Literature

Poetry Tuesday!: "A-Sitting on a Gate" by Lewis Carroll

"I'll tell thee everything I can; / There's little to relate, / I saw an aged, aged man, / A-sitting on a gate...."

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Here's "A-Sitting on a Gate" (1871) (also known as "Haddock's Eyes", "Ways and Means", and "The Aged Aged Man") by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). This poem was part of the novel Through the Looking-Glass. (This is on my YouTube channel, which mostly consists of my Sasha Reads playlist, plus a smattering of law-related songs.) Here's a link to a previous Carroll poem I read, "Rules and Regulations".

I'll tell thee everything I can;
There's little to relate,
I saw an aged, aged man,
A-sitting on a gate.
"Who are you, aged man?" I said.
"And how is it you live?"
And his answer trickled through my head
Like water through a sieve.

He said, "I look for butterflies
That sleep among the wheat;
I make them into mutton-pies,
And sell them in the street.
I sell them unto men," he said,
"Who sail on stormy seas;
And that's the way I get my bread —
A trifle, if you please."

But I was thinking of a plan
To dye one's whiskers green,
And always use so large a fan
That they could not be seen.
So, having no reply to give
To what the old man said,
I cried, "Come, tell me how you live!"
And thumped him on the head.

His accents mild took up the tale;
He said, "I go my ways,
And when I find a mountain-rill,
I set it in a blaze;
And thence they make a stuff they call
Rowland's Macassar Oil —
Yet twopence-halfpenny is all
They give me for my toil."

But I was thinking of a way
To feed one's self on batter,
And so go on from day to day
Getting a little fatter.
I shook him well from side to side,
Until his face was blue,
"Come, tell me how you live," I cried,
"And what it is you do!"

He said, "I hunt for haddocks' eyes
Among the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat-buttons
In the silent night.
And these I do not sell for gold
Or coin of silvery shine,
But for a copper halfpenny,
And that will purchase nine.

"I sometimes dig for buttered rolls,
Or set limed twigs for crabs;
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of hansom-cabs.
And that's the way" (he gave a wink)
"By which I get my wealth —
And very gladly will I drink
Your honor's noble health."

I heard him then, for I had just
Completed my design
To keep the Menai bridge from rust
By boiling it in wine.
I thanked him much for telling me
The way he got his wealth,
But chiefly for his wish that he
Might drink my noble health.

And now, if e'er by chance I put
My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe,
Or if I drop upon my toe
A very heavy weight,
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know —
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo —
That summer evening long ago,
A-sitting on a gate.

For the rest of my "Sasha Reads" playlist, click here. Past poems are:

  1. "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  2. "The Pulley" by George Herbert
  3. "Harmonie du soir" ("Evening Harmony") by Charles Baudelaire (French)
  4. "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  5. "Clancy of the Overflow" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson
  6. "Лотова жена" ("Lotova zhena", "Lot's wife") by Anna Akhmatova (Russian)
  7. "The Jumblies" by Edward Lear
  8. "The Conqueror Worm" by Edgar Allan Poe
  9. "Les Djinns" ("The Jinns") by Victor Hugo (French)
  10. "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" by Alan Seeger
  11. "When I Was One-and-Twenty" by A.E. Housman
  12. "Узник" ("Uznik", "The Prisoner" or "The Captive") by Aleksandr Pushkin (Russian)
  13. "God's Grandeur" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
  14. "The Song of Wandering Aengus" by William Butler Yeats
  15. "Je crains pas ça tellment" ("I'm not that scard about") by Raymond Queneau (French)
  16. "The Naming of Cats" by T.S. Eliot
  17. "The reticent volcano keeps…" by Emily Dickinson
  18. "Она" ("Ona", "She") by Zinaida Gippius (Russian)
  19. "Would I Be Shrived?" by John D. Swain
  20. "Evolution" by Langdon Smith
  21. "Chanson d'automne" ("Autumn Song") by Oscar Milosz (French)
  22. "love is more thicker than forget" by e.e. cummings
  23. "My Three Loves" by Henry S. Leigh
  24. "Я мечтою ловил уходящие тени" ("Ia mechtoiu lovil ukhodiashchie teni", "With my dreams I caught the departing shadows") by Konstantin Balmont (Russian)
  25. "Dane-geld" by Rudyard Kipling
  26. "Rules and Regulations" by Lewis Carroll
  27. "Vers dorés" ("Golden Lines") by Gérard de Nerval (French)
  28. "So That's Who I Remind Me Of" by Ogden Nash
  29. "The Epic" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  30. "La chambre double" ("The Double Room") by Charles Baudelaire (French)
  31. "Медный всадник" ("The Bronze Horseman") by Aleksandr Pushkin (Russian)
  32. "Herbst" ("Autumn") by Rainer Maria Rilke (German)
  33. "Romance de la luna, luna" ("Ballad of the Moon Moon") by Federico García Lorca (Spanish)
  34. "The Four Friends" by A.A. Milne
  35. "anyone lived in a pretty how town" by e.e. cummings
  36. "Листья" ("Leaves") by Fyodor Tyutchev (Russian)
  37. "The Pobble Who Has No Toes" by Edward Lear
  38. "The Persian Version" by Robert Graves
  39. "Les deux voix" ("The Two Voices") by Victor Hugo (French)
  40. "Lines Written in Dejection" by William Butler Yeats
  41. "Loveliest of Trees" by A.E. Housman
  42. "Akh, chto-to mne ne veritsia…" ("Oh, somehow I can't believe…") by Bulat Okudzhava (Russian)
  43. "Alone" by Edgar Allan Poe
  44. "The Man from Snowy River" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson
  45. "À la mémoire d'une chatte naine que j'avais" ("In memory of a dwarf cat I had") by Jules Laforgue (French)
  46. "When We Two Parted" by George Gordon, Lord Byron

