As Ogden Nash’s poems go, ‘Old Men’ is darker and more serious. Nash is known for this upbeat, humorous, and pun-filled poems that made his career. ‘Old Men’ is quite different in that the main themes are death and empathy. The poem also leaves the reader thinking in a way that Nash’s other poems do not. One is left with the task of understanding whether they are sufficiently caring enough for the “old men” of the world.
Explore Old Men
In the first five lines of ‘Old Men,’ Nash explains how the public views old men. They are constantly aware that these men are nearing their death, and they watch, trying to discern when they’re going to die. When they do die, there is no genuine mourning. The men and women of the world who still have something of their youth left are unsurprised and unsympathetic. In the last line, Nash changes things, making the poem more emotional and thoughtful. He notes that old men know when an old man dies. These men are just as worthy of care and mourning as anyone who dies young.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘Old Men’ readers will encounter themes of age and empathy. Nash notes at the beginning of the poem that the majority of the population is without the latter. No one feels as they should about the deaths of old men. Their lives feel expendable at that point since, as Nash alludes, they’re going to die soon anyway. By presenting this heartless point of view, Nash is trying to remind the reader and any who might hold this point of view that their deaths are inevitably on the way as well. They’re going to end up in the same situation and wish that the younger population had some empathy for what they’re going through.
Structure and Form
‘Old Men’ by Ogden Nash is a six-line poem contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABCBAA. The final two rhymes are full in amongst themselves but are closer to half-rhymes when it comes to the first “A” rhyme. But, in a poem this short, the difference between half and full rhymes is less meaningful because they are so closely situated. In regards to meter, the first four lines contain eight syllables, the fifth line: seven, and the sixth: ten.
Nash makes use of several literary devices in ‘Old Men.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, is a type of repetition in which the same consonant sound is used at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “mourn” and “men” in line two and “wonder when” in line four.
Enjambment is a formal device that’s concerned with the way that lines used end-punctuation. If a writer inserts a line break before the natural conclusion of a phrase or sentence, then the line is likely enjambed—for example, the transition between lines three and four.
There is also a good example of caesura in the third line. This occurs when a writer inserts a pause in the middle of a line. This might be through punctuation or meter. In this case, Nash puts a period in the middle of the line. It reads: “Old men are different. People look”.
People expect old men to die,
Old men are different. People look
In the first lines of ‘Old Men,’ the speaker begins with a harsh but true statement about old age. He states that “People,” meaning the general public, expect that old men are going to die soon. He knows that there’s no surprise when an old man passes away. It seems like what’s supposed to happen.
In addition, he says, people don’t “really mourn old men.” It’s unsurprising when they die and the lack of surprise or really tragic seeing happening takes most of the sorrow out of it. These are cruel and exacting lines, but Nash has a reason for using them.
The third line of this stanza is a good example of caesura. The speaker says that the “Old men are different.” They are unlike other members of society for some reason that’s uncovered in the next three lines. This line is also enjambed, meaning that the reader has to go down to the fourth line to find out how people “look” at old men.
At them with eyes that wonder when…
But the old men know when an old man dies.
Nash picks up where he left off in line three in line four. Here, he says that people look at old men with “eyes that wonder when.” This is a good example of a simple allusion. Readers will likely automatically understand, although he did not say it, that Nash is talking about when the old men are going to pass away. This, Nash believes, is what is on most people’s minds when they see an old man still living. Their eyes are “unshocked” when they see someone who looks like they might be close to death.
The last line of the poem is different than all the rest. In it, Nash takes a different perceptive, that of an older man. One old man knows when another dies. They are more sympathetic and empathetic than the rest of the public is. While “people” stop seeing old men as real, whole human beings, old men themselves don’t have that problem. This suggests that “people” have it all wrong, and their lack of empathy is a major failing on their part. Nash is encouraging the reader to look into their own heart and see which side of the equation they fall on.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Old Men’ should also consider reading some of Nash’s other more serious poems. These include ‘A Word to Husbands‘ and ‘A Cation to Everybody.’ The latter alludes to humankind’s possible downfall if we “forget” who we are at our hearts and drive forward progress unthinkingly. The former, ‘A Word to Husbands,’ describes relationships and what it takes to succeed in them. He speaks on themes of love, perseverance, honesty, and humility. Readers should be able to find this poem deeply relatable. Some other related poems include ‘Death and the Moon’ by Carol Ann Duffy and ‘Death is Nothing at All’ by Henry Scott Holland.