You Are Old Father William Poem Analysis Essay

In this essay I am going to compare Lewis Carroll’s poem and parody “Father William", to its original poem “The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“ by Robert Southey which is part of Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland1 (In Parodies of the works of English and American authors, the poem is titled “Father William" whereas in numerous other works it may occur as “You are old, Father William). Not only I am going to compare the poems but also I want to find out, what makes Lewis Carroll’s poem a parody.[1]

In order to compare the two poems I am going to analyze each of them on a pragmatical, semantical and syntactical level. This will help finding similarities and differences. Furthermore the analysis will support finding an answer to the question: “What makes Lewis Carroll’s poem a parody?“

First of all it is necessary to define what a parody exactly is. According to Vladimir Propp, “though everyone knows what a parody is, it is not at all easy to give a precise scientific definition of it. [...] Parody is considered to be an exaggeration of particular features, although it does not always include the exaggeration proper to caricature. [...] Parody consists in the imitation of external characteristics of any phenomenon in our life (a person’s manners, expressions, etc.) that completely overshadows or negates the inner meaning of what is being parodied. Everything can be parodied. [...] Not only can humans be parodied, but so can the material things they create.“[2] In this case a poem is parodied.

To be able to accomplish a proper analysis I would like to give some information about the authors first.

Lewis Carroll is actually a pseudonym under which Charles Lutwidge Dodgson published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which contains the poem “Father William" as well as “Through the Looking-Glass“. Most of the time his parodies are, on the one hand, examples of nonsense verse but on the other hand, for those readers who like to solve puzzles. An example for this is the his poem “The Jabberwocky“. Most of his art he learned from Edward Lear.[3]

One has to keep in mind though that “nonsense“ is a word for a Victorian genre and mainly seen as pejorative. Neither Edward Lear’s, nor Carroll’s “nonsense“ can be seen as what we define as “nonsense“ today. At the first look, as we will see later on while analyzing the poems, their work might seem to have a lack of common sense. But after reading it carefully, one can find structured and perfectly thought-out content. Knowing that there is linguistic and logical nonsense (in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), clarifies that. Carroll was said to be a highly sensitive person who was even easily offended by children’s blasphemies.[4] This might be the reason why he exaggerated and imitated so many other poems in his works, because he probably wanted to let out his frustration.

Moving on to Robert Southey, I would like to start with a quote: “Southey’s larger poetical works are fashioned of two materials which do not always entirely harmonize. First, material brought from his own moral nature; his admiration of something elevated in the character of man or woman - generosity, gentleness, loyalty, fortitude, faith. And, secondly, material gathered from abroad (...) With such material the poet’s inventive talent deals freely, rearranges details or adds them; still Southey is here rather a finder, than a maker. His diligence in collecting and his skill in arranging were so great that it was well if the central theme did not disappear among manifold accessories.[5] This short excerpt from the book “Robert Southey“ by Edward Dowden summarizes pretty well how Southey’s work could be characterized. Robert Southey as a finder, explains exactly why his poems were the perfect material for a parody as they obviously provided a lot of information, (in this case) Lewis Carroll could work with. As seen in the book Parodies of the works of English and American authors not only Carroll used Robert Southey’s poem as a template, but numerous other authors as well.

Now that we have some essential information about the authors and know what a parody is, I would like to start with the analysis.

I am using the poems as they are written in Parodies of the works of English and American authors Volume three by Walter Hamilton and published by Reeves & Turner, on page 156.

One thing that immediately attracts attention is the length of the first and the second poem. Robert Southey’s poem “The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“ consists of 24 lines and six stanzas whereas “Father William“ by Lewis Carroll consists of 34 lines and eight stanzas. I personally think that Carroll enjoyed writing his poem a lot and, because Southey provided a decent amount of information and good material for a parody, he wanted to extend the text. It could also be, that a longer version fit better in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or that, during the writing process, he got more and more ideas for the poem. But still, the poems have the same appearance with every stanza consisting of four lines and a person asking a question and in the next stanza another person giving the answer.[5]

In general “The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“ as well as “Father William“ is about a young man who sees a happy and content father William and asks him all sorts of questions, steadily reminding him, how old he is (“The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“, line three and “Father William“ line one and eleven), that his death is coming soon (“The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“, line 18) and that he looks old as well (“The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“, line two and “Father William“, line two). Father William answers all his questions by telling him about his appealing past. In “Father William“ the young man is the son of father William and he also asks a lot of questions which are completely different to the one’s in “The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“ and also the answers are not the same. Lewis Carroll constantly uses irony and sarcasm which will be explained later on.

