from The Atlantic
Released 50 years ago, “I Am the Walrus” is endlessly analyzable, and yet somehow analysis-proof.
“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
—Alice, upon first reading “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass
Inspired nonsense has held me in its spell for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a house full of books, I spent the most time with the ones that were seriously silly. I graduated from Dr. Seuss to The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, a well-thumbed Dover paperback adorned with Lear’s own absurd pen-and-ink drawings, so you could see just what he meant by the dolomphious duck and her runcible spoon. And I dove deep into The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner’s illuminating exposition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, its margins bursting with side notes that made the curious main text even curiouser.
The LP had lyrics for some of the songs in the gatefold, and I began studying them as the record played. Like Alice reading “Jabberwocky,” my head filled with half-formed ideas. I remember wishing that Martin Gardner had done for “I Am the Walrus” what he had for Carroll’s nonsense. In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty, that master of words, offers some dismissive explanations of “Jabberwocky” to Alice. But Gardner’s annotated version breaks out of the narrative walls with a flurry of commentary—24 numbered notes for “Jabberwocky” alone. So if you follow the note for uffish you can read what Carroll himself said about the word in a letter to a young friend: “It seemed to suggest a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish.”
“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.”A walrus expounding on the flying potential of pigs? That must have made as much of an impression on a young John Lennon as it did on me. In the lyrics, pigs are flying, or things are flying like pigs, just like Lucy in the sky. Or are they running? See how they run makes yet another link backwards to childhood, to the three blind mice running from the farmer’s wife. (Paul got in on the act in “Lady Madonna,” quoting See how they run to make a joke about how both children and stockings run.)