Fun Fact:
Robert Southey was the Poet Laureate of England from 1813-1843.





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Tenniel's Father WilliamFather William

"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?"



Robert Southey's PortraitCarroll's "You are Old, Father William" is a parody of a well-known Victorian children's poem, "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them" by Robert Southey, first published in 1799. This is just one of the many famous didactic poems that Carroll parodies in Alice.  Most of children’s literature in Carroll’s day was extremely didactic in nature.  Children learned poems such as Southey’s by rote and often were required to recite them for adults at evening parties.  Note how just preceding Alice’s garbled version of the poem, she “folded her hands,” assuming the typical position for formal recitation. Carroll’s parody is often used by critics as proof of the social commentary embedded in Alice, the parody itself showing Dodgson’s disapproval of traditional teaching methods.  Others praise this work as early evidence of Carroll’s superb grasp of the elements of nonsense literature, seeing “Father William” as a precursor to other famous nonsense poems like “Jabberwocky.”  The text of the original is printed below. Click here to see Southey’s and Carroll’s poems side by side.


The Original Poem

The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them
Robert Southey, 1799

"You are old, father William," the young man cried,
"The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, father William, a hearty old man;
Now tell me the reason, I pray."
"In the days of my youth," father William replied,
"I remember'd that youth would fly fast,
And abus'd not my health and my vigour at first,
That I never might need them at last."

"You are old, father William," the young man cried,
"And pleasures with youth pass away.
And yet you lament not the days that are gone;
Now tell me the reason, I pray."
"In the days of my youth," father William replied,
"I rememberd that youth could not last;
I thought of the future, whatever I did,
That I never might grieve for the past."

"You are old, father William," the young man cried,
"And life must be hast'ning away;
You are cheerful and love to converse upon death;
Now tell me the reason, I pray."
"I am cheerful, young man," father William replied,
"Let the cause thy attention engage;
In the days of my youth I remember'd my God!
And He hath not forgotten my age."



Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Chapter 5
Plain Text, HyperText

Alice's Adventures Underground: Chapter 3
Plain Text, Side-by-Side



Ointment: Although many important medical breakthroughs were achieved during the 19th century, home remedies and cure-all elixirs were still very popular.  Here Carroll parodies the many (mostly useless) lotions and ointments peddled all over the world.  Victorian Era Shilling

Shilling: A unit of currency in the United Kingdom.  In Carroll’s day there were 20 shillings in a Pound and 12 pence in a shilling (Wikipedia). Interestingly, in Carroll’s original Alice, Father William asks for 5 shillings instead of 1.

Took to the Law: i.e. to practice law.  The law was a popular profession in the Victorian era for younger sons of the aristocracy, although as a system it was highly in need of reform.  Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, goes much further than Carroll’s parody at satirizing and criticizing the institution.

Eel TrapEel: The European Eel has been an important source of food in the UK since the middle ages.  In the Victorian era the famous jellied eels of East London were especially popular. Glass eel fishing using basket traps has been of significant economic value in many river estuaries on the western seaboard of Europe (Wikipedia). Note the eel traps in the background of Tenniel’s drawing.

Image Gallery

Click here to compare John Tenniel’s “Father William” with Lewis Carroll’s sketch and note how closely Tenniel’s follow Carroll’s. Click on an artist from the right hand column to see his or her rendition of "Father William." Ralph Steadman described the pair in the poem this way: "THE FATHER WILLIAM set to me is the arrogance of youth versus the certainty of an old man's memories. The young man reinforces his arrogance by using the old man's experience as a crutch. Whilst throwing past standards out of the window the young man may often come back in through the door if he finds his yardstick less than three feet. An old man can become intense talking about right and wrong, and a youth can become bored as a result. The old man showing he hasn't lost his touch but the young man finds it is all a big joke." (textbooksrus.com)

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Other Media

In this version, Harry Harris' 1985 musical, the Caterpillar sings "You are Old, Father William" with Alice, and both are transformed into the old man and young man, respectively. It is also one of the only versions that leaves the poem in. Below is a version of Irving Fine's "Father William" as performed by the Wellesley College Choir.

1985 TV movie Alice in Wonderland


Wellesley College Choir performing Irving Fine's "Father William"


See Also

For the recent "Almost Alice" album, the band They Might Be Giants recorded a musical version of the poem. Click here to hear it on YouTube.



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