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Tag: 19th century

You Are Old, Father William by Lewis Carroll

Illustration to You Are Old, Father William by Sir John Tenniel

Charles Dodgson, maths lecturer at Oxford University, has gone down in history as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and has done so under the pen name of Lewis Carroll. He also wrote poems and included some of them into his novel about Alice.

‘You are old, Father William’ is recited by Alice in Chapter 5, “Advice from a Caterpillar”. The poem is a parody of a 1799 verse by Robert Southey called ‘The Old Man’s Comforts’, in which Father William lectures on how he reached happiness in old age by having led a quiet and virtuous life in his youth.

Carroll’s Father William is a completely different man – an eccentric, full of life and mischief despite his age, and still energetic enough to give his son a good kick if need be!

“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!”

Poem © Out of copyright

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The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear

‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ is probably Edward Lear’s (1812-1888) most famous poem loved by kids as well as adults: in 2014 it was voted the nation’s favourite childhood poem.

Edward Lear wrote it in 1868 for Janet Symonds, 3-year-old daughter of the poet and literary critic John Addington Symonds.

The word ‘runcible’ that has eventually made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary as a nonsense word was coined by the author. Its meaning remains a mystery. It doesn’t help that Edward Lear himself used it to describe such different things as his hat, a wall and even his cat

Lear didn’t help matters: as well as applying the word to a spoon, he went on to use ‘runcible’ to describe his hat, a wall, and even his cat Foss.

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