Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
"You are old, Father William"

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"You are old, Father William"

Lewis Carroll, from Alice in Wonderland

I think that everything I knew about classical music when I was a boy, I learned from the Looney Tunes cartoons. “Leopold,” whisper the people as Bugs Bunny, in a periwig and tuxedo, strides up to the conductor’s platform, and “Leopold,” and “L-l-leopold!” — for the famous Leopold Stokowski, who once taught Debra’s grandmother, by the way. Bugs is out for revenge against Giovanni Jones, the fat opera singer. Many years later, in a Western Civilization class at Providence College, when the lecturer got to a certain point in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs, a couple of boys in the back, as if on cue, sang out, as Elmer Siegfried Fudd, “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!” Rossini, Brahms, Schubert, hayseed hillbillies doing a do-si-do at Bugs’ calling — Chuck Jones and his pals had it all.

What happened to all the silly fun of childhood? Wherever it went, silly songs went with it, like “A Capital Ship” and “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea,” and silly poems went with it too. And hey, what’s wrong with silly poems? So we’re celebrating youth and silliness today in our Poem of the Week, by that incomparable mathematician, clergyman, artist, and madcap fantasy writer for children, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson).

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You’d think maybe that a man who did first-rate work on the driest of mathematical subjects, the determinants of matrices in linear algebra, wouldn’t be the charming cut-up that Dodgson was, but — off with their heads who think so! For this poem, he took a bit of stiff pious verse by Robert Southey and turned it inside out. The irony is that the young man who twits Father William is a tad too serious, while the fat old fellow is silly in the most uproarious ways. And we really do like it. It’s a swift meter, tripping along like a good old ballad, and the final line is always a kicker. There the rhyme has to be perfect, and it’s all the sweeter if it’s in two syllables, like “suet” and “do it” — ! See, the kid ought to become more like the old man, not in wisdom but in silliness. What good is it to get old if you can’t enjoy a second childhood? I think that the man whose own children loved Dodgson’s stories, who himself was a prodigious fantasy writer, and who befriended Dodgson and encouraged him to publish — the devout George MacDonald, of all people— would agree. Now excuse me, everybody, while I crouch on the floor and bark at our puppy, Molly!

Illustration from Alice in Wonderland, by John Tenniel. Public domain.

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"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!"

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. We value all of our subscribers, and we thank you for reading Word and Song!

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
Stop by on Wednesdays to listen to Tony read the poem of the week. Sometimes you have to hear it to believe it!