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  1. This one is a parody of the later verses of Wordworth’s “Resolution and Independence” when the narrator is asking the old man how he makes his living. The old man’s a leech-gatherer and the narrator asks him several times.

    As usual, the Carroll’s an improvement.

    1. Yes, the Wordsworth original isn’t very funny.

  2. When people hear that reading, either it brings tears to their eyes, or else it doesn’t.

    1. Why not both?

  3. The funniest mathematician of all time, until Tom Lehrer.

    1. Read SURREAL NUMBERS by D. E. Knuth.

  4. The poem is a parody, you know, or rather, a re-working of a parody which Lewis Carroll had published previously. The original, which LC was parodying, is by Wordsworth, called Resolution and Independence.

  5. May I plug this reading just one more time? I love it sooooooo much……..

  6. May I suggest: Something by Wilfred Owen (e.g., “Anthem for Doomed Youth”)? Or Siegfried Sassoon (e.g., “Base Details”)? Or John Donne (e.g., “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”)?

  7. I like to walk where’er I can
    Down east or on the Cape
    I am an old New England man,
    On rocks or dune sandscape

    I sometimes dig for battered clams,
    But nor for Maryland crabs;
    I walk the beach and hear the tides
    Far from the Hub’s loud cabs.

    And that’s the way” (he gave a wink)
    “By which I save my health —
    Out on the beach with time to think
    Instead of chasing wealth.”

    (OK that’s what you get for 5 minutes work…)

    1. Not too bad at all!

  8. Thank you Sasha for reminding me of this poem of which I am quite fond.

  9. For computer people (and maybe others too), the more interesting part is the lead-in:

    ‘You are sad,’ the Knight said in an anxious tone: ‘let me sing you a song to comfort you.’

    ‘Is it very long?’ Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

    ‘It’s long,’ said the Knight, ‘but very, VERY beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it–either it brings the TEARS into their eyes, or else–’

    ‘Or else what?’ said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

    ‘Or else it doesn’t, you know. The name of the song is called “HADDOCKS’ EYES.”’

    ‘Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?’ Alice said, trying to feel interested.

    ‘No, you don’t understand,’ the Knight said, looking a little vexed. ‘That’s what the name is CALLED. The name really IS “THE AGED AGED MAN.”’

    ‘Then I ought to have said “That’s what the SONG is called”?’ Alice corrected herself.

    ‘No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The SONG is called “WAYS AND MEANS”: but that’s only what it’s CALLED, you know!’

    ‘Well, what IS the song, then?’ said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

    ‘I was coming to that,’ the Knight said. ‘The song really IS “A-SITTING ON A GATE”: and the tune’s my own invention.’

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