The best poems about ageing selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘I grow old… I grow old…’ So speaks J. Alfred Prufrock in T. S. Eliot’s classic poem. And, indeed, poets have often been drawn to the topic of growing old and approaching one’s winter years. Here are ten of the very finest poems about ageing, from the age of Shakespeare to the current century.
1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest …
The third of four consecutive sonnets about ageing in Shakespeare’s 154-sonnet sequence, this poem, beginning ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold’, is a firm favourite for anthologists and sonnet fans. The gist of this poem is summed up by Don Paterson in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets thus: ‘The more decrepit I look, the more you’ll love me, as this reminds you that I’ll be gone before you are’.
2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Youth and Age’.
When I was young?—Ah, woful When!
Ah! for the change ’twixt Now and Then!
This breathing house not built with hands,
This body that does me grievous wrong,
O’er aery cliffs and glittering sands,
How lightly then it flashed along:—
Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide!
Nought cared this body for wind or weather
When Youth and I lived in’t together …
‘You’re only as old as you feel’ might be a rough paraphrase of the main sentiment driving this poem, by one of English literature’s leading Romantic poets. Because of this, it’s an altogether more upbeat poem about growing old than some of the others included on this list. If we can but remain young in mind, then we are young, no matter that our bodies may be growing older. No: as Coleridge asserts, ‘Youth and I are house-mates still.’
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Tithonus’.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man—
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give …
It is a strange feeling about those who are taken young that while we are getting old and dusty they are just as they were.’ So wrote Benjamin Jowett in a letter to Tennyson in 1859. This, in essence, is the core of ‘Tithonus’. Jowett was referring to the sudden death of Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson’s best friend from Cambridge, who had died of a stroke, aged just 22, in 1833.
Taking its cue from the myth of the mortal Tithonus, who loved the goddess Aurora but was destined to grow older while she remained forever young, ‘Tithonus’ has been interpreted as a poem in response to Hallam’s death, along with ‘Ulysses’ (another one of Tennyson’s dramatic monologues about an ageing man).
4. Matthew Arnold, ‘Growing Old’.
What is it to grow old?
Is it to lose the glory of the form,
The lustre of the eye?
Is it for beauty to forgo her wreath?
—Yes, but not this alone.
Is it to feel our strength—
Not our bloom only, but our strength—decay?
Is it to feel each limb
Grow stiffer, every function less exact,
Each nerve more loosely strung?
Yes, this, and more; but not
Ah, ’tis not what in youth we dreamed ’twould be!
’Tis not to have our life
Mellowed and softened as with sunset glow,
A golden day’s decline …
So begins the longer poem by the Victorian poet and critic, Matthew Arnold (1822-88). Arnold treats the subject of ageing in this poem, published in 1867 when he was in his mid-forties. Arnold’s view of growing old is a rather bleak one, equating the ageing process with a loss of any remembrance of having once been young, and a gradual dissipation of all feeling. But then the poet best-known for writing ‘Dover Beach’ wasn’t in the habit of cheering us up.
5. Thomas Hardy, ‘I look into my glass’.
I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, ‘Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!’
For then I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity …
A short poem, with a simple message: the speaker looks at himself in his mirror (or ‘glass’) and sees his wrinkled and ageing skin, and wishes that his heart was similarly weakened and reduced. The implication, of course, is that the speaker’s romantic leanings are those of a young man, even though the speaker himself is now old. The heart that beats in his aged chest is that of a young man still capable of feeling love, romantic longing, and infatuation.
6. W. B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect …
So begins this, one of the most famous poems Yeats wrote, and one of his later poems, written when he himself was growing old. Growing older, feeling out of touch with the new generation superseding you, feeling surplus to requirements, waiting for death. These are, perhaps, inevitable thoughts once we reach a certain age, and they certainly came to Yeats in his later years, and he frequently wrote about growing old. This is what ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is about.
The poem is about renouncing the hold of the world upon us, and attaining something higher than the physical or sensual. Since ‘Byzantium’ (the Turkish city that later became known as Constantinople, and, later still, Istanbul) was variously ruled by Greeks, Romans, and Christians (in the later years of the Roman empire), and is now largely populated by Muslims, the city acts as a sort of meeting-point for various ethnicities, cultures, religions, and traditions, its significance in Yeats’s poem can be interpreted in light of this idea of shared ideas across different religious systems.
7. Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Crusoe in England’.
This dramatic monologue imagines Robinson Crusoe looking back on his life, after he’s been rescued from his island and has returned to England as an older man. What does Defoe’s character have left, after his life of adventure and toil? The poem is an interesting example of a female poet taking on a male character’s persona and re-examining it: the Crusoe we encounter is altogether more ‘modern’ and introspective than the depiction in Defoe’s novel over two centuries before.
8. Philip Larkin, ‘Dockery and Son’.
Prompted by a visit to his old college at Oxford and the discovery that one of his former student peers now has a grown-up son while Larkin remains childless, ‘Dockery and Son’ explores the passing of youth, the way people use their time, and how old age and then ‘the only end of age’ awaits us all.
9. Jenny Joseph, ‘Warning’.
This comic poem, which has been voted the UK’s favourite post-war poem on several occasions, celebrates approaching old age and the freedoms which one’s twilight years can bring, when we can wear what we like and indulge our eccentricities which, while we were being ‘grown-up’, had to repress.
In 1996, ‘Warning’ was voted the British nation’s 22nd favourite poem of all time, in a BBC poll. (The full results of the poll were published as The Nation’s Favourite Poems.) By then, the poem was already 35 years old, and Joseph – a youthful 29 when she penned the poem – was already approaching those twilight years of old age which she looked towards in ‘Warning’. She died in 2018, but had refused to wear purple in her declining years, saying the colour didn’t suit her …
We have analysed this classic poem here.
10. Fleur Adcock, ‘Mrs Baldwin’.
This is the most recent poem on this list of poems about ageing. It was published in 2013 in Adcock’s collection Glass Wings. Adcock, who is now in her eighties, writes in ‘Mrs Baldwin’ of the envy that grips her at hearing that someone else has received a cancer diagnosis, because somehow – like Tithonus – she longs for death and release now that she is old and worried about losing hold (specifically, she hints at Alzheimer’s).
This short poem offers a thought that is rarer than the usual ones we might expect about old age, and so offers a different take on the process of ageing.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. For more classic poetry selections, see our pick of the best poems about childhood and youth and these classic poems about death.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Portrait of Lord Alfred Tennyson by John Everett Millais, Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Larkin with Gin & Tonic, 1961; photographer unknown. First published in Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite. Via Simon K on Flickr (share-alike licence).