“Growing Old” is a contemplative poem written by the famous Victorian poet, critic and prophet, Matthew Arnold in which he reflects upon the true meaning of growing old and seeks to decipher what exactly old age entails. Another interesting poem by Arnold is Dover Beach, the analysis of which may be read here.
Growing Old | Summary
Growing Old | Analysis, 1st Stanza
What is it to grow old?
Is it to lose the glory of the form,
The luster of the eye?
Is it for beauty to forego her wreath?
—Yes, but not this alone.
Beginning with the question that forms the central idea of the poem, Arnold wonders “What is it to grow old?”. Does old age signify the loss of one’s physical form and the descent of the majestic youthful physique into the frailty brought upon by age? Or is it the loss of sparkle in one’s eyes with the passage of time? When one is young, his eyes twinkle with the excitement and anticipation of the adventures and joys that life brings to him. But as one grows older and becomes mature, this glimmer grows more and more dull- both due to his lost vigour and his deteriorating eyesight. Old age, as per Arnold, leads to weakening of not only one’s physical body and sight, but also his youthful enthusiasm and lust for life. Personifying beauty as a young lady with a beautiful crown of flowers adorning her head, the poet says that growing old also leads to a loss of this youthful allure as “beauty” has to, with age, “forego her wreath”. One no longer seems to possess the vibrant charm of the youth as he ages. Answering the question asked in the first line, Arnold ends this stanza by stating that though old age means all of the above; it also has many more implications.
Growing Old | Analysis, 2nd Stanza
Is it to feel our strength—
Not our bloom only, but our strength—decay?
Is it to feel each limb
Grow stiffer, every function less exact,
Each nerve more loosely strung?
Continuing his introspection from the first stanza, the poet raises more questions in the second and says that apart from the decline in our physical attributes and looks, ageing also leads to a decline in our strength. Old age debilitates us- making our nerves weak and our joints stiff. Our functionality takes a blow and we start struggling with even the most basic activities. While one is capable of doing everything on his own during his youth, old age thus incapacitates him. As time takes its toll on man, his physical as well as mental strength start to depreciate, and he no longer possesses the vigor and strength of his youth.
Growing Old | Analysis, 3rd Stanza
Yes, this, and more; but not
Ah, ’tis not what in youth we dreamed ’twould be!
’Tis not to have our life
Mellowed and softened as with sunset glow,
A golden day’s decline.
In the third stanza, Arnold lets out a sigh of anguish and comments that none of what he discovered as the effects of ageing aligns with what he perceived of old age during his youth. When he was young, at no point could he have imagined that age would lead to all that he said above- and even more. He expected old age to bring him a sense of warmth and satisfaction of a life well-lived but is disappointed to discover that these expectations remain unfulfilled. He believed that just as the sunset brings about a sense of peace and contentment to a day that is about to end, old age too would bring the same comfort and serenity to him. His hopes, however, don’t get fulfilled and old age does not seem to him as “mellowed and softened” as he had imagined it to be.
Growing Old | Analysis, 4th Stanza
’Tis not to see the world
As from a height, with rapt prophetic eyes,
And heart profoundly stirred;
And weep, and feel the fullness of the past,
The years that are no more.
Moreover, he says, old age does not even lead to a heightened understanding of the world. Ageing does not mean that one will turn immensely philosophical, with his heart overflowing with nostalgia of the years gone by. Neither will he develop a far-seeing, divine gaze that would enable him to see the world in a new light. During his youth he thought that when he turned older, he would look back to the good old days and reminisce fondly about the “years that are no more”, his heart brimming with remembrances of the past.
Growing Old | Analysis, 5th Stanza
It is to spend long days
And not once feel that we were ever young;
It is to add, immured
In the hot prison of the present, month
To month with weary pain.
But, instead of all that he expected, what old age truly brings is long days with little or no recollection of the pleasures of youth. Ageing feels like being imprisoned in an endless circle of pain and weariness. Months after months pass away in the “hot prison of the present” without any fond reminiscing that he expected when he was young. Engulfed by the feeling of growing old and tired, man feels trapped inside his own body without any indication of an escape.
Growing Old | Analysis, 6th Stanza
It is to suffer this,
And feel but half, and feebly, what we feel.
Deep in our hidden heart
Festers the dull remembrance of a change,
But no emotion—none.
Coupled with this suffering is the inability to fully feel the emotions that arise in one’s heart. Arnold says that this does not mean that feelings cease to exist as one grows old- they are just not as intense as compared to those experienced in the past. Deep within our hearts, we shall still have the memories of our youth and the recollection of changes that took place with age. But these shall be very faint and would lack any sort of emotion that we associated with them in the past. What used to move us in the past, no longer seems to have any effect on us when we grow old.
Growing Old | Analysis, 7th Stanza
It is—last stage of all—
When we are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of ourselves,
To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
Which blamed the living man.
In the last stanza, Arnold calls old age the “last stage” of our lives and says that at this stage, we are but a mere ghost of our younger selves. The fire of passion that burned within us in youth seems to have died, leaving us “frozen up within”. There is no excitement, no desire and no hope whatsoever- we are just a shadow of our youth, unable to support ourselves and devoid of all that we used to be. Concluding the poem on a pessimistic note, the poet now returns to his initial question of what old age exactly means and answers it by stating that growing old means to lament the lost spirit and sentiments of one’s youth, all the while being confined within the feeble remains of one’s decaying body, just as the world outside is applauding and celebrating one’s accomplishments and life.
Growing Old | Analysis
The poem has seven stanzas of five lines each and does not follow any specific rhyme or metre, instead employing free verse to express the poet’s thoughts and feelings. As in most of his poems, the speaker is Arnold himself, stating his opinions and musings regarding ageing and mankind. Although primarily reflective, the poem also has certain outbursts of emotions, especially distress. The tone is quite pessimistic and Arnold’s characteristic skepticism pervades the poem. Arnold was very fond of nature and this love is reflected in this work as well. He compares old age to “A golden day’s decline” and presents before us a picturesque imagery. The poet has made good use of rhetorical questions in this poem to make his expression more impactful. He also employs compelling metaphors like comparing the ageing body to a prison and even a phantom. Overall, the poem offers an interesting insight into Arnold’s perception of old age which is quite different from his contemporaries who believed in the possibility of life after death and held a more optimistic attitude towards ageing and death.