You Are Old, Father William

You Are Old, Father William

by Lewis Carroll

You Are Old, Father William Summary & Analysis

In Short

  • Lewis Carroll’s poem “You Are Old, Father William” is a conversation between a father and a son.
  • The son asks the father how he manages to do things like somersaults and eat bones of goose at such old age.
  • The father gives strange logics in his reply and mocks the youth, making it an amusing children’s poem.

You Are Old, Father William – Explanation

Stanza 1

“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?”

The poem begins with a ‘young man’ addressing someone as “Father William”. We wonder whether this ‘Father’ is the title for a priest or it refers to a father-son relationship. The use of capitalization and calling the ‘Father’ by his name hint at the first option, while the young man talking about Father William’s personal life and his old age suggests otherwise.

The young man reminds William that he has become old. William’s ‘very white’ hair indicates his growing age. The young man also complains that the old man doesn’t act his age-wise. He constantly stands on his head. Standing on one’s head is an activity that we always connect with child’s play. Father William does this despite his old age. The young man is very much concerned about him. He asks whether this kind of activity is appropriate for his age.

Stanza 2

“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.”

In the first line of this stanza, we are told that the young man is Father William’s son. So, now we can be sure that it’s a conversation between a father and a son.

The father now replies to the questions posed to him. He recalls his youth days. He says, in his young age, he was very much afraid to perform this stunt. He thought it might injure his brain. But now at this old age, he is much assured that he has no brain at all. So, there is nothing to worry about. There is no fear that his brain might be damaged while standing on his head. That’s why he is doing this action repeatedly in his old age.

Here, we are unsure what exactly the father suggests when he says he has no brain (‘I have none’). Maybe he is suggesting senility – the mental decline associated with old age. But Father William actually remembers his young days. Again, with growing age, the father should see a decline to his physical abilities too. But we see him performing stunts at this age. Very confusing, huh?

Well, another view suggests that the old man is mocking his son. Maybe he actually wants to mean that his son has no brain and that is why he is asking his father such silly questions. Either way, the old man’s reply lacks logic and sounds pretty absurd, to be fair.

Stanza 3

“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?”

The third stanza begins with the son again reminding his father of his growing age. He also points out that the father has gained a lot of weight. Despite such old age and heavy weight, Father William somersaults at the door. The son is complaining of the father’s actions relative to his age. He wants to know the reason why he performed that back-somersault.

Here again, we find some discrepancies. Generally, when a person grows old, he becomes feeble and thin. But here the old man is contrary to that general concept. That is why his son calls his fat ‘most uncommonly’. Moreover, a feat like a somersault generally requires a lean and flexible body. But an uncommonly fatty man doing somersault is something beyond imagination.

Stanza 4

“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.”

The father now attempts to answer his son’s query regarding his somersault. But the interesting points here are he being referred to as a ‘sage’ and having ‘grey’ hair as opposed to the ‘very white’ in the first stanza. William is called a ‘sage’ probably because of his determination in doing what he wishes to do without paying heed to anyone else. And the discrepancy of white and grey hair can just be ignored or considered to be yet another oddity in the poem.

However, Father William replies that he has managed to keep his arms and legs very flexible by using an ointment. He rubbed it all over his body as it is very cheap at just one shilling per box. He also offers to sell a couple of boxes of this ointment to his son. He asks his son if he is willing to buy this. It is actually an insult to the younger generations. The father suggests that the youth need ointment to boost their strength while the older generations are in fine shape.

Stanza 5

“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 this stanza, the son again talks about the father’s growing age. His teeth have become very weak. They are not strong enough to chew anything other than suet-flesh of beef or mutton. However, Father William has finished a whole goose with its bones and beak. Generally, the bones and beak are the toughest part which an old man can hardly take. But old William easily consumes those. His son is very much shocked to see it. So, he asks how Father William manages to eat such hard foods.

Stanza 6

“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.”

Father William again recalls his bygone days of youth. He explains that when he was young, he argued with his wife. He had actively taken every legal case he came across with his wife. Thus, his jaws were exercised during the course of those arguments and became strong. In fact, this strength which he had got during his youth has remained throughout his life.

Here again, we find ridiculous logic in William’s reply. The father here presents a cliché idea that a man becomes a scapegoat of marriage and has to undergo stress which ultimately makes him strong. The mocking tone in his answer indicates that he is getting frustrated with his son’s repeated questions.

Stanza 7

“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?”

The young man, William’s son, once again points out that his father is old. At this age, everyone expects that his power of vision would have decayed by now. But there is nothing as such. Surprisingly, the old man is able to balance an eel fish on the tip of his nose. It is an act which requires strong eyesight and power of concentration. Regarding this as a sign of cleverness, the son wonders how Father William has achieved this.

Stanza 8

“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!”

We are in the last stanza of the poem and the old man now refuses to answer any more questions. It seems he feels irritated to answer repeated questions which might sound useless to him. He has already answered three questions and thinks it is enough.

Father William criticizes his son for ‘giving himself airs’ or being self-important or conceited. He says he doesn’t have the time to listen to such absurd questions. He warns his son to leave the place. He threatens him, if he doesn’t leave, he will kick him off the stairs.

You Are Old, Father William – Into Details

Publication

“You are Old, Father William” is a humorous nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll, an English writer. This poem was first published in the year 1865 in Carroll’s most famous book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. It is recited by Alice in the 5th chapter named as “Advice from a Caterpillar”.

Background / Context

“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. This pious poem was published in 1799. The original poem is largely forgotten today while Carroll’s version is very popular now.

