‘You Are Old, Father William’ by Lewis Carroll is a poem that is structured as a dialogue between a “father” and “his son,” though the details given for the pair vary and cause confusion in regard to who is involved in this exchange. This confusion pairs well with the odd inquiries posed by the “son,” as well as the odd responses of the “father,” and the mixture of bizarre proves to be a perfect circumstance to mirror the theme of ‘You Are Old, Father William’. That theme involves generation gaps—specifically how different generations can fail to understand one another.
You Are Old, Father William Analysis
First and Second Stanzas
“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.”
The structure of ‘You Are Old, Father William’ is a dialogue between an “old” man named “Father William” and “his son.” In the first stanza, the “son” pointed out that “Father William” was “age[d]” and posed the “question” of why he “incessantly stand[s] on [his] head.” When asked if this was “right” because of his “age,” “Father William” contended that when he was in his “youth,” he was afraid to do this, but “age” taught him he did not have a “brain” to “injure.” Because of this detail, he had taken to performing the action “again and again.”
There are a number of things to note within these stanzas, including the bizarre nature of the relationship between “Father William” and “his son.” The name of the “Father” was given within the “son[‘s]” dialogue, which indicates that he addressed the “old[er]” man by this name. This situation would hint that “Father” was a title rather than a relationship. However, in Line Two, this “young[er]” fellow was noted as “Father William[‘s]” “son.” Perhaps both “Father” and “son” were but titles that express a relationship different than genetics, or there was a genetic connection that was treated in a more formal manner than a typical, casual attitude—thus the reference of “Father William.” There is no clear answer to this aspect of ‘You Are Old, Father William’, which begins a confusing structure.
That confusion continues in that “Father William[‘s]” reasoning for “stand[ing] on [his] head” in his later years made little sense. Of course, he had a “brain” to be “injure[d],” so he could never be “perfectly sure” otherwise. Perhaps “Father William” believed he had lost his mind, but it was still not an accurate account since the “brain” would have been intact.
Furthermore, “Father William” being able to think on these levels is evidence that his mind was sharp and able when he had this conversation with “his son,” as if he was being witty and mischievous. If such was the case, “Father William” could have been mocking “his son[‘s]” concern, and by extension, using this idea of being without a “brain” as a criticism toward “his son.” Essentially, this could have been “Father William” insulting the “son” for being “brain[less]” for “question[ing]” the “Father[s’]” actions. It is an answer that was more mirror-like than honest, in that “the son” got a response that was meant to be his own reflection rather than an actual rationalization for the “Father[‘s]” actions.
Third and Fourth Stanzas
“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?”
The lack of clarity for significant plot elements continues in these stanzas since what was noted as “Father William” is now referred to as “the sage.” While on instinct, the reader might assume that this was a new person in the conversation, the idea that “the youth” said “as I mentioned before” makes it clear that this was a continuance of the previous stanzas’ dialogue. Still, there are discrepancies present, like the fact that Stanza One indicates that the “old[er]” fellow had “very white” “hair,” but in Stanza Three, he had “grey locks.” It is possible, with this in mind, that the poem has revealed itself to be about “youth” in general and an “old[er]” generation, rather than a specific pair of speakers, like an ongoing commentary that the “young” does not understand the generations who came before them.
If such is the case, the mocking between the speakers is geared toward generations so that, for this pair of stanzas, “the sage[‘s]” answer to the “question” of why he “turned a back-somersault in at the door” becomes an insult toward “youth” overall. He asked “the youth” if he would like “a couple” “box[es]” of the “ointment” that he credited for his “limbs” having been “very supple.” This is an insult because it was telling “the youth” that the “old[er]” generation was in fine shape, but the “young[er]” group could have used the assistance of “this ointment” to boost their strength.
It is important as well to note that for every answer thus far in ‘You Are Old, Father William’, the response has essentially been that the “old[er]” generation thought similar to “the youth,” but “age” showed them the error of their trains of thought. In this, the superiority of “age” is showcased to elevate the mocking tone of the responses.
Fifth and Sixth Stanzas
“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.”
Rather than criticize the elder’s mobility in this pair of stanzas, “the youth” instead posed the “question” of how the “father” could eat “the goose, with the bones and the beak” since his “jaws [were] too weak.” This takes the generational gap to a new level since the topic is no longer related to moving about, but something as needful as eating. By asking this “question,” the “young” person attacked the “father” on a critical level because eating is necessary. However, the manner in which the “question” was addressed is, again, unusual since “the bones and the beak” were referenced as reasons why the “father” should not have been capable of eating “the goose.” If there was no need to eat these hard elements of “the goose” to have a meal, there was no logical reason to bring these details up to prove the meal was unbefitting someone his “age.”
The rationalization of the response the “father” provided proves just as confusing since he stated he “argued each case with [his] wife” which built “the muscular strength” in his “jaw” to allow him the ability to eat “the goose.” As debating with anyone would not likely make him capable of consuming things as solid as “the bones and the beak,” the reasoning did not quite make sense. It was related to similar concepts since eating and talking both involve the “jaw,” but capability in one does not mean the same for the other.
Once more, then, the reader is left with ideas that do not fully make sense, which again makes the tone of the dialogue a bit mocking, particularly when the “father” used the common scapegoat of marriage as a reason for enduring stress to become strong. The idea is practically cliché, and by presenting it as the rationalization, the “father” made a commentary on what he thought of the “the youth[‘s]” “question.” To him, it seems, the “question” was pitiful, so it deserved nothing beyond a cliché answer—one that did not even make a rational reply. It seems, then, the “father[‘s]” frustration grew as time went along.
Seventh and Eighth Stanzas
“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!”
The “father[‘s]” frustration became more apparent when he insisted his previous replies were “enough,” and then threatened violence on “the youth” if he did not stop with the “questions.” It is also clear that he considered “the youth[‘s]” mindset to be inferior and a bother since he posed his own “question:” “Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?” By asking this, the “father” basically told the “son” that his wonderings were a waste of time.
This lashing out, as it happened, came after what might have been the most unusual inquiry from “the youth” when he asked “his father” about “balanc[ing] an eel on the end of [his] nose,” commenting that this was “clever.” In reality, however, the idea was not “clever,” but bizarre, and it was this extended absurdity that caused the “father” to break “enough” to tell the “son” to “[b]e off.”
Throughout ‘You Are Old, Father William’, overall, there is a progression of odd elements, like mismatched description, unusual wondering, and ridiculous response, that only halted when the “father” had “enough” and ended the conversation. As a representation of the generational gap, this speaks volumes in that “the youth” and the elderly seem to make less sense to each other as time goes on, to the point where each generation’s stance is wondered over or mocked. In the end, the gap was so defined that at a certain point, all that could be done was to have “enough” and “[b]e off” from the conversation.
There is no better method of representing these concepts than by trading such unusual back-and-forth dialogue, meaning Carroll has showcased the strangeness of both generations to one another with precision. This is, in the end, the theme of ‘You Are Old, Father William’: that the generations may never understand one another.
About Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll is potentially best known for his works involving the famous character, Alice — specifically Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. His use of bizarre elements proves a common trait of his works so that his stories are as unusual as they are endearing. He was an English poet who lived from 1832 until 1898.