Sunday, December 27, 2015

Kaiser William

"You Are Old, Father William" by Lewis Carroll was one of my favorite poems growing us.  The poem was a parody of another poem, Robert Southey's rather pious "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them” -- well known to children of Carroll’s time.   Of course, Southey’s poem is now mostly forgotten, and only Carroll’s parody is remembered.   Martin Gardner called it "one of the undisputed masterpieces of nonsense verse.”

Parody only invites further parody.  Here is a clever one that that I found while looking for other things.  And you also get a brief history lesson.

You Are Young, Kaiser William  
By Mostyn T. Pigott
"You are young, Kaiser William," the old man exclaimed,
"And your wisdom-teeth barely are through,
And yet by your deeds the whole world is inflamed--  
Do you think this is proper of you?"
"As a baby I doted on playing with fire,"
Replied the irascible prince,
"And though I was spanked by my excellent sire,
I've been doing the same ever since."
"You are young," said the Sage, "and your juvenile legs    
Are not what one would call fully grown;
Yet you point out to grandmamma how to suck eggs-- 1
Why adopt this preposterous tone?'  
"As a child," said the youth, "I perceived that my head      
Wouldn't ever allow me to learn,    
So I made up my mind to start teaching instead,
And I've taught everybody in turn."
"You are young," said the Sage, "as I mentioned just now,          
Yet with relatives over the sea      
You have recently kicked up a terrible row—  
Do you think that such things ought to be."
"In my yacht,' said the youth, 'I will oftentimes range,
And at Cowes I have gibed once or twice. 2
So it came to my mind that by way of a change
To gibe at a Bull would be nice."3

"You are young," said the Seer, "but the past you ignore,    
And have an extravagant trick
Of using up telegraph forms by the score
Why are you so painfully quick?"
"As a child," replied William, "they taught me to write
An entirely illegible scrawl;
But a wire which the post office people indite
Can be read without trouble by all." 4

"You are young," said the Sage, "but you cling to the view
That the whole of the world must be yours,  
Now show how the Transvaal's connected with you,  
And what business you have with the Boers." 5
"I am tired of your questions, and sick of your din,"
Answered William; "obey my behest—"
Be off! or I'll treat you as one of my kin,"
And order your instant arrest!"

1 “Teaching grandmother to suck eggs” is an English expression meaning to give advice to someone else about a subject about which they already know (and probably far more than you.).  This may also be a reference to the Kaiser’s grandmother, Queen Victoria.

2 Cowes is a town on the coast of England that hosts the world’s largest regatta every August.  Beginning in the 1890s, Wilhelm visited England for the regatta and often competed against his Uncle Bertie, later King Edward VII, in the yacht races.

3 “To gibe at a Bull.”  Here, Pigott makes a pun on the word gibe.  As we all know from sailing, to “gibe,” more commonly spelled “jibe,” is to shift from one side to the other when running before the wind. “Gibe” also means to show one's contempt in derision or mockery.  I’m guessing that “the Bull” refers to John Bull, the national personification of Great Britain; similar to how Uncle Sam represents the United States.

4But a wire which the post office people indite/Can be read without trouble by all.” This has been the hardest reference for me to track down.  The closest I came resolving this is the fact that apparently Wilhelm’s handwriting was not good.  His mother, the Crown Princess Vicky of Great Britain, insisted that Wilhelm write to her in English.  At one point she told him, “The handwriting distresses me, it is so babyish.”
     But as to the line accusing the Kaiser of having "an extravagant trick/Of using up telegraph forms by the score," I haven't a clue.  Pigott’s reference in this poem written in 1896 to Wilhelm’s use of the telegraph, however, was remarkably prescient.  In July and August 1914, a flurry of telegrams were exchanged between Wilhelm, and Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia, on the eve of the First World War, in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent war.  They were called the Willy-Nicky telegrams.  The two leaders were related and well acquainted with one another (they vacationed together, hunted together and enjoyed dressing up in the uniforms of each other’s military officers when sailing on their yachts).  They referred to each other as Nicky and Willy in the telegrams.  The telegrams were written in English.
    I’m open to other suggestions as to what this verse might mean.  Perhaps Big Pete, whose specialty is WW I, may have some answers here.

5And what business you have with the Boers."  In January 1896, Kaiser Wilhelm sent a telegram to the president of the Transvaal Republic congratulating the president on repelling a raid by 600 British irregulars from Cape Colony into the Transvaal:  “I express to you my sincere congratulations that you and your people, without appealing to the help of friendly powers, have succeeded, by your own energetic action against the armed bands which invaded your country as disturbers of the peace, in restoring peace and in maintaining the independence of the country against attack from without.”  The British saw the telegram as German meddling in what they considered their own sphere of influence and a threat that Germany might lend support to Transvaal’s independence in the future.  Not surprisingly, the message led to further deterioration in relations between the two countries.


James R said...

Would we all learn history this way! Also, I never realized Lewis Carroll lived so long ago. His writing seemed it was part of the 20th century.

Big Myk said...

Another incredibly entertaining way to learn history -- at least recent history -- is to watch The Big Short. The Big Short comes close to the level of clarity about the very complicated stuff behind the market collapse of 2008 that Planet Money's "The Giant Pool of Money" achieved, and the best part is: it's a comedy!