Analysis of “The Mad Gardener’s Song” Poem by Lewis Carroll

Sylvie and Bruno“The Mad Gardener’s Song” by Lewis Carroll is a nonsense poem about seeing something and then looking again and seeing something completely different. Like Jabberwocky, the poem is meant to provide humor simply for the purpose of being entertaining. However, there are some situations throughout the writing which have satire about people the speaker doesn’t like (sister’s husband’s niece, banker’s clerk, etc.).

“The Mad Gardener’s Song” was first published in “Sylvie and Bruno” in 1889. The “song” was essentially the only bright part of the book. Both Sylvie and Bruno had some popularity before the book was published as they appeared 20 years prior in Aunt Judy’s Magazine. However, the book received largely negative reviews and is almost completely unheard of today due to its lack of characteristically Carroll humor. The song gives some hints at certain points of the book for the children. But overall it’s just nonsense. The Gardener is not angry, he is perhaps a bit senile.

Let’s go ahead and go over a summary of Lewis Carroll’s “The Mad Gardener’s Song” and then have a look at some figurative language she uses and an analysis of the poem.

Summary

The poem occurs in “Sylvie and Bruno” throughout much of the book. The gardener sings the song when the children and professor are near. However, it is actually split up and not a complete poem all at once. He is saying it piece by piece in response to whatever the children and professor are speaking about at the moment.

Most of the song is simply nonsense and doesn’t have much meaning even in the book other than one line referencing something like his looks or something he wants or something that already happened. The “thought he saw” and “looked again” portions of the song are literally said because the children are looking for him and he’s just joking around, being irritating towards them. However, not always. Other parts are simply something that he wants the children to do, like leave. Or he is referencing something someone said like rule of threes. Towards the end of the poem you can see the change into talking about the door that the children are looking for.

Analysis

Title: The Mad Gardener’s Song
Style: Nine stanzas (6 lines each)
Theme: Nonsense
Tone: Humor
Rhyme scheme: ABCBDB

Line-by-line Analysis and Figurative Language

    • He thought he saw an Elephant, / That practised on a fife: / He looked again, and found it was / A letter from his wife. / ‘At length I realise,’ he said, / The bitterness of Life!’ – This part of the song is sang for when the first time children see the gardener. The Gardener is exclaiming he looks like an elephant. A “fife” is another name for flute.
    • He thought he saw a Buffalo / Upon the chimney-piece: / He looked again, and found it was / His Sister’s Husband’s Niece. / ‘Unless you leave this house,’ he said, / “I’ll send for the Police!’ – This is sung while the children are inside a railway-carriage.
    • He thought he saw a Rattlesnake / That questioned him in Greek: / He looked again, and found it was / The Middle of Next Week. // ‘The one thing I regret,’ he said, / ‘Is that it cannot speak!’ – This portion is stated after Vice-Warden and “my-lady” returned looking younger than ever. The two people are bit of criminals in the story, thus the snake reference. The middle of next week could be a reference to their age.
    • He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk / Descending from the bus: / He looked again, and found it was / A Hippopotamus. / ‘If this should stay to dine,’ he said, / ‘There won’t be much for us!’ – This is sung in response to the Baron who is speaking about being a war hero. However, the Gardener sings and basically just called him a fat hippo.
    • He thought he saw a Kangaroo / That worked a coffee-mill: / He looked again, and found it was / A Vegetable-Pill. / ‘Were I to swallow this,’ he said, / ‘I should be very ill!’ – Swallowing the vegetable pill was in reference to making the beggar eat.
    • He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four / That stood beside his bed: / He looked again, and found it was / A Bear without a Head. / ‘Poor thing,’ he said, ‘poor silly thing! /It’s waiting to be fed!’ – “Coach-and-Four” is a type of stagecoach. In this song, the Gardener is just having fun with the children.
    • He thought he saw an Albatross / That fluttered round the lamp: / He looked again, and found it was / A Penny-Postage Stamp. / ‘You’d best be getting home,’ he said: / ‘The nights are very damp!’ – This is one of the more meaningful stanzas. Albatross can be in reference to Bruno, the little boy who was the heir to the kingdom.
    • He thought he saw a Garden-Door / That opened with a key: / He looked again, and found it was / A Double Rule of Three: / ‘And all its mystery,’ he said, / ‘Is clear as day to me!’ – The “rule of three” is a math theory that things are best when in threes or divided by threes. It’s quite common in literature and photography as well. In this case, the double rule of three is referencing about three locks. The Gardener tried to open the door by unlocking only the two smaller locks and not the top lock.
    • He thought he saw a Argument / That proved he was the Pope: / He looked again, and found it was / A Bar of Mottled Soap. / ‘A fact so dread,’ he faintly said, / ‘Extinguishes all hope!’ – He’s saying that he thought he was the Pope for a second but then realized he isn’t.

Poem: “The Mad Gardener’s Song” by Lewis Carroll

He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
‘At length I realise,’ he said,
The bitterness of Life!’

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister’s Husband’s Niece.
‘Unless you leave this house,’ he said,
“I’ll send for the Police!’

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
‘The one thing I regret,’ he said,
‘Is that it cannot speak!’

He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
A Hippopotamus.
‘If this should stay to dine,’ he said,
‘There won’t be much for us!’

He thought he saw a Kangaroo
That worked a coffee-mill:
He looked again, and found it was
A Vegetable-Pill.
‘Were I to swallow this,’ he said,
‘I should be very ill!’

He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
That stood beside his bed:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bear without a Head.
‘Poor thing,’ he said, ‘poor silly thing!
It’s waiting to be fed!’

He thought he saw an Albatross
That fluttered round the lamp:
He looked again, and found it was
A Penny-Postage Stamp.
‘You’d best be getting home,’ he said:
‘The nights are very damp!’

He thought he saw a Garden-Door
That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
A Double Rule of Three:
‘And all its mystery,’ he said,
‘Is clear as day to me!’

He thought he saw a Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
‘A fact so dread,’ he faintly said,
‘Extinguishes all hope!’

Reader’s Reaction

Lewis Carroll always seems like a strange fellow. His best poems seem to be about absolute nonsense. In this song he’s talking about elephants and soap in such a way that brings humor to all of us. We aren’t supposed to read much into what he says, but its interesting that the author speaks about certain things in such a way that makes us feel connected, happy, and entertained.

Gary R. Hess

Gary was born and raised on a small farm in rural Kansas. Today, he is teaching various nationalities English in Southeast Asia. Get his newest poetry eBook here.