The poem evokes Larkin’s characteristic cynicism and depicts death in a way that allows for little to no grace. ‘The Old Fools’ was first published in 1973 in High Windows. Larkin penned the verse when he was 50 years old and considering his own death. He died at 63 years old.
Explore The Old Fools
‘The Old Fools’ by Philip Larkin is an unforgettable poem about aging and forgetting one’s life.
The poem begins with a speaker, commonly considered to be Philip Larkin himself, describing aging people with dementia as “old fools” who should be screaming in terror of their approaching demise as they forget their lives. He suggests these people have no memory of what their lives used to be like because if they did, they would be driven insane.
In the second stanza, the speaker acknowledges his belief that there is nothing after death but the same oblivion that one existed in before birth. But, now, it is without hope or light as one cannot dream of returning to earth and living out their years as they could before birth.
The poem concludes with two more brutal stanzas about aging and old age. He suggests that the reason that old people never seem to be quite there is that they are consumed by memories of mysterious people and places that used to mean something to them. The last lines of the poem remind readers that we are all going to find out the answers to the questions that Larkin has posed.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘The Old Fools’ by Philip Larkin is a four-stanza poem. The stanzas are quite long, with all of them following a pattern of ABACBDCEDFEF. The poet uses perfect rhymes throughout, adding to the haunting quality that the poem’s content already demonstrated. Larkin also uses numerous rhetorical questions or questions to which his speaker does not expect an answer. He becomes nearly desperate at the end of the poem, presenting one question after another, seeking answers to his concerns about aging and death.
Throughout, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of stanza one as well as lines one and two of stanza two.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions that should inspire the reader’s senses. For example, “Their looks show that they’re for it: / Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “smiling” and “stair” in line five of the third stanza and “went” and “wedding” in line seven of the first stanza.
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of text. For example, “At death you break up: the bits that were you” and “Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they’re for it.”
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;
Why aren’t they screaming?
In the first stanza of ‘The Old Fools,’ the poet uses the title phrase in the middle of a rhetorical question. He wonders what the old fools, or aging people, think it’s happening to them as they forget more and more of their life and lose control over their bodily functions. Larkin does not hide behind poetic language in this piece, instead addresses old age directly and even cruelly. He describes older people peeing on themselves and drooling with their mouth hanging open.
Here, the speaker uses a few more rhetorical questions to express his own fear of aging. He wonders if older, senile people can still remember their past and have a longing to return to the important moments in their lives. He also considers another possibility that because their brains have degraded to such a state, he wonders if they think their life has always been this way, “crippled or tight.” If they do remember the past, the speaker considers, “Why aren’t they screaming?” he asks.
At death you break up: the bits that were you
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines —
How can they ignore it?
In the second stanza, the speaker confesses his belief that after you die, there’s nothing but death. At death, he says, the processes of decay and even the funerary practices that most people undergo break you up and start “speeding” each bit of you away from the next.
You’re going towards the same “oblivion” that “we had… before,” which does provide the comfort of sorts to the speaker. Before, though, the oblivion was going to end, and every person would have a life. But now, as one enters into that oblivion, there is no light. You can’t pretend “There’ll be anything else.”
The stanza ends with another description of the “old fools” who have “Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines.” You’re on your way to this kind of existence as soon as you stop knowing “how, not hearing who” and lose the power to choose. Why, the speaker concludes, are all these suffering, dying people ignoring the misery of their final days, months, or years? Why aren’t they, as he asked in the first stanza, screaming?
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give
In the third stanza, the speaker suggests that maybe being old is like having “lighted rooms” that are inside your head, populated with people that you “can’t quite name.” These people all represent a “deep loss restored” as they move around the room in your mind. They are memories of the past that are impossible to place.
The rooms that these unknown people find themselves in feel familiar. But, they are impossible to place in one’s recollections. These memories are from the past, and that’s where they live. The poet uses an example of enjambment between the third and the fourth stanzas, breaking the pattern of rhetorical questions that he established in the first two sections of the text.
An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.
In the final stanza, the speaker picks up where he left off in the third stanza. He poses the possibility that the lighted, mental rooms of people and memories are why the “old fools” give off an “air of baffled absence.” They are trying to be in their minds, recalling faces and places while also being present.
As they age, the rooms get farther and farther away, growing harder to see and understand. All that’s left is the “constant wear and tear / Of taken breath.” These aging people don’t know that their deaths are nearby because their minds are so fractured. They are, Larkin describes, “crouching below / Extinction’s alp.”
The final part of the poem is filled with questions. These probing, desperate-feeling questions are seeking answers to how the dying feel and understand the world. Do they ever realize what’s happening to them, Larkin asks? His desperation to understand death and aging results in his speaker repetitively asking and emphasizing the same thing, calling dementia and aging an “inverted childhood.”
The poem concludes with the unforgettable line, “Well, / We shall find out.” Addressed to every reader, no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what age they are at present. All people who reach old age will eventually find out the answers to Larkin’s questions.
The main theme of the poem is aging. As one ages, the speaker says, they lose control of their mind and physical body. They forget people and places and, perhaps, think they’ve always been the way they are now.
Larkin wrote this poem to speak about the realities of death and old age. He depicts aging and the experience of dementia or any kind of forgetfulness as something incredibly painful and that, if the “old fools” knew what they were experiencing, it would make them “scream.”
The poem was written sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s and published in 1973. It appeared in his collection High Windows. Larkin died 13 years later.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Philip Larkin poems. For example:
- ‘At Grass’ – a poem about fame and happiness. It focuses on racehorses and how they found new homes away from their previous lives.
- ‘Faith Healing’ – is a thoughtful poem that depicts a group of women and focuses on their emotional experiences.
- ‘Age’ – explores the universality relatable theme of aging. He presents readers with his speaker’s concerns about his legacy.