Nothing Gold Can Stay

This week’s guest post from Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” class comes from Alexa Zelinski. In this entry, Alexa examines the impermanence that makes up so much of Lewis Carroll’s fictional worlds.

By Alexa Zelinski

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Both Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Looking Glass Land are enchanting, nonsensical places.  Yet throughout the Alice stories, Carroll hints at the fleeting, temporary nature of their existence.  Nothing in these fantasy worlds is ever permanent.  The rules of logic at play are always changing.  At one moment, it makes perfect sense to knock on a door to a house in order to be let in by the frog footman; in the next, knocking on the door is a ridiculous notion which will get you nowhere at all.  And once one travels through the looking glass, things morph and change at the drop of a hat with no attempt made at an explanation, not even an illogical one.  These occurrences are frustrating to Alice, who is used to the rigid, dependable order of the real world, but she does come to appreciate these lands for what they are.  By the end of her first adventure, she has developed a bit of a soft spot for Wonderland. In the final chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been” (Carroll 142).  In her childlike state of mind, Alice concludes that these dreamlands are really quite wonderful places after all.

As nice as Alice finds these dreamlands to be, Carroll ends each of his stories in the same way- Alice awakens from her dream.  She is not allowed to stay in Wonderland or beyond the looking glass forever; she is forced to return to her day-to-day life.  Carroll too could not remain a permanent inhabitant of Wonderland, nor could the real Alice Liddell.  In the poems which begin and end each tale, readers are exposed to this melancholy truth.

The poem which prefaces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the tale of origin of the story which is about to unfold.  Carroll sets his tale “All in the golden afternoon,” which is a fleeting time.  A golden afternoon calls to mind something lovely and pleasant, bordering on perfection.  But no afternoon lasts forever; each one ends with the setting of the sun and the closing of the day.  Within this brief window of time “grew the tale of Wonderland.”  Carroll is aware of the fact that Wonderland is itself allowed a brief window and so closes the poem by pleading “Alice! A childish story take, / And, with a gentle hand, / Lay it where childhood’s dreams are twined / In Memory’s mystic band.”  It is only through the child taking hold of the story and gifting it a place of honor within their memory that it can continue on its golden state.  Within memory, the world cannot touch it and make it less than it was.

In the opening poem of Through the Looking Glass, Carroll tells of “A tale begun in other days, / When summers suns were glowing / … Whose echoes live in memory yet. / Through envious years would say ‘forget.’”  So he feels that the precious tale of Wonderland has been preserved, although “envious years” are urging a maturing child to leave it behind- “Without, the frost, the blinding snow, / The storm-wind’s moody madness- / Within, the firelight’s ruddy glow / And childhood’s nest of gladness.”  The world outside of memory is bombarding the inner child to snuff “the firelight’s ruddy glow.”  But Carroll does not imply that the child surrenders to the attack.  In the poem which closes Through the Looking Glass, he admits that “Long has paled that sunny sky: / Echoes fade and memories die; / Autumn frosts have slain July” but insinuates that the inhabitants of Wonderland have not ceased to exist, for “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.” Something or someone is still lingering in the soft light of that golden afternoon.  Be that Alice, Carroll, or the reader, it does not matter much.  What matters is only that someone has managed to hold onto that golden quality which slips away so easily.

Many years after the publication of the Alice stories, Robert Frost published a poem, entitled “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

This poem is an embodiment of the essence of the golden afternoon when Wonderland was created.  It was wonderful, but inevitably could not last.  The golden afternoon subsided to evening, just as “dawn goes down to day.”  Presumably, Alice herself was subject to this cycle as well.  She grew up and had to move on or awaken from the nonsensical fantasy lands of Carroll’s invention.  Carroll is not in denial of the demands of reality, but still proposes a solution: to hold onto anything golden, one must tuck it safely away within the protective walls of nostalgic memory.

Alexa is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.

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Categories: Critical Conversations, Undergraduate Guest Posts

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