By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Warning’ is Jenny Joseph’s best-known poem. It’s become one of the best-loved poems among British readers of poetry, but its appeal extends beyond the United Kingdom. What makes ‘Warning’ so continually popular? Before we offer some words of analysis, it’s worth reading the poem: you can find it here. The poem is written in free verse: unrhymed without a regular metre.
Many of us probably resent having to behave sensibly during adult life. Once the waywardness of childhood and adolescence is past, we know that we have a duty – to ourselves, but also to society at large and to our own reputations – to behave responsibly and carefully. Once, we were carefree children. Now, as adults, there are mortgages to pay, children to raise, jobs to be done.
But … one day, when we grow old and are able to retire, we can throw off this social responsibility and do what we like. Or at least, now, as responsible and sensible adults, we can entertain the fantasy that that is what we will do in our old age. This is the dream or longing that Jenny Joseph so brilliantly and wittily gives expression to in ‘Warning’.
Even the title points up the poem’s status as light-hearted and witty. Joseph is warning the world of what she will be like as an old lady, but most of the things she mentions in the course of the poem are fairly innocuous (learning to ‘spit’ is perhaps the most antisocial), so it’s not as if we need to call this a serious ‘warning’ as such.
Indeed, although the first line of the poem, ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’ is (rightly) famous for its memorable attention to detail (why purple?), the meaning of the statement only comes to make full sense if we quote the rest of that opening statement, which runs on to the second line: ‘With a red hat that doesn’t go’.
There’s nothing intrinsically shocking about wearing purple, after all; but wearing purple clothes with a red hat that clashes with it is a move designed to shock for the appalling lack of dress sense such a decision suggests.
The details which follow depict someone growing old as ungracefully as the poet can imagine: picking flowers in other people’s gardens (okay, that might be the most antisocial thing she plans to do), eating three pounds of sausages in one go, and pressing alarm bells (and then presumably running away, having plunged the vicinity into mayhem).
The motivation for wanting to do all of this mischief is clearly stated in the poem itself: it’s to ‘make up for the sobriety of my youth.’
One analysis of ‘Warning’ sees the poem as one of rebellion. But the poem isn’t exactly about rebellion, and not just because the transgressions she plans to commit in her dotage (her second childhood, to borrow from Shakespeare’s Jaques) are so endearingly minor.
No: the poem upholds the status quo, if anything, because Joseph’s speaker is advocating the idea of adhering to social expectations now, in her prime when she has to earn a living and set a good example for her children (if she has any), and saving these petty peccadilloes for her advancing years, when it won’t much matter. Indeed, it’ll even be celebrated that an old lady has such vigour and lust for life!
And ‘lady’ and ‘woman’ are, in the last analysis, significant: if the poem was written by a man about the misdemeanours he’d commit in his old age, it would have a different effect. There is something to be said here about the time in which Joseph wrote ‘Warning’: the early 1960s, before second-wave feminism, the summer of love, and the sexual revolution greatly altered social attitudes towards women in Britain and elsewhere (and, indeed, altered women’s own sense of what was possible in their lives).
In such a strait-laced age, in which women were still expected (in the main) to grow up, get married, settle down and have children, acting as homemakers rather than jobseekers, even wearing a purple dress with a red hat may have seemed like a quietly transgressive ambition to have for one’s old age. However, even in the early 1960s this is supposed to strike us as appealingly (and perhaps reassuringly?) harmless.
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 – a handy anthology for anyone wanting to become ‘well-versed’ in some classic and perennially popular 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.
A Red Hat Society was founded in the United States in honour of the poem.
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.