“You Are Old, Father William” is a poem by Lewis Carroll that appears in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). It is recited by Alice in Chapter 5, “Advice from a Caterpillar" (Chapter 3 in the original manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground). Alice informs the caterpillar that she has previously tried to repeat “How Doth the Little Busy Bee” and has had it all come wrong as “How Doth the Little Crocodile". The caterpillar asks her to repeat “You are old, Father William”, and she recites.
Like most poems in Alice, the poem is a parody of a poem then well-known to children, of Robert Southey’s didactic poem “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them”, originally published in 1799. Like the other poems parodied by Lewis Carroll in Alice, this original poem is now mostly forgotten, and only the parody is remembered. Carroll’s parody “undermines the pious didacticism of Southey’s original and gives Father William an eccentric vitality that rebounds upon his idiot questioner”. Martin Gardner calls it “one of the undisputed masterpieces of nonsense verse”.
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Here’s the poem:
You Are Old, Father William
by Lewis Carroll
“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head --
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
“In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”
“You are old," said the youth, “As I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door -—
Pray, what is the reason of that?”
“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment —- one shilling the box -—
Allow me to sell you a couple?”
“You are old,” said the youth, “And your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak -—
Pray, how did you manage to do it?”
“In my youth," said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”
“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose -—
What made you so awfully clever?”
“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”
Call me odd if you like, but I do not think of this as only a nonsense poem. Of course it makes us laugh, but I also view it as a parable that can benefit us all, if we have ears to hear.
If ever a year stood on its head, turned a back-somersault in at the door, finished the goose, or balanced an eel on the end of its nose, it has been 2010. And, yes, I am thinking specifically of the British and American elections as well as the current state of the British and American economies.
Only some of those phrases, however, apply to your correspondent. As for other phrases in the poem, such as “old,” “hair become very white,” “grown uncommonly fat,” and “awfully clever” -- well, the jury is still out. But even if the jury returns an unfavorable verdict, your correspondent remains absolutely convinced that he possesses an eccentric vitality that rebounds upon his idiot questioners. In his defense, however, and as an indication of his great humility, please note that he does not say, “he and he alone.”