Sep. 5, 2003

The White Knight's Ballad

by Lewis Carroll

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Poem: "The White Knight's Ballad," by Lewis Carroll.

The White Knight's Ballad

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 I 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
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.

Literary Notes:

On this day in 1957, Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road was published by Viking Press. The Beat Generation classic was based on road trips Kerouac made with his friend Neal Cassady in the late 1940s. Kerouac started writing the novel on April 12, 1951, and finished on April 22. He taped together sheets of tracing paper to create a one hundred and twenty foot-long scroll.

It's the birthday of American avant-garde composer John Cage, born in Los Angeles, California (1912). He was a student of Arnold Shoenberg, and started out writing pieces in his teacher's 12-tone style before beginning to experiment with the "prepared piano"—a piano with objects placed between its strings to change their sound. He also began experimenting with tape recorders, randomly tuned radios, and silence.

It's the birthday of Hungarian-born British novelist Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest (1905). His most famous novel came in 1941. It was Darkness at Noon, about Stalin's purges of the Communist Party during the 1930s.

It's the birthday of French playwright Victorien Sardou, born in Paris (1831). He was the popular author of a number of well-crafted bourgeois dramas, several of which he wrote as a showcase for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. Sardou's La Tosca was written as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, and it was in the climactic scene of the play, during a 1915 performance, that the actress seriously injured her leg—an injury that resulted in amputation. Bernhardt also starred in the premiere of Sardou's Fedorain 1881; she made her entrance wearing a new style of felt hat with a crushed crown that was known forever after as a "fedora."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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