not rounded and pink
As you probably think
It was grey had long ears and ate grass.

To get this to rhyme, you have to pronounce “grass” in n American accent. Otherwise you have to pronounce “ass” as “arse”, which rather spoils the limerick. Carroll’s verse below suggests that “asses” should be pronounced “arses” or that “glasses” shouldn’t be pronounced “glarses”. It’s all rather confusing to one like me who still pronounces “graph” as “grarf”.

With that he struck the board a blow
      That shivered half the glasses.
“Why couldn’t you have told me so
Three quarters of an hour ago,
      You prince of all the asses?

Another rhyme shows how American English retained older English pronunciations. I’d heard the term “vittles”, often in Westerns, referring to food, and I’d seen written the term “victuals” referring to food. The rhyme in the verse below makes the connection easier to follow, though using the term in the singular.

And certainly you’ve given me
      The best of wine and victual—
Excuse my violence,” said he,
“But accidents like this, you see,
     They put one out a little.”

Carroll is fairly consistent in his rhythm scheme. First lines are iambic tetrameters while most “b” lines are iambic trimeters . This gives the poem a jaunty pace contrasting the supposed gravity of the subject matter. (Can we blame Carroll for Casper the Friendly Ghost?)

The poem is divided into Cantos, unlike the Hunting of the Snark which is an agony in eight fits. These cantos are named in mock Olde English, perhaps in a wry reference to Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. In structure they more or less follow the standard steps in plot development:
Canto 1: The Trystyng –
a planned meeting or assignation which acts as the introduction.
Canto 2: Hys Fyve Rules – developing our understanding of the characters.
Canto 3. Scarmoges – Obsolete form of skirmish hence the conflict in the plot.
Canto 4. Hys Nouryture food an expository lump that does not really serve to advance the plot.
Canto 5. Byckerment continuing to develop the conflict.
Canto 6. Dyscomfyture the denoument.
Canto 7. Sad Souvenaunce an epilogue.

Thus the poem justifies itself as an epic.

But what of the content of the poem? Well it does seem to build on the Victorian fascination with ghosts and the afterlife. Charles Dickens had mined this vein in A Christmas Carol in 1843 and there are marked similarities between how Scrooge encounters with his three ghosts and how Mr Tibbets encounters his. Whereas Dickens’ ghosts are thoroughly serious, Carroll’s are more figures of fun. There’s no real suggestion that the ghosts in Phantasmagoria are the spirits of the departed, more that they are part of a whole realm of alternative beings.

The content of the poem allows Carroll free rein with his puns. Carroll had an attack of cognitive dissonance when it comes to puns. In the first place he opening states his disapproval of the process, both in The Hunting of the Snark: “It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed
And always looks grave at a pun.”
Given that Phantasmagoria deals with refugees from the grave, can we forgive mention of a ghost whose choice of lodgings is influenced by the quality of the fortified wine to be found therein – the Inn Spectre.

“Port-wine, he says, when rich and sound,
      Warms his old bones like nectar:
And as the inns, where it is found,
Are his especial hunting-ground,
      We call him the Inn-Spectre.”
I bore it—bore it like a man—
      This agonizing witticism!

Carroll also provides a quotation, attributed to Dr Johnson
“He did it just for punning’s sake:
‘The man,’ says Johnson, ‘that would make
      A pun, would pick a pocket!’”

Are we then to assume that, along with his other conjuring tricks, the Reverend Charles Dodgson was an accomplished pick pocket? The prosecution’s case can be proved with the following:

Union is strength, I’m bound to say;
In fact, the thing’s as clear as day;
 But onions are a weakness.”

Carroll’s interest in the theatre and its effects manifests itself in several ways in the poem. There is a single word reference to the Brocken Spectre when the ghost is explaining the nature of the Inn Spectre:

“ He tried the Brocken business first,
But caught a sort of chill.”

This phenomenon would have been of the type to catch Carroll’s eye. I’d never encountered it and so I typed it into Wikipedia, with the following result:

The Brocken Spectre
The “spectre” appears when the sun shines from behind the observer, who is looking down from a ridge or peak into mist or fog. The light projects their shadow through the mist, often in a triangular shape due to perspective.
The apparent magnification of size of the shadow is an optical illusion that occurs when the observer judges his or her shadow on relatively nearby clouds to be at the same distance as faraway land objects seen through gaps in the clouds, or when there are no reference points by which to judge its size. The shadow also falls on water droplets of varying distances from the eye, confusing depth perception. The ghost can appear to move (sometimes suddenly) because of the movement of the cloud layer and variations in density within the cloud.

I can’t help but see a reflection of this in the final section from The Hunting of the Snark, where the Baker is last seen, having located the phantom for which they are searching

“They beheld him – their Baker – their hero unnamed –
On top of a neighbouring crag,”

Carroll loved demonstrating optical illusions to his child friends and so I’m sure this would have gained his interest.

