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ZeColourFatherWilliam

The youth watches Father William stand on his head. Colorized version of an 1865 illustration by John Tenniel.

"You Are Old, Father William" is a humorous nonsense poem written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll. It was first published in 1865 as part of Carroll's children's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The poem is a conversation between a young man and Father William in which the youth questions the old man about his odd behavior. Father William explains why he keeps standing on his head, why he turned a back-somersault, and how he managed to eat a whole goose bones and all. But when the young man asks one question too many, the feisty old man replies “Be off or I’ll kick you down-stairs!”

“You Are Old, Father William” is a parody of a poem by Robert Southey, “The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them.” Whereas the original pious poem is largely forgotten today, Carroll's version remains popular, appearing in many anthologies as a stand-alone poem.

Context

Alice in Wonderland by Arthur Rackham - 05 - Advice from a Caterpillar

Alice and the Caterpillar. 1907 illustration by Arthur Rackham.

In chapter five of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice laments to the Caterpillar that she is having trouble remembering things. The Caterpillar then tells her to repeat “You Are Old, Father William” in order to test her memory. Alice, in her disoriented state, proceeds to mix up the poem.

The poem the Caterpillar is referring to, “The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them” (which begins with the line “You are old, Father William, the young man cried,”), is a didactic poem[1] which preaches the benefits of a pious and restrained lifestyle. The young man questions how Father William remains happy and healthy in old age,[2] and the old man gives his rather sanctimonious lessons.

Victorian readers familiar with Southey's original poem would have appreciated the cleverness of Carroll's parody in which a not-so-virtuous Father William appears even happier and healthier than the original self-righteous old man.

Adaptations

De Alice's Abenteuer im Wunderland Carroll pic 19

The youth watches Father William balance an eel on his nose. 1865 illustration by John Tenniel.

In the animated Disney movie Alice in Wonderland (1951), Tweedledum and Tweedledee sing the first stanza of “You Are Old, Father William.”

In the TV movie Alice in Wonderland (1985), Sammy Davis, Jr. (who plays the Caterpillar) performs the musical number “You Are Old, Father William.”

Almost Alice, an album of songs inspired by Tim Burton's movie Alice in Wonderland (2010), includes “You Are Old, Father William” by They Might Be Giants.

See also

Footnotes

  1. In Victorian England, children were often required to learn such educational poems by rote and repeat them while standing with hands folded (to prevent distractions) as Alice does.
  2. Southey’s poem consists of three sets of questions and answers. Therefore it is understandable that Carroll’s Father William gets impatient when his son asks the fourth question.

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