Poem of the Week

“A Boat, Beneath a Sunny Sky” by Lewis Carroll

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

(1871, Through the Looking-Glass)

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In “A Boat, Beneath a Sunny Sky,” Carroll conveys the implacability of time through images of its consequences—the “pal[ing]” of a “sunny sky,” the changing of a season, and the loss of wonder or innocence that often accompanies the transition to adulthood. The acrostic formed in the poem reveals that this insight sprung from an intimate seed, as it points to “Alice Pleasance Liddell,” the child who was once his muse. As one of the “children” who raptly listened to his “tale[s],” he witnessed her “eager eye and willing ear” be “slain” by the “Autumn frosts” of adolescence. He is now “haunt[ed]” by the ghost of her childhood self, and aches to realize that he won’t ever again see this Alice with “waking eyes.”

Carroll attempts to find solace in reminding himself that there will be more children to fill his “boat” and hear his stories. But he realizes that just as Alice shed her youth, these children will also inevitably “[drift] down the stream” from “Wonderland” to adulthood. The passage of time is water that flows and brings forth life’s vessel, leaving “golden” summers of youth to “fade” into “memories” that will eventually “die.” In the last verse, Carroll hauntingly echoes the nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” thus implying that this certain reality is as consuming and irrepressible as “a dream.”

Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of Charles Dodgson, an English mathematician, logician, photographer, Anglican deacon, and writer. His literary works reveal a remarkable grasp of word play, fantasy, and logic. Carroll’s writing career was greatly influenced by his relationship with the Liddell family. The tales he told on a boat ride with three of the Liddell children, including Alice, would become the basis for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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3 Responses to “A Boat, Beneath a Sunny Sky” by Lewis Carroll

  1. Davis Enloe says:

    It is impossible for me to read this poem and not offer up some of Wordsworth’s lines: “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream,” from, of course, his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The two poems are interesting in contrast, with Carroll mourning the loss of childhood though he projects onto the children that hear his stories but grow up, or have their Autumn frosts . . . slain, while Wordsworth cuts more directly to the chase by mourning the loss of his own childhood throughout and coming to a an adult acceptance of life. Carroll, for all his observation of the loss the children experience, seems to be making a point about what he personally feels about his own loss of childhood and the perplexity of life’s meaning with his last line, “Life, what is it but a dream?” I like truncating the last line to “Life, what is it . . . ?,” my point being that we all feel—OK, maybe not everybody, but it consoles me and apparently it consoled Carroll, to think that most everybody mourns for the loss of childhood, that time when we didn’t have the time to question our cosmic identities and just were. Interesting, that Carroll’s last line is presented as a question, leaving the poem open ended.

  2. I understand what this poem means, but couldnt it also mean that even if your awake of asleep of even on a boat beneath the sun that seasons still change and time still passes. I just kinda looked at this in a diffrent sorda way

  3. Pingback: The Playful Acrostic | Writers Alliance of Gainesville

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