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.


Standing opposed to conformity seems to be the overarching theme of this Joseph poem. Since turning eighteen only a couple of weeks ago, the idea of being considered an adult in society both exciting and terrifying at the same time. I can’t deny that becoming an old woman also serves to strike me with a cord of dread in most ways, but reading this poem for some reason made me think of age in a completely new light and that nonconformity to the bleak traditions of age is a positive and thrilling prospect. Joseph champions the idea that eccentricity in old age is becoming and that she looks forward to when her time comes. ‘Warning’ – although ostensibly an ominous title – is really rather humorous, as it is simply preparing the reader for what they may become in the winter of their lives and how this is a thing to celebrate.

The speaker in the poem recognises an opportunity for a lack of pragmatism in old age as she states she ‘shall spend [her] pension on brandy and summer gloves / And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter’, ‘we’ve’ presumably referring to her husband. In fact, the covert reference to a husband is one of the few facets of Joseph’s poem that resembles any kind of normality, with an entire stanza dedicated solely dedicated to the unnamed man. But the fact that he is the woman’s presumable husband is where the normality and conformity to society ends. This man ‘can wear terrible shirts’ and sometimes eat ‘only bread and pickle for a week’, matching the seemingly strange behavior of his wife, who shall ‘wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go’ and ‘go out in [her] slippers in the rain.’

Despite their odd behavior as individuals, by the third stanza Joseph has replaced the free prospects of ‘shall’ and ‘can’ to the duty of ‘must.’ Before this stanza, the wife ‘shall wear purple’ as she pleases, and her husband ‘can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat’, but responsibility still remains. The expectations of old age are also important and should not be completely disregarded, and the responsibility to ‘set a good example for the children’ whom are presumably their grandchildren. Joseph’s humorous tone ends momentarily in this stanza when referring to the children this couple must become role models for, as one day these children must grow up and become adults themselves and will need preparing for their time as the eccentric individuals that their grandparents have become. The speaker ends the poem by facetiously suggesting that she should begin for her inevitable transformation as soon as possible, to avoid losing consistency in her personality; in adopting eccentricity then and there, she hopes that when her time comes ‘people who know me are not too shocked and surprised / When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.’

Jenny Joseph (1932-)

Jenny Joseph (1932-)