Poetry 39: 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 practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

8 thoughts on “Poetry 39: Warning by Jenny Joseph

  1. It’s quite a jolly poem, and strikes a rumbunctious contrarian note that some may find appealing. I’m not sure that it chimes well with middle way philosophy, because – for me – it seems too much like ‘protesting too much’ about the presumed stereotypes of later life: e.g. dowdiness, dullness, social insignificance etc.

    There may be some truth in this ‘sans hair, sans teeth, sans everything’ stereotype, from Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, but the purple-dress-red-hat gamely-disruptive-old-girl may also a stereotypical contrivance, and just as suspect.

    Better, I venture to suggest, not to contrive at all, not to strive after effect; but to just be, with as much attention to one’s effect on others as at any time of life when one is capable of attention, if at all.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with Peter, that if interpreted as a guide to action this poem does tend to tip a little too far into individualism as a reaction against social conformity. However, perhaps the line ‘But maybe I ought to practise a little now?’ does also suggest a recognition of the need to integrate the individualistic impulse with current experience.

    Beyond that, the poem can be meaningful without being a guide to beliefs about how we should act in the future. It expresses an archetype of individualism that we might need to be in touch with, even if we don’t act on it in the extreme way depicted. Perhaps we all need to find that inner disruptive old girl.

    It reminds me of my wife’s not entirely serious ‘old lady theory’. She suggests that there are three types of old ladies: birds, dragons and potatoes. The birds are fragile and kindly, the potatoes large and passive, and the dragons fierce and individualistic. Obviously, like any theory, this is not a precise match with the complex reality of human beings, and I hope any women advancing in years reading this will not take offence as long as we hold these limitations in mind! Rather, it tells us something about the types we extract and perhaps project onto older women. This poem seems to capture what I think is meant by the ‘dragon’ type very well.

  3. The poem made me smile, J Joseph highlights the last phase of life, old age, I like the motive behind it, many elderly people do lead a contented life and take up many new interests. Those who cannot, because of fraility or sickness need help to express themselves clearly, I appreciate that it is not easy for carers to remain patient at all times, I have not been in that kind of situation. I am a stick in the mud, I don’t wish to protest too loudly or give warning of a change of personality, but then so far I haven’t felt the need to do so. Time will tell!

    1. Norma, I love your flying dragon idea, and indeed why be limited to one category?Combining two seems much more balanced and perhaps more reflective of the Middle Way.
      For what it’s worth, you don’t strike me as someone destined for potato-hood – I hope you will enjoy swooping across the sky for as long as you wish to :-)

    2. The pairing of dragon and bird is fine as far as it goes; but it doesn’t go far enough. There are alternative pairings….

      Applying the Middle Way principles of incrementality and provisionality to the potato-archetype of cold and stolid pastiness, the images of scorchingly hot potatoes, chipped potatoes, potato waffles and creamy, garlicky dauphinoise come to mind. Not to mention daring the dark streets in December for pommes frites with mayo, and a serving of Nurnburgerwurst.

      And with resurgent interest in generically-modified foodstuffs, is a feathered potato really inconceivable to a thoughtful miggler?

  4. Reading this poem when it was first published I found it amusing and refreshing in challenging stereotypes of women as they age. Now revisiting it with a few more grey hairs and a lot less birthdays to go before I am eligible for a pension, I find it affects me rather differently. Whether that is because of my increased years or because attitudes about women and ageing have shifted I am not sure, perhaps a little of both.
    Yes, it still amuses me, but being neither a dedicated follower of fashion nor someone who shies away from wearing purple or red or both together (they don’t clash at all, they compliment each other well) I don’t relate to the break out into vivid colours other than for the humorous way the idea is presented.
    The rather more delinquent behaviour suggested comes across as just that and therefore no different to delinquent behaviour acted out by younger people. Sadly, my experiences spending a lot of time around people with dementia who can behave in very “antisocial” ways, but due to the ravages of the illness not through delinquency, leaves me less amused by the idea of older people electing to behave in such ways.

    I am inclined to agree with Peter’s suggestion as a model for our later years, “Better, I venture to suggest, not to contrive at all, not to strive after effect; but to just be, with as much attention to one’s effect on others as at any time of life when one is capable of attention, if at all.”
    The Middle Way to me would seem to be to find a balance between accepting and acting out or feeling inhibited by current cultural stereotyping and relentlessly rebelling against such stereotypes just for the sake of it i.e. to feel free to be authentic.
    I would add to that to be grateful if fortunate enough to retain the capacity to choose how to behave and what to wear, when so many have these most basic choices stripped from them.
    Lastly, having reflected on how my own reaction to this wonderful poem has changed as time has passed, I wonder what effect the passing of time has had on Jenny Joseph’s views and how she regards this poem now…

    1. Lenni wrote: “I wonder what effect the passing of time has had on Jenny Joseph’s views and how she regards this poem now…”; and I find this to be a very shrewd question, because I’ve found that the forward plans people make for themselves (and even write down as injunctions to others, in case they’re incapacitated, for example) often turn out – when their circumstances change in the future – to be inappropriate, and sometimes the complete opposite of what they want.

      This is why I have reservations about ‘forward directives’ such as may occur in end-of-life care-planning. People have been known to change their mind quite dramatically when faced with a serious or life-threatening illness. This change of mind can be at best an awkward administrative issue, at worst an issue that throws a family into disarray.

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