Further theatrical references are seem when the ghost talks of other ghosts haunting battlements, much as Hamlet’s father does.

“Shakspeare I think it is who treats
      Of Ghosts, in days of old,
Who ‘gibbered in the Roman streets,’
Dressed, if you recollect, in sheets—
      They must have found it cold.”

And

“I’ve often sat and howled for hours,
Drenched to the skin with driving showers,
Upon a battlement.”

Carroll was never averse to tuckerisations, putting himself and others he knew into his works. In this poem, John Ruskin gets a mention:

“That narrow window, I expect,
      Serves but to let the dusk in—”
“But please,” said I, “to recollect
’Twas fashioned by an architect
      Who pinned his faith on Ruskin!”

This could be a wry dig at Ruskin who was, it appears, just as enamored of young Alice Liddell as was Dodgson himself (and with equal lack of success with Dean & Mrs Liddell’s approval)

Her [Alice Liddell’s] post-Wonderland career was as unfulfilled as Dodgson’s. She continued to inspire hopeless romance. John Ruskin had a dalliance with her that was interrupted by her parents.” [1]

Carroll was also a keen critic of poor architecture and created a wonderfully wry critique of the new bell tower in his monograph “The New Belfry of Christ Church Oxford”. Here he perpetrates one of his finest puns. Given the pedagogical purpose of Christ Church, he decides that the shape of the belfry is perfect, as the moment someone sets their eyes on it for the fist time, they are moved to utter “Thou teachest.”

One would, of course, be surprised to find mathematics absent from anything that Carroll had a hand in, and there are no such surprises in Phantasmagoria. Rather than simply refer to his host as a brick (a solid dependable fellow) the Ghost has to embellish the comment with a mathematical reference, which manages to maintain the rhyme and rhythm scheme of the verse:

The hues of life are dull and gray,
      The sweets of life insipid,
When thou, my charmer, art away—
Old Brick, or rather, let me say,
      Old Parallelepiped!’

For those who have forgotten their geometry of solids, a brick is a rectangular cuboid, having six rectangular faces this being a specific case of parallelepiped, a polyhedron with six faces, each of which is a parallelogram which is a quadrilateral with two pairs of parallel sides, parallel being…but you get my drift.

Carroll also poses us a problem in arithmetic, after his protagonist has been struck on the nose by a bottle thrown by his Ghost, who appears to have some of the attributes of a poltergeist.

And I remember nothing more
      That I can clearly fix,
Till I was sitting on the floor,
Repeating “Two and five are four,
      But five and two are six.”

My mathematical skills are not quite up to dealing with theorems in which addition is not commutative, let along why neither equation seems to give a correct answer. If this travels in the direction of non-Euclidian geometry then I’m happy to hear the explanation, and while you are at it, there’s a little matter of explaining to me the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Carroll’s protagonist has equivalent difficulty in explaining his situation to the Ghost, which gives Carroll the opportunity to play around with another of his mathematical pursuits – logic puzzles:

But, keeping still the end in view
      To which I hoped to come,
I strove to prove the matter true
By putting everything I knew
      Into an axiom:

Commencing every single phrase
      With ‘therefore’ or ‘because,’
I blindly reeled, a hundred ways,
About the syllogistic maze,
      Unconscious where I was.

Carroll reveals his personal insecurities in one pair of verses aimed at those most limited of writers, the Critics but I take no umbrage from the Ghost’s explanation of the fate suffered by those ghosts found where they shouldn’t be:

The Fourth prohibits trespassing
      Where other Ghosts are quartered:
And those convicted of the thing
(Unless when pardoned by the King)
      Must instantly be slaughtered.

That simply means ‘be cut up small’:
      Ghosts soon unite anew.
The process scarcely hurts at all—
Not more than when you ’re what you call
      ‘Cut up’ by a Review.

The comparison of being cut up by a review with being slaughtered is surely telling.

And so, rather than inflict a posthumous slaughter on the Reverend Dodgson, allow me to conclude that, while I don’t hold Phantasmagoria in the esteem that I reserve for the two Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark, it is a cute piece of Victorian whimsy that deserves to be better known than it is. It displays Carroll’s wit and erudition and is a playful excursion into the world of the supernatural. If you haven’t read it, try it.

A Peppermint Frog Press Production, Completed February 26th 2019

[1] “The Story of Alice review – the worrying, winding road to Wonderland” Robert McCrum, The Guardian, 22/3/20


Marc Ortlieb is a current member of ANZAPA whose other science fiction activities tend to be limited to playing poker with other aging science fiction fans and helping to identify such fans in photographs from the 1980s. He has maintained his interest in Lewis Carroll and the works of Jefferson Airplane but otherwise is involved with a movement started by the son of one of Lewis Carroll’s mathematician colleagues at Oxford University.

The poem can be found at Project Gutenberg in Phantasmagoria and other Poems