Men at Forty

Donald Justice

‘Men at Forty’ by Donald Justice is a moving poem about aging and fatherhood. The speaker is describing what it’s like for all men when they reach forty and consider their pasts and presents.


Donald Justice

Nationality: American

Donald Justice is a well-regarded American poet.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1980.

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The poem is filled with wonderful examples of imagery or lines that are particularly well described and should trigger the reader’s senses and imagination. For example:

Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,

Though the swell is gentle.

These lines, which are also an example of a simile, help convey a particular feeling and a state of mind. Later in the poem, the poet uses the lines: “That is like the twilight sound / Of the crickets, immense.” There is a sense of peace in these lines but also of something powerful and foreboding. 

Men at Forty by Donald Justice


‘Men at Forty’ by Donald Justice is a thoughtful poem about what it feels like to be a man at forty, looking back on the past and considering the future.

The poem starts with the speaker describing how men at forty have to close doors softly. They leave the past behind, closing it behind metaphorical doors with an accepting/resigned attitude. This is all part of aging and leaving one’s youth behind. These themes are emphasized when the poet starts to talk about fathers and sons and the feeling of “it” when one is walking up the stairs. Age is catching up to these men, following them as they move through their lives. It’s a feeling that emanates from the stairs and the yard outside their mortgaged homes. 

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
Coming back to.

In the first stanza, the speaker begins by noting that at forty, men learn to leave things behind that they won’t be coming back to. It’s a skill, closing metaphorical doors softly, the speaker says. One has to slip away from the past and from the person, they used to be. Slamming doors, storming away, or trying to force them back open are implied other ways one might deal with aging. There is a simple sadness in these lines that suggests these men don’t really want to leave their pasts behind, but it’s a necessary part of aging. 

Stanza Two 

At rest on a stair landing,
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

In the second stanza, the speaker alludes to “it,” a specific feeling that these men get when they “rest on a stair landing.” “It” moves around beneath them. The poet uses a simile to compare this experience to standing on the deck of a ship and feeling a gentle swell of water under the deck. There is peace in these lines and a sense of inevitability. 

Stanza Three 

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
His father’s tie there in secret

The third stanza, and the fourth, are filled with nostalgia. The speaker describes a personal yet relatable memory of a son trying on his father’s tie. In this memory, the son is the grown man now, looking back on whom he used to be and what kind of man he’s become. The memory is in the far past, but it’s rediscovered when the man looks deep into the mirror. He can see the face of the child he used to be. 

Stanza Four 

And the face of that father,
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

The fourth stanza picks up with the same nostalgia and mournful tone. The man recalls his own father and the relationship they had. Something as simple as the “face of that father, / Still warm with the mystery of lather” is quite evocative and moving. These are things that the speaker, as a grown man, may be living himself now with his own children. But, when he takes a moment, he can remember what it was like to be the child himself. 

There is again a reference to “Something” that is “filling them” (them being the “men at forty”).


Stanza Five 

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Behind their mortgaged houses.

It is compared, through another simile, to “the twilight sound / Of the crickets.” It’s an immense “something” that’s behind their home, and in every step they take. The poet was likely considering aging and death here as inevitable parts of growing older and becoming the person their father was. It’s not described intimidatingly or terrifyingly, but as a simple presence that’s in everything the men do. 

Structure and Form 

‘Men at Forty’ by Donald Justice is a five-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains use lines of varying lengths and do not follow a set rhyme scheme. This means that the poem is written in free verse. Despite this, there are still examples of rhyme in the text. Through a close reading, one might discover half and full rhymes. For example, “forty,” “softly,” and “be” in the first stanza and “it” and “ship” in the second stanza. “Father” and “lather” in the fourth stanza is also a good example. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout ‘Men at Forty,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Enjambment: when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point and the reader has to move down to the next line in order to find out what happens next. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines two and three of the third stanza.
  • Simile: can be seen when the poet creates a comparison between two unlike things that uses “like” or “as.” In this case, the speaker uses the following phrase: “Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship.” 
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “face” and “father” in line one of the fourth stanza and “Filing” and “foot” in line three of the fifth stanza.


What is the purpose of ‘Men at Forty?’ 

The purpose is to describe a particular moment in the middle of a man’s life. Men at this age have to close the doors to their youth and consider their future, as husbands and fathers, in a new light. The poem is filled with feelings of nostalgia and mourning but also conveys a feeling of resignation and acceptance of the state of things. 

Who is the speaker in ‘Men at Forty?’

The speaker is likely a man, someone who has lived through forty years old and is well-spoken and thoughtful enough to define it in these terms. He’s empathetic and emotional enough to relate to what other men are going through. 

What is the tone of ‘Men at Forty?’

The tone is contemplative and nostalgic. The speaker knows what it’s like to be a man at forty years old, and he remembers, for all the men, what childhood felt like compared to what it feels like now.

What is the theme of ‘Men at Forty?’

The theme is aging. The speaker is well aware of what it’s like to hit forty years old and look back on the past. He’s speaking for all men of this age as he describes “it” and the “something” that they feel as they walk upstairs and look outside their homes. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘Men at Forty’ should also consider reading some other Donald Justice poems. For example: 

  • Absences– explores memory, and the inability to stay in a moment forever. Eventually, everything becomes the past.

Other related poems include: 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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