I have a significant birthday this year, so a poem about ageing disgracefully seems rather appropriate. This one is by Jenny Joseph (1932 – 2018).
Warning by Jenny Joseph
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
The poem was written in 1961 and published the following year. Philip Larkin included it in his The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse and soon it was regularly included in school anthologies. It is in four stanzas, all uneven which of course suits the theme of the poem. There is no rhyming pattern, but moments of repetition help to give it unity, as does the repetition of the word ‘And’. The statements made pile up like a list, until the reader feels overwhelmed with all the possibilities of old age. So much is included in it – flowers, colour, food (it makes you want to rush off and eat sausages!), gardens, shops, money, children and spitting.
The poem plays with the assumption that old age brings the end of pleasures enjoyed through life. The poet’s pleasures actually increase as she realises that when old she can disregard the strictures and opinions of others, shun rules and do what she wants. She can wear mismatched clothes, spend money on drink, sit down on the pavement, and throw off the cloak of respectability. She is optimistic as she contemplates the future, and considers starting to practise such behaviour even before she is old.
Amongst the seven deadly sins, purple represents vanity. It was traditionally the colour for Roman Emperors and royalty, of power and magnificence, with the result that in Europe and American purple became the colour associated with vanity, extravagance and individualism. It is also a challenging colour to use in a poem, as it has only one perfect rhyme – curple (a Scottish word meaning crupper). No wonder Jenny Joseph avoids rhyme!
A 1996 poll by the BBC chose it as the UK’s most popular post-war poem. Its second line was the inspiration for the Red Hat Society, a group that gives opportunities for social interaction for women on their own (the organisation is now spread over more than 30 countries). It has been very influential – plays have been written about it, it has been printed on tea towels and stitched into handcrafts, been used by insurance companies for promotional packages, and has been the starting-point for many different projects.
Enjoy listening to Jenny Joseph read her own poem.
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