Saturday 4 August 2012

When I am old...


The following is one of the most popular items of British modern verse, especially among women (just try doing a search on the first line; and look at images) - indeed, in some polls over the past couple of decades this has been the single most popular item of modern verse:


 WARNING - By Jenny Joseph 

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin candles, and say we've no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I am 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 the 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 pickles for a week
and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts 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.


At one level this is simply a mildly amusing bit of prose broken up into lines - the sort of thing that would work quite well in performance.

It is not,of course, poetry; and as comic verse goes it is mediocre - since any interest comes purely from content, and there is no discipline of rhythm or rhyme (it this respect it falls below many of the deliberately obscene but verbally-deft songs performed by 'choirs' of rugby players and soldiers.).


What I dislike about this piece of work is that so many find the content appealing, they regard it as a wish fulfilment fantasy.

And what a pitiful and bleak fantasy it is! - and even the fantasy aspects of it derive from regarding the disabilities and infirmities of age as if they were purposive, mischief-making, subversive. Everything which is of real and lasting value (family and real friends) is briskly disposed-of as onerous duty, a constraint on our liberty, an interference with... what? Acting-out?

As always in our civilization, age is given a positive evaluation only in so far as it imitates youth - which is merely a specific instance of the blazingly obvious fact that in our civilization life has no purpose or meaning except as something in which to be occupied as pleasantly and painlessly - and preferably as self-gratifyingly - as possible.

Life as something from which we need to be diverted, continuously.


The fact that our civilization has taken this turn during an era of unprecedented luxury and comfort is telling - but these work on us merely as addictions without which we cannot do, and fear of loss of which haunts us.

When I am old offers a future of more-of-the-same, a more-untrammelled self-indulgence and a more short-term short-termism - a fantasy revenge against society at the fraud of modernity.

Old age as acts of revenge against our disappointed former selves.

All of it utterly futile nihilism.


With comic verse like this, who needs tragedy?



But, to cheer us all, here is some real comic verse - in which humour derives from technical perfection applies to a ludicrous subject:

A Nursery Rhyme - by Wendy Cope
(as it might have been written by William Wordsworth)

The skylark and the jay sang loud and long.
The sun was calm and bright, the air was sweet,
When all at once I heard above the throng
Of jocund birds a single plaintive bleat.

And, turning, saw, as one sees in a dream,
It was a Sheep had broke the moorland peace
With his sad cry, a creature who did seem
The blackest thing that ever wore a fleece.

I walked towards him on the stony track
And, pausing, for a while between two crags,
I asked him, ‘Have you wool upon your back?’
Thus he bespake, ‘Enough to fill three bags.’

Most courteously, in measured tones, he told
Who would receive each bag and where they dwelt;
And oft, now years have passed and I am old,
I recollect with joy that inky pelt.



dearieme said...

We have a huge hoard of pens and pencils. Mind you, it was accumulated by our daughter when she was a schoolgirl.

And we feast on alpine strawberries rather than bangers.

We are both under instruction to wear trainers, which strangely don't feature in her piece.

Bruce Charlton said...

Lack of trainers is explained by the fact the poem was written in 1961 - before trainers were invented.

dearieme said...

1961: so it doesn't contain an allusion to the joke about George Brown in Peru either.

JP said...

The poem is archaic insofar as British youth no longer display any significant degree of "sobriety" (in any sense of the word) for which they need to "make up for" in their old age.

The Crow said...

I stood, bemused, as all around,
lay nails and screws upon the ground.
And larger bits of metal scrap,
I sorted them, upon my lap.

From whence they came, I did not now,
as I sat there, beneath a crow,
who cackled sourly on his bough,
and seemed, to me, holier than thou.

"Shut yer face", I told him then,
"Why are you not more like the wren?"
"Who twitters softly, who knows his place,"
"While you are just a waste of space".

The crow flapped off, to meet his bride,
who welcomed him, wings open wide.
"What is it, dear?" she crooned at him,
"Why so chagrined? You look all in".

"It's nowt, good wife, it's just my age".
"It's failing eyes that fuel my rage".
"One day, by God, I'll time it right,"
"And that will be a funny sight!"

"To drop some metal on his head",
"It isn't that I want him dead",
"I hope for him to notice me",
"I hope for him to learn to see!"

I soon forgot about the crow,
until a door hinge laid me low.
Falling from a fair old height,
with accuracy did me smite.

And what a tale, for crow to tell,
the sky from whence that door hinge fell.
The bump it raised was clear to see,
even from the tallest tree.

E'er since that day, my eyes take in,
the whole wide world that I live in.
I notice crows and pay them heed,
and door hinges, that fall with speed.