The Poems in Alice in Wonderland

by Florence Milner

The Bookman XVIII, September 1903, pp. 13-6

This article is reproduced with the addition of the full verses from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Fifty years ago the child world was made glad by the appearance of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It is a universal story and so belongs to all time. It has never gone out of fashion and never will as long as children love wonder-stories and grown-ups have young hearts.

But those who read the book when it was first published found in it a delight which the child of today misses. Fifty years ago certain poems appeared in every reader and were read over and over again until the child was stupid indeed who did not unconsciously learn them by heart. Today there is a new fashion in literature. Children are whirled from one supplementary reader to another, conning graceful rhymes and pretty stories all illustrated with artistic pictures, but the old things have passed away.

All the poems in Alice in Wonderland are parodies upon these once familiar rhymes. Scattered lines of the poems cling to the minds of older people; they remember being once familiar with them; they recognise the metre and can sometimes repeat two or three opening lines, but the complete poem eludes them, and the author they probably never did know. The children of today do not know the verses at all, and as a parody ceases to be a parody without the original poem as a background, the trouble of gathering these originals seems worth while.

After Alice had fallen down the rabbit-hole and had passed through her first transformation, when she shut up like a telescope until she was only ten inches high and then grew bigger and bigger until ‘her head struck the roof of the hall’, she became confused as to her identity. To make sure of it, she tried to repeat a little poem which everybody in those days knew by heart, and to such children is was very funny when it cam out all wrong and she says,

How Doth The Little Crocodile
Lewis Carroll

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spread his claws,
And welcome little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

when she though she was repeating that highly moral poem by Isaac Watts,

Against Idleness And Mischief
Isaac Watts

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthy play,
Let my first years be passed
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

Again, in her conversation with the Caterpillar, Alice told him that being so many different sizes in a day was very confusing, as he would find when he changed into a chrysalis and then into a butterfly. She confessed that she could not remember things and told her experience with ‘How doth the little busy bee’. The Caterpillar, wishing to test the matter, ordered her to say, ‘You are old, Father William’. How well she succeeded will appear from comparing what she said with what she though she was going to say.

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?’

‘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!’

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,
‘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’s my God.
And He hath not forgotten my age.’

The Duchess’s song to the pig baby.

Speak Roughly
Lewis Carroll

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

Wow! wow! wow!

I speak severely to my boy,
I beat him when he sneezes;
For he can thoroughly enjoy
The pepper when he pleases!

is an absurdity in itself, but a much greater one when contrasted with its serious parallel. There is evidently some uncertainty as to the author of this poem, for it occasionally appears as anonymous, but is generally credited as below. [Editor’s Note: Speak Gently turns out to have been written by David Bates (1809-1870). The correct text can be found at]

Speak Gently
G. W. Langford

Speak gently! It is better far
To rule by love than fear
Speak gently; let no harsh word mar
The good we may do here!

Speak gently to the little child!
Its love be sure to gain;
Teach it in accents soft and mild;
It may not long remain.

Speak gently to the young, for they
Will have enough to bear;
Pass through this life as best they may,
’Tis full of anxious care!

Speak gently to the aged one,
Grieve not the care-worn heart;
Whose sands of life are nearly run,
Let such in peace depart!

Speak gently, kindly to the poor;
Let no harsh tone be heard;
They have enough they must endure,
Without an unkind word!

Speak gently to the erring; know
They must have toiled in vain;
Perchance unkindness made them so;
Oh, win them back again.

Speak gently; Love doth whisper low
The vows that true hearts bind;
And gently Friendship’s accents flow;
Affection’s voice is kind.

Speak gently; ’tis a little thing
Dropped in the heart’s deep well;
The good, the joy, that it may bring,
Eternity shall tell.

‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat’ which the Hatter said that he sang at the concert given by the Queen of Hearts, is the most familiarly suggestive of them all.

The Bat
Lewis Carroll

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly
Like a tea-tray in the sky.

Jane and Ann Taylor were two English sisters who wrote together, publishing their poems under such titles as Original Poems for Infant Minds and Hymns for Infant Minds. Jane was supposed to have written most of them, and this one carries her signature.

