This poem by poet Matthew Arnold, “Growing Old,” is made up of seven stanzas, each of which is five lines long. This piece was first published in 1867 and has no rhyme scheme, but the lines match up stanza to stanza, in approximate length and syllable number.
Summary of Growing Old
“Growing Old” is a piece full of questions, answers, and descriptions of what old age is actually like. The poem begins with an initial question that is answered by the ending of the poem, “What is it to grow old?” This question is expanded on and described in the following stanzas. The first describes the loss of physical beauty and the second about the loss of physical strength and feeling in limbs. The third stanza of the poem begins to speak on the expectations one had about age during youth and how these expectations are not fulfilled. Old age is not a warm sunset, it is not to look back on one’s life with fondness. In fact, trapped in ones body as a prison, one feels as if they were never young. The poem concludes by describing how by the end of life one will come to hate their own body, blaming their aging prison for their loss of spirit, strength, and emotion. Read complete poem here.
Analysis of Growing Old
This piece begins with a central question which will be contemplated, discussed, and answered throughout the rest of the poem.
What is it to grow old?
It is important to return to this question as one reads through the piece. Another question follows, expanding on the first. This question begins to ask about the physical degradation of aging. Whether growing old is about losing the glorious form of ones body, or the “luster” in the eye. Another question follows, and is answered, making up the fourth and fifth lines of the poem.
Is it for beauty to forego her wreath?
—Yes, but not this alone.
The last question of this stanza asks whether aging means that Beauty, as an entity, will take away, “her wreath.” Ones physical beauty, embodied as a wreath given by Beauty herself, will degrade and one will no longer receive it. The last line of the poem answers “yes” to these questions but stipulates that answer by saying, it is these things, but it also more.
The second stanza of the piece begins with more questions, these around the issue of losing strength and function of the body.
Is it to feel our strength—
Not our bloom only, but our strength—decay?
Not only will the bloom, the beauty, of the body degrade, so too will its strength. This stanza is asking whether it is this feeling of ones strength leaving the body what aging is about. The next lines expand on this idea, giving it more detail. The last three lines speak on individual limbs “grow[ing] stiffer” and losing “exact[ness]” of “function.” Each nerve of these limbs is “more loosely strung.” No part of the body is as strong, sensitive, or functional as it used to be.
The third stanza speaks on the loss of hope of what the future will be and a disappointment that old age does not bring what one expected in their youth. The first line references the last stanza, just as happens at the end of the first stanza, the statements are confirmed, but the speaker makes sure to note that these are still not the only things that aging is about.
This stanza also speaks about what ones hopes, and expectations, of old age were, and how they have not been fulfilled. Old age is,
…not what in youth we dreamed ‘twould be!
The speaker then goes through what those expectations were and how they were not fulfilled. It is not, he says, to
…have our life
Mellowed and softened as with sunset glow,
Life does not become simpler, warmer, or easier with old age. In reality, there is not the peace of a sunset that one might expect. The ending of ones life is not, “A golden day’s decline.”
The fourth stanza continues on this topic, giving further information about what the end of life is truly like.
’Tis not to see the world
As from a height, with rapt prophetic eyes,
And heart profoundly stirred;
These first three lines of the fourth stanza describe how there is no height of wisdom which one reaches in which they can look over the world, and their own life, and see the truth, with a full and emotional heart. Old age does not bring a happiness in having lived a life well lived. In fact, the speaker says, there is no “fullness of the past” to feel and weep, happily and fondly, over.
It is to spend long days
And not once feel that we were ever young;
There is not the fond reminiscing on life, but the feeling that old age is all that one ever experienced. It is endless and all encompassing. The speaker describes feeling trapped in the present, in a “hot prison,” a miserable depiction, with months and months passing “with weary pain.” This experience of old age feels inescapable, one is trapped in their own “weary” body.
It is not all of these things that one might expect, but instead is to suffer these months of pain. There are still emotions, the speaker stipulates, but they are half what they used to be. They are feeble in comparison to those they experienced in their youth. One will know that,
Deep in our hidden heart
There are experiences and emotions of “change” but one is not able to access the emotion of them. There is just nothing there when one probes what used to move them.
The final stanza of this piece is written as the “last stage of all,” when one is no longer even able to move.
When we are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of ourselves,
As one reaches the end of their life they are no longer able to physically take care of themselves, and all of the person they used to be is trapped inside ones body. They are unable to express or support themselves. The poem concludes with these two lines,
To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
Which blamed the living man.
It is important at this point to return to the initial question of the poem,
What is it to grow old?
It is, the speaker concludes, to hear the world, ones family and friends, applaud ones life and everything one has accomplished, while on the inside, the “hollow ghost” that was once full of spirit and emotion, blames the living body it inhabits for what is happening. One turns against their own body, they are trapped in their own “weary,” “painful,” prison.
About Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold, poet and essayist, was born in Laleham, Middlesex, in 1822 and was quickly recognized as a talented poet. He completed an undergraduate degree at Balliol College, Oxford University after which he taught Classics at Rugby School. Arnold would then work for thirty-five years a government school inspector, during which he acquired an interest in education and influenced his poetic works. He established his reputation as a poet and became Professor of Poetry at Oxford and wrote a number of his critical works during this time.
His poetry is known for its contemplation of isolation, the dwindling faith of his age, and his subtle style. His work is often compared to that of Sylvia Plath and W.B. Yeats. Matthew Arnold died in 1888 in Liverpool.