You are old, Father William: Two renditions

Father William balances an eel on the end of his nose

We need silliness after the Anchorage municipal election.

In poetry workshops in the Master of Fine Arts program at UAA (whence I received my MFA in December 1996), we were asked to keep reading journals of stuff we were reading that “fed our work.” I spent two or three of those weekly journals reading & responding to a lot of children’s poetry, mostly what I found in The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse (ed. by Iona & Peter Opie).

A lot of earlier children’s poetry is rather lame to modern ears, because –

For a poem to be considered suitable for a child it was thought necessary that it should be edifying.

Here’s an edifying poem, version 1 of Father William:

The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them

by Robert Southey (1774-1843)

“You are old, Father William,” the young man cried,
“The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,
Now tell me the reason, I pray.”

“In the days of my youth,” Father William replied,
“I remembered that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigour at first,
That I never might need them at last.”

“You are old, Father William,” the young man cried,
“And pleasures with youth pass away;
And yet you lament not the days that are gone,
Now tell me the reason, I pray.”

“In the days of my youth,” Father William replied,
“I remembered that youth could not last;
I though of the future, whatever I did,
That I never might grieve for the past.”

“You are old, Father William,” the young man cried,
“And life must be hastening away;
You are cheerful, and love to converse upon death,
Now tell me the reason, I pray.”

“I am cheerful, young man,” Father William replied,
“Let the cause thy attention engage;
In the days of my youth I remembered my God,
And He hath not forgotten my age.”

That was a very popular children’s poem for a century or so, my book informs me. If it sounds familiar to anyone, that’s probably because of how it lost its popularity — it was superseded by the very famous poem that lampooned it:

You Are Old, Father William

by Lewis Carroll (Charles Ludwidge Dodgson; 1832-1898)
(from Alice in Wonderland)

“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 for 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 downstairs!”

* * *

I feel far more edified now.

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