The Star
Jane Taylor

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark:
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye
Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveller in the dark,
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Mary Howitt wrote ‘The Spider and the Fly’, the first stanza of which originally read,

The Spider And The Fly
Mary Howitt

‘Will you walk into my parlour?’ said the spider to the fly,
‘ ’Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy,
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve got many curious things to show when you are there.’
‘Oh, no, no,’ said the little fly, ‘to ask me is in vain,
For whoever goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.’

This poem has suffered various modifications and several versions appear in print, but the quoted stanza is doubtless from the original one. The beat of the metre is very perfectly kept in the Mock Turtle’s

A Whiting And A Snail
Lewis Carroll

‘Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail.
‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle - will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

‘You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!’
But the snail replied ‘Too far, too far!’ and gave a look askance -
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.

‘What matters it how far we go?’ his scaly friend replied.
‘There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France -
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?’

‘ ’Tis the voice of the lobster’, which Alice repeats at the gruff order of the Gryphon, returns to Isaac Watts. Probably no poem in the book is further removed from modern thought and modern literary ideals than this one.

The Lobster
Lewis Carroll

’Tis the voice of the Lobster; I heard him declare,
‘You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.’
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.

When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark,
But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,
His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.

The Sluggard
Isaac Watts

’Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
‘You have wak’d me too soon, I must slumber again.’
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

‘A little more sleep, and a little more slumber;’
Thus he wastes half his days, and his hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.

I pass’d by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher;
The clothes that hang on him are turning to rags;
And his money still wastes thill he starves or he begs.

I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind;
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking;
But he scarce reads his Bible and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart, ‘Here’s a lesson for me,
This man’s but a picture of what I might be;
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding,
Who taught be betimes to love working and reading.’

‘Beautiful Soup’ is a very funny parody upon a popular song of the time that runs as follows:

Star Of The Evening
James M. Sayle

Beautiful star in heav’n so bright,
Softly falls thy silb’ry light,
As thou movest from earth afar,
Star of the evening, beautiful star.

Beautiful star,
Beautiful star,
Star of the evening, beautiful star.

In fancy’s eye thou seem’st to say,
Follow me, come from earth away.
Upward thy spirit’s pinions try,
To realms of love beyond the sky.

Shine on, oh star of love diving,
And may our soul’s affection twine
Around thee as thou movest afar,
Star of the twilight, beautiful star.

The most delightful part of the parody is the division of the words in the refrain in imitation of the approved method of singing the song, with its holds and its sentimental stress on the last word.

Soup Of The Evening
Lewis Carroll

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Soo - oop of the e - e - evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two p
ennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Soo - oop of the e - e - evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

The poem upon which the last parody is based is not as well known as most of the other, the first two lines being the only ones often quoted.

Alice Gray
William Mee

She’s all my fancy painted her, she’s lovely, she’s divine,
But her heart it is another’s, she never can be mine.
Yet loved I as man never loved, a love without decay,
Oh, my heart, my heart is breaking for the love of Alice Gray.

Her dark brown hair is braided o’er a brow of spotless white,
Her soft blue eye now languishes, now flashes with delight;
Her hair is braided not for me, the eye is turned away,
Yet my heart, my heart is breaking for the love of Alice Gray.

I’ve sunk beneath the summer’s sun, and trembled in the blast.
But my pilgrimage is nearly done, the weary conflict’s past;
And when the green sod wraps my grave, may pity haply say,
Oh, his heart, his heart is broken for the love of Alice Gray!

Carroll’s first writing followed the wording in the original first version:

She’s all my fancy painted him
(I make no idle boast);
If he or you had lost a limb,
Which would have suffered most?

They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone
(We know it to be true):
If she should push the matter on,
What would become of you?

I gave her one, they gave him two,
You gave us three or more;
They all returned from him to you,
Though they were mine before.

If I or she should chance to be
Involved in this affair,
He trusts to you to set them free,
Exactly as we were.

My notion was that you had been
(Before she had this fit)
An obstacle that came between
Him, and ourselves, and it.

Don’t let him know she liked them best,
For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me.

But for some unknown reason he dropped the first stanza, beginning with the second, thus obliterating all evident resemblance between parody and original.

The parody is not the highest form of art and not the most skillful form of verse, but Lewis Carroll has done these eight so well that doubtless some of them will live after the originals are forgotten. Even now, in order to search them out, it has been necessary to beat the dust from many a forgotten volume in a library’s unmolested corners, but the nonsense rhymes they suggested are jingling upon the tongues of children the wide world over and mingling with their happy laughter.


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