In chapter 5 of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, Alice laments to the caterpillar that she is facing trouble in remembering things. Then the caterpillar suggests her to repeat “you are old, Father William” in order to test her memory. The poem the caterpillar is referring to is Southey’s verse but Alice mixes it up absent-mindedly. Today Carroll’s verse remains popular and regards it as a standalone poem.

Setting

The setting of the poem “You are Old, Father William” is not that clear but we can assume that the father-son duo is at home and they are upstairs talking to each other. The very last line of the poem “Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!” suggests so. In a broader perspective, as it is taken from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, we can assume that it takes place in Wonderland. However, Wonderland is not really another world. It is, in fact, our own world only seen through the eyes of a child.

Title

In this poem the poet jokingly presents the generation gap between an experienced person and his proud and haughty son. The son is very much age concerned. He always keeps reminding his father how old he is. But according to his father, age does not matter at all. Though he is old, he is happier and livelier than his son. He knows how to live life to the fullest. The son repeats the expression ‘you are old’ seemingly to make his father feel belittled and apathetic. But in reality, it only shows his own incapability and immaturity. Thus, the title “You are Old, Father William” also plays a role in the overall mocking tone of the poem.

Form and Language

The poem “You are Old, Father William” consists of eight stanzas of four lines each. The entire poem is in question-answer form. There are two voices – one of the father and another of his son – exchanging their views. All questions are asked by the young person in odd stanzas. All answers are given by the old man in the even ones.

The language employed is very simple and the poem is in a mocking tone.

Meter and Rhyme

The poem “You are Old, Father William” has a clear rhyme scheme of ABAB throughout the poem. The first line rhymes with the third while the second line rhymes with the fourth in every stanza.

“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?”

Talking about the metrical pattern, the poem is written loosely in anapestic tetrameter and trimeter lines giving it a rhythmic effect. An anapestic meter is a metrical foot where two unstressed syllables are followed by stressed syllable. A tetrameter line has four feet while a trimeter line has three. Anapestic tetrameter is often used in parody for comic effects.

“You are old,” | said the youth, | “as I men– | tioned before, (Anapestic tetrameter)
And have grown | most uncomm– | on-ly fat; (Anapestic trimeter)

You Are Old, Father William – Themes

Generation Gap

In the poem “You are Old, Father William”, Lewis Carroll takes ‘generation gap’ as the theme in this poem. He brings this theme for our focus sarcastically through the dialogue between old man and young man who represent older generation and younger generation. In this poem it seems the son is very much age-obsessed because he continuously keeps reminding his father how old he is. He resists his father to do daring things which he does at his age.

But according to his father, age is just a number. Despite his age, he can stand on his head, he somersaults, he eats the whole chicken. He proves that even at his age, he is more robust and vivacious than his son. He is quite plump but he is still buoyant and live. He knows how to live to the fullest extent.

Thus, the poet shows that children rarely understand the lives of elders. The poet uses humour and satire, visual images and dialogue pattern to bring out the theme vividly.

Absurdity of Life

Lewis Carroll’s poems written for the children are often called ‘nonsense verse’ or whimsical verse. In the present poem “You are Old, Father William” we see that most of the father’s replies to his son lack rationality. William’s use of an ointment to keep his limbs supple or his arguments with his wife to make his jaws strong is beyond acceptable logic.

These apparently absurd reasonings serve a purpose though. They remind us of the absurdity of life. There are a lot of things in life that we cannot explain. It seems that the father wants to prepare his son with the hardships and absurdity he needs to face in this challenging world. That is why he gives him those mocking replies. He wants the son to find the answers by himself and realize the reality of things. That is why he dismisses his son for further queries.

You Are Old, Father William – Symbols

White Hair / Grey Locks

The young man mentions his father’s white hair twice in the poem. White hair is a symbol of old age. The son is very much age-conscious and so he repeatedly reminds his father of his age. But, besides growing age, white hair also symbolizes growing experience and wisdom that Father William displays in his replies to his son. The father mocks his son for his immaturity and inexperience. He gives him rather sarcastic answers and tries to make him realize the generation gap between them and also the absurdity of things in life.

You Are Old, Father William – Literary Devices

End-Stopped Line

An end-stopped line is a line of verse that ends with a punctuation. Most of the lines in the poem “You are Old, Father William” are end-stopped lines.

“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.”

Enjambment

When a sentence continues to the next line of a verse without pause, it is called an enjambment. Here are examples from the poem –

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That
your eye was as steady as ever;

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
For
anything tougher than suet;

Caesura

A caesura in poetry is a pause (with a comma, semicolon etc.) in the middle of a line.

And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words.

“I feared it might injure the brain; (‘i’ sound)

And have grown most uncommonly fat; (‘o’ sound)

Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in neighbouring words.

And yet you incessantly stand on your head— (‘y’ and ‘d’ sounds)

Allow me to sell you a couple.” (‘l’ sound)

Alliteration

Alliteration is a sub-category of consonance. It is the repetition of consonant sounds in the beginning (or, stressed syllables) of nearby words.

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak— (‘b’ sound)

And argued each case with my wife; (‘w’ sound)

Repetition

Repetition is a literary device where a word or a group of words are repeated with no particular placement to secure emphasis.

In the poem “You are Old, Father William”, the words “You are old” and “In my youth” are alternatively repeated to begin the stanzas.

Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical question is a literary device where a question is asked for emphasis and not meant for an answer.

Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement not meant to be taken literally.

“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,

In the above line, Father William suggests that he has no brain at all. This is a clear exaggeration and therefore an instance of hyperbole.

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—

In the above line, the son suggests that his father ate up the whole goose with its bones and beak. But a man cannot really eat the bones and beak. It is an overstatement here.

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