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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Number 99: Lewis Carroll "Ways and Means"

A-sitting on a Gate

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 oneself 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 Honour'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.

--Lewis Carroll

Hap Notes: This is from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by the mathematician and writer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). I've always thought the white knight, who is the chess piece of the same name come to life, to be a character somewhat like the author. The knight is clumsy and odd, somewhat like the "L" shaped movement of the chess piece seems to be and he is charming, odd and a bit sad in spite of his strange and thoughtful "inventions."

Both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have been made into movies or squished together into one movie and while every version has its charm no one version ever satisfies. It's sort of like Hamlet that way; one never sees a version that is perfect because one has ideas about who should play what character and how the books compare. I suppose the same could be said for all of my favorite books and plays including Anna Karenina- the imagination is the best movie maker, I think.

Oh, but how they have tried with Alice. Here are several version of the White Knight:
This is Richard Burton with a cunningly designed Tenniel-like-drawing costume. He's got the sadness right but they make him do the old soft shoe. Not a good idea. That's his daughter playing Alice, by the way.

Here's Gary Cooper giving it a try:
Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen is wonderful. Cooper does a good job. It's a bit weird and old Hollywood, though. And he doesn't say the poem.

Here's Christopher Lloyd as the White Knight :
Lloyd is wonderful but, of course, they wrote extra dialog for him (like Carroll wasn't clever enough for the film makers- sheesh!) and he doesn't say the poem.

Finally we have Ian Holm:
Kate Beckinsale is Alice. This film got it most right as far as the poem and Holm is good but wants everything.

Now. Did you know some believe that John Tenniel based his drawings of the knight upon a painting by JE Millias, "Sir Isumbrus at the Ford"? (That's the masthead painting today).

Also there is a Lewis Carroll Society (which I found out strictly by chance when interviewing Robyn Hitchcock- it's a long story.) But the society does a bit of studying on Carroll and you can see it here :

Lot of links in this chain(mail) today. Thought it might be fun for a weekend.

Here's the title of the poem as written in the book:

"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

"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 is 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."

Oh- one more thing: Rowland's Macassar-Oil is a hair oil used by men in Victorian times. That's why the little doily which is often put on the back of an overstuffed arm chair is called an "anti-macassar" - it absorbed the oil and saved the chair.

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