‘On Aging’ by Maya Angelou confronts the reader with an ageing speaker’s strong beliefs about what it means to grow old and how she wants to be treated.
In the first lines of ‘On Aging’ the speaker begins by telling the reader that there is no need for them to come up and talk to her when she’s sitting quietly. Just because she’s quiet, doesn’t mean she needs company. The same request is applied later on in the poem. If she’s struggling to get upstairs, don’t pity her and bring her a rocking chair.
She doesn’t want to be treated any differently than when she was young. In fact, she states, she knows she’s the same person she’s always been even though there are a few physical changes The poem concludes with the speaker noting her physical changes but at the same time feeling grateful that she can still breathe at all.
Poetic Techniques in On Aging
‘On Aging’ by Maya Angelou is a single stanza poem made up of twenty lines. These lines follow a changing rhyme scheme. Some endings, such as “-ing,” is repeated throughout the text (lines 3, 9, 13) while others are used more frequently, but are just as variable. An example of the latter can be seen through the words “quietly,” “me,” and “sympathy” in lines one, five, and six and “lazy” in line fifteen. Or, in the last few lines, there are the pairings of “then” and “chin” and “wind” “in”.
Repetition is one of the many techniques Angelou uses in ‘On Aging’. It can be seen through the use and reuse of other techniques, such as figurative language, or of a word or phrase itself. For instance, “Hold! Stop!” in lines five and six. This is also an example anaphora or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
Another example presents itself at the end of the poem in line eighteen with “A little less hair, a little less chin”. Plus, in general, the larger themes of this text, those of ageing and ageing with grace and strength, are repeated throughout.
Angelou also makes use of alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “lot less lungs” and “less” in line nineteen, or, “sitting,” “sack” and “shelf” in lines one and two.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of On Aging
In the first lines of ‘On Aging,’ the speaker takes on the confident tone that’s seen throughout the poem. She directs her words at whoever needs to hear them, telling the reader and anyone else, that if she’s seen “sitting quietly” there’s no need to talk. The speaker isn’t in need of constant company just because she’s quiet. She is the speaker states, “listening to [herself]”. In the second line, she makes use of a simile to compare herself to “a sack left on the shelf”. In this comparison, she is lifeless and completely still. There is nothing wrong with her, she contests, she is choosing to stay still and silent.
There are several impactful exclamations in lines five and six. The speaker tells the reader, very forcefully, that she doesn’t need pity or sympathy. Just because she’s old doesn’t mean she’s unhappy or suffering. One’s well wishes aren’t interpreted kindly, rather as slander against who she is now. This becomes all the more important as the speaker declares that she’s the same person she was when she was young, just in a body that’s transforming.
One thing she might accept is “Understanding”. If an onlooker, friend or family member is willing to speak to her on even ground, respectfully, she will accept that. Otherwise, she can “do without it!” Advice and pity are very unwelcome.
In what seems like a surprising statement, (although not in the context of this poem) the speaker tells the reader not to bring her a rocking chair if she’s moving slowly. She knows she might have trouble climbing the stairs but she doesn’t want people fawning over her and trying to help. The only favour she wants is to be left alone.
A reader should take note of the diction in these lines and the ungrammatical phrase, “Don’t bring me no rocking chair”. This brings out the speaker’s personality and gives the entire poem a ring of truth. Additionally, informal diction and dialect can provide a reader with additional information about where a speaker is from.
In the last lines of ‘On Aging,’ she reiterates most of what she said before. Specifically, if she is struggling, to leave her alone. The speaker presents a situation in which she is “walking, stumbling”. If this happens, “Don’t study and get it wrong”. Rather, one should consider who she is, who she’s always been, and treat her accordingly. She’s the “same person [she] was back then”. There are a few physical changes she’s willing to accept.
These include her head having “little less hair” and her face, “less chin”. At the same time, she notes that her lungs take in “less” air. As well as not having the capacity to exert herself as she used to. She has “less wind”. An interesting inversion occurs in lines eighteen and nineteen with the use of “A little less” and “A lot less” at the beginning of both lines.
Despite the things that have gone wrong with her body, she knows she’s lucky she can “still breathe in”.