They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
This passage, repeated several more times throughout the poem, functions as a kind of refrain. Harold Bloom has commented:
One feels that [stanza] is the heart of the matter, but what is the matter? “It” presumably is the Snark, but what is that? The distinguished poet-exegete John Hollander usefully replies “female sexuality,” but that seems only partly appropriate…
The American Reader adds:
Over the years, the meaning of Carroll’s “Snark” has been much debated. Carroll, though, avoided explaining his work, for “a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant,” and he often chose answers that were even more nonsensical than the original work. To the question, though—“What is the Snark?”—Carroll’s answer was almost always the same: “I don’t know.”
The Reader goes on to reprint the following 1897 letter by Carroll (a.k.a. C. L. Dodgson) to one of his child friends, Mary Barber:
To Mary Barber
The Chestnuts, Guildford
January 12, 1897
My dear Mary,
In answer to your question, “What did you mean the Snark was?” will you tell your friend that I meant that the Snark was a Boojum. I trust that she and you will now feel quite satisfied and happy.
To the best of my recollection, I had no other meaning in my mind, when I wrote it: but people have since tried to find the meanings in it. The one I like best (which I think is partly my own) is that it may be taken as an Allegory for the Pursuit of Happiness. The characteristic “ambition” works well into this theory—and also its fondness for bathing-machines, as indicating that the pursuer of happiness, when he has exhausted all other devices, betakes himself, as a last and desperate resource, to some such wretched watering-place as Eastbourne, and hopes to find, in the tedious and depressing society of the daughters of mistresses of boarding-schools, the happiness he has failed to find elsewhere.
With every good wish for your happiness, and for the priceless boon of health also, I am
Always affectionately yours,
Could “happiness” be the meaning of the mysterious “it”?
To help improve the meaning of these lyrics, visit “The Hunting of the Snark” by Lewis Carroll and leave a comment on the lyrics box