The Poems in Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Fifty years ago the 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 to-day 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. To-day there is anew 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 to-day 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 at 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 it was very funny when it came all wrong and she says,

“How doth the little crocodile
improve his shining tail,”

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


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

How skilfully 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 healthful 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 thought she was going to say.


“You are old, father William,” the young man cried,
“The few locks that 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’d my God,
And he hath not forgotten my age.”


The Duchess’s song to the pig baby,

“Speak roughly to your little boy
And beat him when he sneezes,”

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.

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.

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.


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,

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the spide 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 who 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 “Will you walk a little faster?”

“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.


‘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 hung on him are turning to rags;
And his money still wastes till 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 me betimes to love working and reading.”

“Beautiful Soup” is a very funny parody upon a popular song of the time and runs as follows:


Beautiful star in heav’n so bright,
Softly falls thy silv’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 divine,
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 upon the last word.

Beau—ootiful Soo—oop!
“Beau—ootiful Soo—oop!
Soo—oop of the e—e—evening,
Beautiful, beauti—FUL SOUP!”

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


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 thewording in the original first stanza andbegan:

“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?”

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

The parody is not the highest form of wit and not the most skilful 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.

Milner, Florence. “The Poems in Alice in Wonderland.” The Bookman XVIII, September 1903, pp. 13-6.

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