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Why We Can’t Live Without Nonsense Like Poetry


My second-grade students are memorizing the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carroll. It is largely comprised of made-up words that only make sense in context, and my students had a very similar response to Alice in Wonderland’s when they heard it.

‘It seems very pretty,” [Alice] said when she had finished reading 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! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate,’” she says in Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”

Poetry has an entire genre devoted to nonsense, and Carroll no doubt reveled in all manner of fantastical, impossible ideas, as the mere title of his first novel, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” indicates. But the words in nonsense literature should not be considered gibberish, for these kinds of writers draw on a vast knowledge of language and even mathematics to invent new words and worlds.

My students complained that almost all the adjectives and verbs in the poem are not even in the dictionary! Yet, when asked to tell what happened in the poem, they managed to come up with variations on the same tale: a brave (and arguably obtuse) knight in a spooky forest uses his vorpal sword to slay the strange and terrifying Jabberwock (whatever that is).

But What’s the Point of All This

Now, many people have a hard time finding the point of poetry, much less poetry that boasts of its nonsensical content, but poetry is the literature of compacted significance. Where the novelist uses a whole plot to unfold a few different ideas, the poet can bring whole traditions of thought into a few lines because of his freedom to assume that every poetic choice has great significance, only limited by the history of language and the reader’s imagination. Therefore, a poet takes great pains to find the perfect word and the perfect place for that word in the poem.

But, unlike the standard poet, the nonsense poet’s style is much less laborious. His process is free and easy because, as a writer of nonsense, he reserves the right to assume readers don’t fully comprehend every aspect of his meaning. Out of the inability to articulate an exact interpretation, we have the freedom to confidently assert truths about its objective meaning. Readers, then—especially young ones seeing it for the first time—get lost in wonderment at the ambiguous, foreign loveliness of the words and their success at communicating a story of good winning out over evil through courage, perseverance, and skill.

So is that really the whole point? Just surprise at the nonsense of the words? Well, yes. We use the word “wonder” when we do not know something and would like to know it—a simple quotidian example. To expand it, wonder is the action of the mind, soul, and body when it encounters something it does not and cannot comprehend. It is a suspension of rational thought, a moment—brief or long—when we behold something of great beauty or horror, and through that encounter, grasp at truth.

Wonder Leads Us to the Eternal

Do not think I speak merely of a distant, equivocal idea of beauty and truth. Everything that shows beauty is also a direct outpouring of Christ’s love for us, whether it be in the Milky Way, or Bach’s Cello Suites, or something as mundane and miraculous as childbirth. All the beauty of creation is the product of God’s love and imagination.

So every time we are dumbstruck, or exclaim “O!” or “Wow!” or some other feebleminded grunt, we are responding to an encounter with something sublime beyond question. Of all the creatures on God’s earth, man is the only one who can claim this particular quality. He is the only creature made in the image of God, designed for the purpose of glorifying God and everything he made for man to enjoy.

In his essay, “A Defence of Nonsense” (1902), the English poet, philosopher, journalist, and theologian G.K. Chesterton wrote on the value of nonsense in this modern age to teach about wonder and faith. Chesterton said:

We fancy that nonsense will, in a very unexpected way, come to the aid of the spiritual view of things. Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation, but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible…Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a logical syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.

When we look at our faith, do we not see the many contradictions it poses to our human minds? The gospel presents all kinds of nonsense about how an infinite God made himself a creature of limitation; how the last shall be first; how we must make ourselves weak in order to be strong; how all things that we do wrong, God works for good; how our death no longer leads us into eternal despair and torment, but into eternal life. Is the gospel not the pinnacle of nonsense when forced into the narrow chambers of our reasoning minds?

Faith does not really fit in the mind. It is not merely an action of rational consent, but of something much less expressible and much more beautiful: a gratuitous love placed in our souls by the Holy Spirit, and drawn out by the same. Faith boasts of a love that would lead a man to submit himself to crucifixion for the sake of someone else’s crime. Now, that is just nonsense. Nevertheless, faith is the seed of love that demands to be requited in perpetuity.

Wonder Teaches Mankind Our Limits, Which Inspires Faith

If the task of education is to teach what it means to be human, then nonsense poetry is a worthy subject. Each day we find opportunities like this poem to show the reality of absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. Nonsense tells humanity that it will always be limited. This is a very controversial idea to moderns, who want to champion mankind as the conqueror of all frontiers.

But mankind as a creature of limit is a truth that classical educators and Lutherans like me accept with peace and great relief. Through the Reformation, Martin Luther sought to end the Roman Catholic Church’s endeavors to explain away every mystery and rational problem that Christ’s time on earth posed for our finite minds.

Luther knew that rationalized mysteries tend to just be heresies. Faith, however, received “like a little child” (Matthew 18:3), not only accepts not-knowing, it is the action and the fruit of not-knowing. Despite the inability to articulate an exact exposition of God’s mysteries, we have the freedom to confidently assert the truth of what they mean for us as his children.

As the psalmist humbly and joyfully exclaims, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it! Whither shall I go from your Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from your Presence?” and in Romans, “O! the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who has a mind like God?”

So in fear and wonder, we “cup our hands over our mouths” like Job, “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple.” We put away all that worldly wisdom and arrogance, and claim full confidence in the Word: “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the Sin of the World.”