After giving an overview about the content, I now start the structured analysis of each poem. First, I am going to look at the pragmatical level of both poems and compare them.

The first question I am going to answer is: “Who speaks to whom in both poems?“ In Robert Southey’s poem “The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“ a “young man“ is mentioned in line one. He asks a lot of questions in the poem which are answered by the second person, namely “father William" who first appears also in line one. Another person that is part of the poem, is “God“ in line 23. He only appears once and is an evidence for Southey’s religious faith.[6]

In “Father William“ by Lewis Carroll, the pattern of the poem is the same as it is in Southey’s poem. In line one, “Father William“ appears the first time and also the “young man“. In line five one can find the information, that the young man is actually the son of Father William because it says: “(...) Father William replied to his son (...)“. Carroll did not use God as a person in his poem. This might be because it could have been inappropriate to write about the holy figure “God“ in a parody and thus a poem full of irony and sarcasm.

In both poems we have neither information about when the dialogs take place nor where they take place, but we can definitely say something about the mode of speaking in both poems. In Southey’s and Carroll’s poem it seems as if the young man is desperately looking for answers to the many questions he asks father William. The answers father William gives in the two poems seem to be rather instructive and formal but in Carroll’s poem they are definitely ironic as well. The mood is clearly happy and a little bit melancholic as father William answers in both poems the questions with memories from his past.

Secondly, I am going to look at the semantical level of both poems and compare them. “The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“ has a lot of isotopies in it. One of them is “age“. The young man again and again reminds father William of how old he is by telling him e.g. that his hair is grey (line two) or that he is “a hearty old man“ (line three). On the contrary father William always tells the young man things about his youth e.g. “(...) youth would fly fast“ (line six) or “pleasures with youth“ (line ten). “Youth“ and “age“ are two competitive and oppositional themes that appear a lot in the poem. Another recurring theme is “decay“. As father William tells stories about his youth, he often uses expressions such as “(...) youth would fly fast“ (line six), “And pleasures with youth pass away“ (line ten) or “I remembered that youth could not last“ (line 14). Two more isotopies are “past“ and “future“. In line 16, Southey writes: “(...) I never might grieve for the past“ but in line 15 he says: “I thought of the future whatever I did“. There is a strong contrast in the poem which is on the one hand due to the many contrastive themes but on the other hand due to the old father William and the young man. The young man seems to desperately want advice, because he cries and does not talk normally to the old man (line one, nine and 17). He has a very negative connotation because he only speaks about the bad things age bring, e.g. the loss of hair and that the remaining turns grey (line two). Father William on the other side talks normally and has a very positive connotation to his speech e.g. by saying: “I am cheerful, young man“ (line 21). But one line is very important here. In line 24 father William says: “(...) he [God] hath not forgotten my age“. This could mean that God, as an almighty figure, will soon let him die because the old man is of high age. It could also mean that although he has such a positive attitude, he already feels his body age and maybe has an illness or typical signs of old age. But maybe God also wants to give him the best autumn of his life he can possibly get, by letting him realize how beautiful his life is and has been.

