‘Age’ by Philip Larkin is a two stanza poem that is separated into one set of seven lines and another set of five. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are a few moments of scattered end rhymes. For example, lines one and five of the first stanza rhyme, with the words “swaddling” and “joining.” Additionally, line three of the first stanza, and line three of the second stanza rhyme. This helps enhance the unity between the sections without making the poem’s form dependent on a perfect rhyming pattern.
Larkin makes use of a number of poetic techniques but one of the most common is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One is forced to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. A perfect example of this is between lines two and three of the first stanza. The word “becomes” acts as a cliffhanger of sorts. The same can be said for lines two and three of the second stanza in which “flown / From the nest” is divided up by a line break.
The images used within ‘Age’ are very interesting. There are a number of natural elements, such as clouds and weeds, but there is a constant contrast between them. His past years are referred to as something as light as swaddling or clouds, but then later appear to be hard to navigate through like knee high weeds, and scary to encounter, like icebergs.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Age
The poem begins with the speaker describing what aging has been like for him. It is an experience comparable to swaddling falling away from one’s body. These white pieces of cloth float in the distance and contain all the sounds of a tenement. They are his histories, place he can no longer reach.
As the poem progresses the speaker describes how difficult navigating through these cloud-like things are. They block his way like “knee-level weeds” but have the presence of
icebergs. The poem’s second stanza focuses on what the speaker really cares about, his own history and the mark he’s made (or not made) on the world. In this stanza he decides he has to turn around and see what he’s left behind him. If there is truly only space and silence, or what kind of footprints might be there. The poem ends without a conclusion to this question.
Analysis of Age
In the first stanza of ‘Age’ the speaker begins by referring to his own age. He says that it has “fallen away like white swaddling.” This simile compares the aging process to the shedding of one’s “swaddling,” or protective wrappings. Using figurative language, Larkin places the swaddling out in the “middle distance.” It becomes its own form, an “inhabited cloud.”
The speaker is at a distance from this object, but close enough to where he can look down on it and try to understand it better. He bends closer, and sees that there is a “lighted tenement.” This refers to a set of rooms, or block of small apartments that are usually very well filled with different types of people. In this case, one should consider the use of the word “scuttling.” By using this word, Larkin is comparing the number of people and their movements, to insects. Their voices carry throughout this strange place chaotically and constantly. The speaker is able to see them, and know they are speaking, but is unable to enter into the little imagined scene.
He goes on to explain how life is lived. He “joined” life and is now tired. Its complexities, and “game[s]” have brought him to this point. He is forced to “wade through you like knee-level weeds.” This seems to speak to the swaddling that has separated itself from him and is now floating free. He is having to navigate through his past to continue living. It is not a pleasant experience, nor is it an easy one. He compares his own years of aging to “knee-level weeds.”
The “bergs” of his age are there with him in the second stanza. They follow, or “attend him”. The word “berg” refers to icebergs, and the way they seem to float out in the open sections of ocean. His white swaddles of age do the same. But, they are “translucent”. There doesn’t seem to be any real depth or apparent complexities to them. They are, as he states in line two “Silence and space.”
This is not an uplifting way to consider one’s life. It is clear at this point that he is questioning his own past and the things he has managed to accomplish so far. This is confirmed in the next lines as the speaker considers how much time has passed. There have been countless experiences and days that have “flown / From the nest here of” his head. Their escape from his present consciousness inspires him to turn around and see what exactly he has left in his wake. He needs to know if he has made an impact on the world at all.
It ends with a contemplation on what kinds of footprints he might see. They could be simple human feet, or “spoor of pads” or even “a bird’s adept splay.” He is unsure, and that is the main point of ‘Age’. One can never really know what kind of legacy they’re leaving behind them until they are truly gone.