‘Warning’ by Jenny Joseph is a four stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza is the longest with eleven lines and the second and third are even with four. The final stanza is the shortest with only three lines.
There is no rhyming pattern in ‘Warning,’ but there are moments of repetition which help to unify the text. For example, anaphora, or the repetition of words at the beginning of lines is utilized throughout the poem. In the first stanza, of the eleven lines seven of them being with “And.” The word appears another four times at the beginning of the lines before the poem concludes. The repetition of “And” gives the poem its list-like feel. The statements add up on top of one another until a reader is overwhelmed by the possibilities of old age.
There is an interesting contrast presented in the text between one’s assumptions about old age and what this speaker discovers as she contemplates its realities. One might normally assume aging necessarily means the end of many of one’s pleasures. In the speaker’s world, this is not the case. In fact, her pleasures only increase when she doesn’t have to consider what others think of her. By the end of the poem, she has even decided to start living this way now in order to have as many good years as possible.
The most important themes of this piece are a disregard for convention and the shunning of societal rules. These changes take place as one ages and are set out by the poet in a humorous fashion. They are contemplated from the present with the speaker is looking into the future.
Summary of Warning
The poem begins with the speaker describing a number of different things she is going to be able to do when she is an “old woman.” All of these things are impossible now because of one’s ingrained sense of what is socially acceptable. The speaker plans to wear whatever she wants, eat as many samples from shops as she can, and say whatever comes to her mind.
In the final lines, the poem returns to the present day and presents a contrast between what one has to worry about now and the significant decrease in worries in the future. This short section makes it clear to the speaker that she would rather go ahead and start living freely now. Her choice is made with her own pleasure in mind but her actions will also serve as a warning for the future. Everyone will know the type of person they’ll eventually have to deal with every day.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Warning
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
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
The first line of this piece provides the reader with important information about the poem’s direction. Joseph’s speaker, who is perhaps the poet herself (considering this piece was written in 1961 when she was in her mid-thirties), is looking forward in time to when she is an old woman. Everything that follows is a result of her aging and her new disregard for the opinions of others. She knows that her age is going to offer her the freedom she hasn’t experienced before.
The ways she separates herself from her previous societally structured inclinations come with the choice to wear whatever she wants. She might,
[…] wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit [her].
These things bother her now, in the present, but in the future, she isn’t going to care. She adds onto this that her “pension” is going to go towards things she really wants such as “brandy and summer gloves.” There is no need for her to plan very long term into the future. Rather than saying she has “no money” for luxuries like “satin sandals” the same phrase will be directed at butter.
Moving on from purchases, she describes how she’s going to move through the world. If she wants, she will ”sit down on the pavement.” Or, if she’s hungry, eat as many samples as she wants from the shops. Her age will fend off the backlash a younger person might receive for doing these same things. Joseph presents a number of interesting contrasting actions in these lines. Her speaker is simultaneously interested in picking flowers and learning how to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
In the second stanza, the speaker directs her words outward, perhaps at the reader. She tells the audience that it is okay to,
[…] wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
One is no longer constrained by what they think society wants to see. Pleasure is much more important than the opinions of others. Specifically, the speaker is concerned with casting off a judgment. She knows that one will be able to act as they please, hoard anything they want, and eat any strange combinations of food which suit them.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
In the third stanza, the speaker returns to the present and contrasts the freedom of the future with her current situation. She is still addressing the reader, giving these a feeling of universal relatability. Everyone needs to have dry clothes and money to pay rent now. There are always worries about how one acts, especially in front of children and friends. Life is all about presenting an image of oneself that is acceptable. The constraints of these lines make the previous stanzas all the more appealing.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
The final three lines return to a first-person perspective. It seems the speaker has heard her own words and realized, as the reader likely has, that life as an old man or woman is more appealing. She wonders aloud if it’s possible for her to,
[…] practise a little now?
This would be done in order to make herself happier but also so “people” are aware of what’s to come in the future. That way, no one will be shocked when suddenly she “start[s] to wear purple.”