In Lewis Carroll’s poem “Father William“ as well as in Southey’s poem, the isotopy “age“ is appearing a lot. Every statement and question, the son starts with: “You are old“ e.g. in line one. In line eleven he even says, that he mentioned it before but still says is. This might be, because he wants to emphasize the age of the old man or maybe to mock him. Other than in “The old man’s comforts and how he gained them“ the son’s questions rather concern the body, appearance and abilities of the old man, and not how he feels. He asks, for example, why he stands on his head and if it is not wrong to do so, at his age (line three to four). There are also a few oppositions in this poem. On the one hand we have the young man having common sense because he is asking the old man why he does rather senseless things at his age e.g. incessantly standing on one’s head (line three to four). Father William, on the other hand, gives a lot of senseless answers and obviously lacks in common sense as he does all the crazy things, the son questions. For example, he says that he has no brain and therefore it is legitimate to stand on one’s head all the time (line six to eight). Another opposition is the fact that father William says: “I have none [brain]“ (line seven) but also his son asks him: “What made you so awfully clever?“ (line 30). The most common trope is definitely irony in “Father William“ by Lewis Carroll. Father William stands incessantly on his head (line three) which is quite ironic, keeping in mind that old people are usually not very agile and able to do a lot of sportive exercises. Also he “turned a back sommersault in at the door“ (line 11) wich most adults cannot even do. I believe that Carroll intends to mess around with the “decay“ theme in Southey’s poem because the old father William is more active now that he is old, than he used to be when he was young because he cared too much and was too afraid to harm his body. In line six he says: “I feared it might injure the brain“. Actually standing on your head cannot hurt your brain. If you stood on your head for too long, you rather die than injure your brain in the first place. Another ironic part is, when father William says that his jaw is so strong and he can eat a whole goose because he argued about everything with his wife (line 20 to 23). This is very funny because, different to today’s society, where men often give in and avoid arguments with their wives, back in the days of Lewis Carroll it was probably not very common to give in and therefore men had a tough time while arguing with their usually bubbly or irascible wives. But everyone knows that a jaw cannot grow strong by talking or yelling a lot. Quite hilarious is also, when the young man asks father William, what made him so clever (line 30). The son must be really naive because after all the senseless answers he has got from his father, and after even telling him, that his father has no brain, he still asks what made him clever. When father William denies to give him an answer (line 31) it is clear that he does not want to admit that he really is not clever at all or that he was messing around with his naive son all the time and now intends to keep doing so. It is also quite impossible and therefore ironic to balance an eel on one’s nose as father William does in line 29. An eel is firstly unbelievably slippery and sleek and it is a mollusk which makes it nearly impossible to let it stand straight on its own without help.

[...]



[1] Carroll, Lewis. 2012. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Stuttgart: Reclam. 55-59.

[2] Propp, Vladimir. 2009. On the comic and laughter. Ed. Jean-Partrick Debbeche and Paul Perron. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 60.

[3] Abrams, Meyer Howard. 1986. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. 1594.

[4] Matthews, Charles. 1970. “Satire in the Alice Books“. Criticism spring 1970: 105-119.

[5] Dowden, Edward. 1915. Robert Southey. New York: Harper and Brothers. 188.

[6] Dowden, Edward. 1915. Robert Southey. New York: Harper and Brothers. 190.

"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 a 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!"

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.[2] Carroll's parody "undermines the pious didacticism of Southey's original and gives Father William an eccentric vitality that rebounds upon his idiot questioner".[3]Martin Gardner calls it "one of the undisputed masterpieces of nonsense verse".[4] Since then, it has been parodied further, including more than 20 versions by 1886[5] a version by Charles Larcom Graves, a writer for Punch in 1889,[6] and "You are young, Kaiser William".[7][8]

Appearances[edit]

In the Walt Disney animated film Alice in Wonderland (1951) the first stanza of the poem is recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum as a song.

"Father William" was played by Sammy Davis, Jr. in the 1985 film.

They Might Be Giants recorded a song using the lyrics of the poem for the compilation album Almost Alice for the 2010 film, Alice in Wonderland.

Notes[edit]

External links[edit]

  1. ^Lewis Carroll, Alices Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 4
  2. ^Lewis Carroll; Martin Gardner; Sir John Tenniel (2000), Martin Gardner; Sir John Tenniel, eds., The annotated Alice: Alice's adventures in Wonderland & Through the looking-glass (illustrated, annotated ed.), W. W. Norton & Company, p. 23, ISBN 978-0-393-04847-6 
  3. ^Lewis Carroll; Hugh Haughton; John Tenniel (2003), Hugh Haughton, ed., Alice's adventures in Wonderland and Through the looking-glass and what Alice found there (reissue, illustrated ed.), Penguin Classics, p. 307, ISBN 978-0-14-143976-1 
  4. ^Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice: Definitive Edition, p. 49
  5. ^Walter Hamilton (1886), Walter Hamilton; Walter Hamilton, eds., Parodies of the works of English & American authors, Reeves & Turner, p. 156 
  6. ^Charles Larcom Graves (1889), The green above the red: more Blarney ballads, Swan Sonnenschein, p. 4 
  7. ^Sir Theodore Andrea Cook, ed. (1902), An anthology of humorous verse, H. Virtue & Co. Ltd., p. 194 
  8. ^Mostyn Turtle Pigott (1896), Songs of a session: being a lyric record of Parliamentary doings during 1896, Innes, p. 13 
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