Poetry Wednesday: You are Old, Father William (Not)

Today is my Dad’s eighty-first birthday and since it landed on a Wednesday this year, I thought I might write him a poem as a gift.*

Unfortunately, loving poetry doesn’t make me a poet** any more than loving the Olympics makes me in any way an athlete, so my best efforts weren’t quite the ode I wanted.

The slowed body sings
To its own ageless spirit
Snap, ping, ouch, crack, damn. . . 

So I tried to think of poems about growing old gracefully, or at least defiantly, about role models and fathers, of tying shoes and sealing wax and cabbages and kings—

Hold up.

Lewis Carroll is good for all kinds of things, isn’t he?  Like parodies so well done that it doesn’t matter than no one remembers the original.

And in many ways, this fits my own father very well:

You Are Old, Father William
(Lewis Carroll)

“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?”

Old Ass Soak“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!”

My Dad might be slightly more patient than this; heaven knows, he’s used to mouthy kids.

And because Dad loves this kind of stuff—it’s genetic—I tracked down the original poem.***   It’s rather . . . goopier . . . than the original—you have been warned:

The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them
(Robert Southey)

“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,
Hourglass“I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And abus’d 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 remember’d that youth could not last;
I thought 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 hast’ning 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 remember’d my God!
And He hath not forgotten my age.”

I can see why Mr. Carroll pitched the young fool down the stairs, can’t you?

But really, my Dad is a kind of blend between these two extreme Williams: the one who saved up all his youth and spared himself any risk so he could rest comfortably in mint-condition old age, and the one who fully intends his gravestone to say, “We buried what pieces we could find.”

He’s probably a little closer to the latter . . . But as far as I can tell, he’s had a great time along the way, with maybe a few regrets that he doesn’t, all things considered, regret at all.

And he could totally balance an eel on his nose if he wanted to—or at least he’d have a  blast trying.

Happy birthday, Dad.

Snap, ping, crack, ouch . . . 


*And a card . . . Seriously, you and Mom and going to get a serious Hallmark care package as soon as I get my ducks in a row . . . Okay, I lie, I’m probably going to hand them all over when I see you late this month (hangs head in shame).

**I’ll cop to being a filker, but not a particularly good one.

***Actually, I found the link while I was looking for a clean copy of “Father William.” All hail Wikipedia!