‘Crossing the Border’ is characteristic of Nash’s poetry in that the text is quite brief. But, unlike much of his verse, it also has a serious layer underneath the initial humor. Nash is best known for his concise and humorous poems in which he depicts people, animals, and experiences in a memorable way. It is not unusual for his poems to be two or three lines in length. This piece is not a complete outlier, but its more serious subject matter does set it apart from the bulk of his best-known poems.
Explore Crossing the Border
Throughout three enjambed lines and one end-stopped line, the poet describes what it means to “cross the border” from middle age to old age. When one looks back over their life and sees that they have more “descendants” than they do “friends, they’ll know that “senescence” has begun. This odd and slightly out of place word refers to the biological process of aging.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘Crossing the Border,’ Nash explores themes of aging and change. These two are connected through his depiction of what it means to leave one stage of life and enter into another. He also alludes to what comes after—death. Nash’s speaker tries to define, in perfectly rhymed and somewhat amusing language, how one knows when they’re old. All they have to do is count how many friends versus how many descendants they have, and that will tell them. This is half meant as a light-hearted depiction of old age and half as an allusion to the truth of change over time and entry into a new stage of life.
Structure and Form
‘Crossing the Border’ by Ogden Nash is a four-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines are all half-rhymes. This means that they do not fully rhyme but are instead related through the use of a similar assonant (vowel) or consonant sound. In this case, the “s” at the end of all four words as well as the “d” consonant sound. But, readers should also note that the second and fourth endings, “ends” and “friends,” are much closer to full-rhymes than any of the others. By structuring the poem this way, Nash is able to hint at a rhyme scheme without making it overwhelming. It also creates an interesting atmosphere in juxtaposition to the content. The poem also raises questions of what exactly is “middle age” versus “old age,” and who decides? The text draws attention to the meaninglessness of these terms.
Nash makes use of several literary devices in ‘Crossing the Border.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and allusion. The latter is used quite interestingly in ‘Crossing the Border.’ It appears in the title, as well as in the emotional allusion in the text of the poem. The title alludes to an invisible line one crosses from middle age to old age and then on to death. There is no clear marker, but the text of the poem describes, in Nash’s characteristically pithy way, what it might be. Additionally, by ending the poem so abruptly, the reader is left to wonder what this transition from more friends to more descendants might mean.
Alliteration is a formal device that appears when the poet uses and reuses the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “day” and “descendants” in line three.
Enjambment is an important and quite common literary device that is used when the poet chooses to cut off a line before the natural ending of a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two, as well as that between lines three and four. Nash’s continual use of this technique means that the whole poem reads as one sentence. Readers have to jump down to the next line in order to find out what the previous line is trying to say. One does not mean anything without the next, and the next.
In the first line of ‘Crossing the Border,’ Nash uses an unusual word, “Senescence.” This immediately sets this poem apart from some of his others, which are directed specifically towards younger audiences. It’s unlikely that the majority of readers will know what this word means, something that Nash must’ve been aware of. It refers to the biological process of aging, specifically the deterioration that comes with aging. It is associated with the “end” of life, but here, Nash pairs it with the word “begins.” He’s interested in making a statement about the beginnings of the bed.
Before stating how one knows when senescence begins or what exactly it means, Nash adds, “And middle age ends.” While reading this piece, one should consider the impossibility of accurately marking the beginnings of old age or the end of middle age. These are terms that human beings use vaguely and without many definitions. But, Nash is trying to define where the “border” between the two (and eventually death) is.
Outnumber your friends.
In the second stanza of ‘Crossing the Border,’ Nash explains where the line is. It is not something that one can note on a calendar, but it is physical enough to where one should know right away when it happens. Old age, or senescence, begins when one can count more descendants in their life than they can friends. The half and full rhymes in these lines make the endings line up perfectly. Often with rhyme lines are read lightheartedly and pleasurably. But, in this case, the humor and pleasure of the words are immediately juxtaposed with the thought of running out of time and entering the final period of one’s life.
While Nash does not explicitly state that having more descendants than friends is a bad thing, he is playing on humankind’s fear of growing old and losing touch with one’s youth.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Crossing the Border’ should also look into reading some of Nash’s other best-known poems. These include ‘A Word to Husbands,’ ‘‘A Cation to Everybody,’ and ‘Old Men.’ The latter, ‘Old Men,’ is another simple poem. It is also about death and old age, exploring the limits of human empathy when it comes to old men. ‘A Caution to Everybody’ alludes to the possible downfall of humankind if we “forget” who we are at our hearts and drive forward progress unthinkingly. Some other related poems are ‘Beautiful Old Age’ by D.H. Lawrence and ‘When You Are Old’ by William Butler Yeats. The first of these is a poem in which Lawrence imagines a world in which old age is truly revered and hoped for and describes what that world would feel like.