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.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73. The third of four consecutive sonnets about ageing, 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’.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Youth and Age’. ‘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.’
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Tithonus’. 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).
Matthew Arnold, ‘Growing Old’. 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.
Thomas Hardy, ‘I look into my glass’. 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.
W. B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).