Cabbages and Kings

Cabbages and Kings

This week’s poem is “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) and marks his 190th birthday.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—

Lewis Carroll (1832—1898)

Poem 252. The Walrus and the Carpenter

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done—
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun!”
The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead—
There were no birds to fly.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “It would be grand!”
“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”
The Walrus did beseech.
“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.”
The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head—
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.
But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat—
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.
Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more—
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.
“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.”
“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed—
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”
“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?”
“It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf—
I’ve had to ask you twice!”
“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter's spread too thick!”
“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

This is another example of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse—it appears in chapter four of “Through the Looking-Glass” and is recited to Alice by Tweedledum and Tweedledee. It tells the story of two ne’er-do-wells who persuade a horde of innocent young oysters to accompany them on a walk along the beach before sitting down for a rest and eating them all.

Carroll starts with a typically surreal image—the moon sulking and complaining because the sun is shining in the middle of the night. The scene is set on a beach with a cloudless and birdless sky, and the Walrus and the Carpenter appear at first to be distressed at the huge quantity of sand and speculating as to the difficulty of clearing it all away.

Discovering an oyster bed, the Walrus begs the occupants to join him and his friend for a stroll along the beach. The eldest oyster suspects their intentions and replies in the negative, but his younger companions rush to join the “treat” four at a time (as suggested by the Walrus) until there is quite a throng of well-dressed young oysters around the two.

The Walrus and the Carpenter walk along the strand with their companions and then stop for a rest that is apparently much appreciated by the oysters; the Walrus begins a speech that is perhaps leading up to his intentions towards his young companions and which has been used or referenced quite often in popular culture, but is interrupted by the oysters who are still breathing heavily. The Carpenter is in no hurry, it seems.

Disregarding the interruption, the Walrus begins to enumerate the ingredients needed for a meal: bread, pepper and vinegar—all good accompaniments for a dish of oysters, who now realise the depth of their predicament and protest. However, the only voices in the rest of the poem are those of the Walrus and the Carpenter, who sort the oysters by size before consuming them all with bread and butter.

The poem has been interpreted in many ways by those seeking meaning amongst the nonsense—this is perhaps because it seems to make a kind of sense, whereas Jabberwocky does not and therefore doesn’t prompt the same kind of analysis. The presence of a Carpenter has been viewed as a Christian allegory though according to the Wikipedia article on the poem, Carroll offered his illustrator—the artist John Tenniel, whose drawings became synonymous with Alice and Wonderland—the choice of a carpenter, a butterfly or a baronet, each of which would fit with the poem’s metre.

I like it because of the almost psychedelic nature of the imagery, and the Walrus’s speech (“The time has come…to talk of many things”). I have also used the line “answer came there none” on occasion.


  • Read about the poem at Wikipedia.
  • Listen to Sir John Gielgud’s performance (and see John Tenniel’s illustrations) on YouTube.