Retirement – by which we mean not only ‘giving up work after a lifetime of service to enjoy a well-earned rest’ but also ‘retiring away somewhere from something, for relaxation or contemplation’ – has been a topic of poems for centuries. The Romantics loved to retire among nature; modern and contemporary poets talk about reaching the age of retirement and enjoying a ‘second childhood’. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest retirement poems which consider various kinds of ‘retiring’.
1. Henry Vaughan, ‘The Retirement’.
Fresh fields and woods! the Earth’s fair face,
God’s foot-stool, and man’s dwelling-place.
I ask not why the first Believer
Did love to be a country liver?
Who to secure pious content
Did pitch by groves and wells his tent;
Where he might view the boundless sky,
And all those glorious lights on high;
With flying meteors, mists and show’rs,
Subjected hills, trees, meads and flow’rs …
Here’s a great poem from Henry Vaughan (1621-95), who reads like an accessible John Donne but also, in a sense, as a precursor to the Romantics, especially Wordsworth. Vaughan reflects on the great places to retire to which nature provides – places to ‘secure pious content’ or contentment.
2. William Cowper, ‘Retirement’ from Olney Hymns.
Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,
From strife and tumult far;
From scenes where Satan wages still
His most successful war.
The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree;
And seem, by Thy sweet bounty made,
For those who follow Thee …
The Olney Hymns were written in Buckinghamshire (in the village of Olney, just a few miles north of the new town of Milton Keynes) in the 1770s, with John Newton providing the music and the poet William Cowper writing the lyrics. This poem offers a beautifully calming picture of retirement in a Christian framework.
3. William Wordsworth, ‘Retirement’.
Here’s a little-known poem by the greatest first-generation English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth (1770-1850), all about the idea of retirement. In this sonnet, reproduced in full below, Wordsworth argues that ‘Peace in these feverish times is sovereign bliss’:
If the whole weight of what we think and feel,
Save only far as thought and feeling blend
With action, were as nothing, patriot Friend!
From thy remonstrance would be no appeal;
But to promote and fortify the weal
Of our own Being is her paramount end;
A truth which they alone shall comprehend
Who shun the mischief which they cannot heal.
Peace in these feverish times is sovereign bliss:
Here, with no thirst but what the stream can slake,
And startled only by the rustling brake,
Cool air I breathe; while the unincumbered Mind
By some weak aims at services assigned
To gentle Natures, thanks not Heaven amiss.
4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’.
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me …
This poem – prompted by a real-life event where the poet’s wife ‘accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me during the whole time of C. Lamb’s stay’ – is unusual on this list in that it involves enforced retirement rather than voluntary seclusion.
Coleridge (somewhat melodramatically) laments that he may never again be able to accompany his friends for a walk among the ‘roaring dell’ of the local landscape, before coming to realise that, sitting there in his natural bower and using the power of his imagination, he can still join his friends in spirit and enjoy the memory of great times spent among nature …
We have analysed this classic Romantic poem here.
5. Emily Brontë, ‘Retirement’.
This poem by the author better-known for Wuthering Heights (1847) is short enough to be quoted in full here. As with the Cowper hymn – and Cowper was a big influence on the poetry of the Brontë sisters – it views retirement in Christian terms:
O, let me be alone a while,
No human form is nigh.
And may I sing and muse aloud,
No mortal ear is by.
Away! ye dreams of earthly bliss,
Ye earthly cares begone:
Depart! ye restless wandering thoughts,
And let me be alone!
One hour, my spirit, stretch thy wings,
And quit this joyless sod,
Bask in the sunshine of the sky,
And be alone with God!
6. Emily Dickinson, ‘Some Days retired from the rest’.
This single quatrain from Emily Dickinson (1830-86) – a poet whose retiring nature meant that she spent much of her life in semi-seclusion in Amherst, Massachusetts – is short enough to be quoted in full here. It’s trademark Dickinson, in that she thinks not of human retirement but of ‘Days’ themselves retiring from others (‘the rest’ hiding a sly double meaning, of course):
Some Days retired from the rest
In soft distinction lie
The Day that a Companion came
Or was obliged to die –
7. W. B. Yeats, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings …
This poem first appeared in Yeats’s 1893 collection The Rose, when Yeats was still a young man in his late twenties. It’s the first of two appearances Yeats makes on this list (the one below was written when he was a much older man), but sees him praising the virtues of peace and quiet to be found among the ‘lake isle of Innisfree’ or Innishfree (‘Isle of Heather’), an island located near the southern shore of Lough Gill, in County Sligo, Ireland.
8. 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 …
Yeats wrote ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ in 1927, when he was in his early sixties, and published a year later in The Tower.
Yeats’s speaker announces that the country he’s left behind is ‘no country for old men’: being old, the speaker felt out of place there. Young love, birds singing, and other signs of joy and youth are not the province of the old. ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, as this opening stanza establishes, is about something that is still very much hotly debated and highlighted: how the elderly are neglected by the rest of society. Yeats decides to go to Byzantium, for reasons which we outline in the analysis that follows the poem (in the link provided above).
9. Philip Larkin, ‘Sympathy in White Major’.
‘Sympathy in White Major’ contains perhaps the most mouth-watering description of someone making a gin and tonic to be found in all English poetry. But it is also, like many Philip Larkin poems, about the relation between the self and society, between the individual and the world around him.
The poem, as we’ve discussed here, is ambiguous in that we don’t know whom the speaker is eulogising or toasting with his drink, but one possibility is that the poem is about paying tribute to someone who has either retired or died: the poem has the ring of a funeral toast or a farewell speech at a retirement party.
10. Jenny Joseph, ‘Warning’.
This is one of the best-known and best-loved poems about growing old, and the idea of retirement as a second childhood. Surprisingly, though, its author, Jenny Joseph, was only 29 when she wrote the poem.
One day, when we grow old and are able to retire, we can throw off this social responsibility and do what we like: ‘spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves’, as the poem’s speaker puts it. 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’, a poem she wrote in 1961 (it was published in Listener magazine the following year).
We have analysed this poem here.