‘Old Song’ by Edward FitzGerald is a thirteen stanza poem which is separated into sets of five lines, or quintains. Each one of these quintains follows a rhyming scheme of abcbb, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza.
There are two moments in ‘Old Song’ where the rhyme scheme, and patterns of lines, varies. This is in the last two stanzas of the piece. These sections are constructed as quatrains, or sets of four lines. They follow the rhyme scheme of abcb.
FitzGerald has not chosen to adhere his text to one particular rhyming pattern but rather make use of a number of different syllabic arrangements. Although the meter varies, the lines retain a sense of unity due to the relative similarity of their length. This being said, they are not identical. No two lines in one stanza match up exactly, allowing a greater visual interest on the page.
The poet also makes great use of repetition. This can be seen clearly at the end of stanza one, four, and six. FitzGerald utilizes the same word more than once in a line, or multiple times between two lines.
Summary of Old Song
The poem begins with the speaker giving a brief description of the world outside his window. It is not something he wants to dwell on and only gives the reader enough detail for them to know it is winter, and the wind is blowing drearily. He decides to retreat to his room, by the fireplace, until the season is over. There is meets with a friend, reminisces on the past, drinks, smokes, and prays until finally summer returns.
At the moment warmth enters back into the world the speaker runs like “mad” out into the meadows he has so desperately missed.
Analysis of Old Song
Tis a dull sight
To see the year dying,
When winter winds
Set the yellow wood sighing:
Sighing, O sighing!
In the first stanza of ‘Old Song’, the speaker begins by making an initial observation about the end of the year. It is not something that stimulates his interest, it is a “dull sight.” The elements have taken over, and the woods are “yellow” with death. There is no great varieties of life to take note of in nature nor are there days that inspire one to venture outside. The speaker describes how the winds of winter provide a small amount of stimulus to the scene when they make the woods sigh.
This stanza ends with the repetition of the word “sighing.” The poet has chosen this word to connect the speaker’s feelings with those of the word. It is not only the woods which sigh, but humankind as well.
When such a time cometh
I do retire
Into an old room
Beside a bright fire:
O, pile a bright fire!
Finally, there comes a time when the speaker does not want to go outside any longer. When this moment comes he goes into “an old room” and sits down beside a “bright fire.” It is the only source of warmth in this house and allows him a peaceful place to “retire.” The room in which he is situated is a type of refuge for the narrator. He is able to forget for a time about the state of the world outside.
And there I sit
Reading old things,
Of knights and lorn damsels,
While the wind sings—
O, drearily sings!
The third stanza expands on the refuge aspect of the room. It is here he can delve into literature and read about “old things.” These things include stories about “knights and…damsels” whose lives are infinitely more interesting than his own. It is likely he imagines himself within these stories and sees it as being a better life to be leading than the one he is made to.
The state of the outside world barges in at the end of these lines with the speaker reminding the reader that the wind is “dreary” outside. It is singing, but not pleasantly.
I never look out
Nor attend to the blast;
For all to be seen
Is the leaves falling fast:
It is the speaker’s goal that he never look out past the room he has situated himself in. He does not want to know about the “blast” of weather going on outside his window.
It is enough for him to know that the “leaves [are] falling fast.” There is no need for this fact to be confirmed by his moving, seeing the world, and then becoming more depressed about its dying state.
But close at the hearth,
Like a cricket, sit I,
Reading of summer
It is much preferable to the speaker that he remain at his “hearth” or fireplace, and sit like a “cricket.” He is crouched within his home, doing his best to distract himself from the real world. It is clear that this is all he desires, but he continues to be reminded by his own knowledge of winter.
Rather than dwell further on winter, he instead spends his time “Reading of summer” and of the “chivalry” of days past. He certainly sees these as being better times.
Then with an old friend
I talk of our youth—
How ‘twas gladsome, but often
But gladsome, gladsome!
Suddenly in the sixth stanza, at what is almost the halfway point, a second character enters into the story. There is an “old friend” who comes to visit the speaker. Together they distract one another from what is going on outside. They speak of their “youth” and how “gladsome,” but also “foolish” they were together.
Or, to get merry,
We sing some old rhyme
That made the wood ring again
In summer time—
Sweet summer time!
Sometimes talking is not enough for the pair. They often have to get “merry” through singing. The speaker describes the “old rhyme” they sing together. It brings up memories of the times it made the “wood ring.”
These were better days as the world, the speaker and his friend were younger. The days were filled with “Sweet summer” and moments of true warmth that did not have to come from the “hearth.”
Then go we smoking,
Silent and snug:
Naught passes between us,
Save a brown jug—
The pleasures of these two characters are continued in the eighth stanza of ‘Old Song’ with the speaker stating that at one point they “go…smoking.” This is another base activity that brings him joy. It is the simple things at this point that please him the most.
At moments, the two do not talk. They spend time reminiscing inside their own minds and only interacting through the passing of “a brown jug” of what is likely alcohol. It is enough to be in one another’s presence. They find comfort in their shared situation.
And sometimes a tear
Will rise in each eye,
Seeing the two old friends
While there are moments the two seem almost placid with one another, there are others where their companionship “sometimes” brings “a tear /…in each eye.” The two are both saddened and joyful over what they have shared.
It is their mutual merriment that pleases them in these moments and the fact that two “old friends” can be together in such a way on what is a terrible day. In these lines, the speaker seems to have achieved his goal of forgetting about the outside world. He is completely involved with his friend.
And ere to bed
Go we, go we,
Down on the ashes
We kneel on the knee,
Finally, the long day comes to an end and they go “to bed.” They do not do so sadly as they are able to kneel down on the floor, in amongst the “ashes” of the hearth, and “Pray…together.”
They are sharing in all the elements of life and are able to end their day by participating in their devotion to God together. This is something the speaker finds quite joyous. It is another simple pleasure he is able to indulge in without guilt and regardless of the season.
Thus, then, live I
Till, ’mid all the gloom,
By Heaven! the bold sun
Is with me in the room
‘Old Song’ starts its conclusion in the eleventh stanza with the speaker looking forward to the days in which the sun returns to the world. He will live in a way that has been described over the past ten stanzas until the “bold sun” is once more “with me in the room.”
When the sun finally returns to him, his room, his life, and his outlook, will be “shining.” It heralds better, and much happier days in which he won’t have to be confined to his rooms.
Then the clouds part,
Swallows soaring between;
The spring is alive,
And the meadows are green!
The twelfth stanza diverges from the pattern which the reader has become accustomed to so far. This helps to inform one that ‘Old Song’ is about to end.
The “clouds” which had been obscuring his view for so long, “part.” This triggers the “swallows” and all other birds to soar out from the hiding places and help to bring in the days of spring. The world will no longer be dreary and yellow, but “alive” and “green!”
I jump up like mad,
Break the old pipe in twain,
And away to the meadows,
The meadows again!
In the final lines of ‘Old Song’, the speaker describes his own actions after seeing the change in the world. He will be so ecstatic that he will “jump up like mad,” breaking the mundane pattern of his life. These are shocking lines, considering the mundane words and images the poet has used so far.
The speaker will throw down his “old pipe” with which he has spent so much time with over winter and run out “to the meadows…again.” Finally, he is reunited with the world he loves so much.