On Growing by John Masefield is a thought-provoking poem that engages with the idea of man’s mortality, the transitioning from youth to old age, and the loss that comes with it. It reminds us that even in old age, one yearns for the character of their youth. Yet, it also goes on to show us that passion is all that is needed to live a life of fulfilment, and while it burns bright in one’s youth, it is still required as one’s life comes to a close, albeit accompanied by a newfound yearning for wisdom.
This 28-line poem is split into two 14-line stanzas. The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This is reminiscent of a Shakespearean Sonnet, which consists of 14 lines split into three quatrains and a couplet, with the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The structure of this poem can be referred to as a double sonnet, as it combines two stanzas that are, individually, 14-line sonnets. One may also notice the theme of duality – of youth and old age, of beauty and wisdom, borne by the dual structure of this double sonnet which achieves a delicate complementarity of form and content.
On Growing Old | Analysis, Lines 1-14
Be with me, Beauty, for the fire is dying;
My dog and I are old, too old for roving.
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying,
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.
I take the book and gather to the fire,
Turning old yellow leaves; minute by minute
The clock ticks to my heart. A withered wire,
Moves a thiun ghost of music in the spinet.
I cannot sail your seas, I cannot wander
Your cornland, nor your hill-land, nor your valleys
Ever again, nore share the battle yonder
Where the young knight the broken squadron rallies.
Only stay quiet while my mind remembers
The beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.
The poet speaks to Beauty, asking her to remain by his side even as his youth leaves him. When he was young, he was strong and passionate, but now he relaxes by the hearth, reading an old book. The minutes pass as the clock ticks, and he gets older and older. The old wires of his harpsichord (spinet) play soft, quiet music, and he bemoans how he can no longer undertake worldly adventures. He can no longer enjoy the vast beauty of the world, and he sits at his fire, remembering the beauty of his youth.
Throughout the poem, the poet is speaking to Beauty, so beauty is personified. He has personified the concept and perceptibility of Beauty into a living whom that he is pleading with in this poem.
This stanza is filled with gorgeous imagery and metaphor, representing the mental state of the poet with regards to his old age. The dying fire in the first line is representative of the poet’s passion, and how he feels it dying out. He implores Beauty to remain with him, though he feels the fire of his youth slipping away.
Spindrift is sea spray, and this invokes a beautiful image of spray blown from waves in strong winds. In the same way, a young man’s passion is so strong, yet as he grows older, he loses the will to move forward, and the motivation to put in the effort to love anything.
The poet then shows the reader that he relaxes, as he sits comfortably near his fire, and reads an old, yellowed book. “Yellow leaves” mean the pages of the book that he has chosen to read. As he relaxes, the clock ticks and every tick is a heartbeat that may soon stop. The “withered wire” that plays a ghost of music from the harpsichord is a metaphor for his own heart, that beats weakly and does not fill him with the strength of passion that he is used to, but just a meagre version of it.
The poet wants to travel, but more so, wants to explore every inch of the Beauty that he is blessed with in his life. But now, he can no longer sail, nor roam the world, and he cannot see all that that is available anymore. Instead, he sits, and he reminisces.
The last line of this stanza is very meaningful, where he “remembers the beauty of fire from the beauty of embers”. The poet is forced to maintain the remembrance of his youth only from the memories that he has in his own head. The embers are what is left over when the fire has burned, and his passion burned away and left him with the embers of this life. He is entirely dependent on these embers to give him a feeble echo of the life he lived in his youthful glory.
The technique of alliteration has been used in the 7th and 8th lines of this sonnet, as is seen in “minute by minute” and “withered wire”.
On Growing Old | Analysis, Lines 15-28
Beauty, have pity! for the strong have power,
The rich their wealth, the beautiful their grace,
Summer of man its sunlight and its flower.
Spring-time of man, all April in a face.
Only, as in the jostling in the Strand,
Where the mob thrusts, or loiters, or is loud,
The beggar with the saucer in his hand
Asks only a penny from the passing crowd,
So, from this glittering world with all its fashion,
Its fire, and play of men, its stir, its march,
Let me have wisdom, Beauty, wisdom and passion,
Bread to the soul, rain when the summers parch.
Give me but these, and though the darkness close
Even the night will blossom as the rose.
The poet begs Beauty to pity him, reminding her of the power of the strong men, the wealth of the rich, and the grace of the beautiful. The youth of men is bright and beautiful but is also a fleeting moment. Yet, as the beggar asks only for a penny from the crowds of people who fill up a busy thoroughfare, the poet asks Beauty to give him wisdom from the chaos of movement in the world. He asks for wisdom, and he asks for passion so that even as his life comes to an end, he will be able to enjoy it.
The poet knows that he is not strong, rich, or graceful, and he has no desire to ask for power, wealth, or beauty. He knows that the summer of man is the season of their youth, where they are bright, motivated, and passionate. He experienced the ephemeral joy of his life’s springtime, and how quickly that beautiful season passed on. And now, he is in his old age, thinking about his past.
The Strand is a thoroughfare in Westminster, London, and is extremely popular. It is a place where people go to enjoy themselves and is known for its restaurants and cafes. This area is densely populated with people almost all the time, hence the “jostling” and “loitering”. Even with all these people and the bright distractions, a beggar on the street will only ask for a single penny from the throngs of people. The beggar has no use for all the other offerings of these busy streets, as he is just looking to survive. This beggar is a metaphor for the poet himself, and what he requires from life.
The world glitters and is full of chaos, fire, and people looking to find their success by any means. The world never sleeps and is always moving forward. However, this is irrelevant to the poet now. What he wants is passion and wisdom. Something to feed his soul when he is alone, something to fill him up when he feels empty. He asks the world to give him this so that the nights that he has left will be as beautiful as can be.
In poetry, a rose is often used as a metaphor for life, passion and vitality, wherein a person finds harmony and happiness after overcoming something. It can also symbolize love, and in this context, the reawakening of the poet’s love for his life, and the shedding of his bitterness about his imminent death. A red rose is a symbol of passion, and in the darkness that comes to the poet’s mind as he nears the end, his passion for life will still be alive, burning, and strong.
On Growing Old | About the Poet
The English poet John Masefield was born on 1 June 1878, in the United Kingdom. While Masefield is known for his narrative poetry, he is also a master in other genres. He wrote both poetry and prose, and his work is still being read to this day. He was appointed as a Poet Laureate from 1930-1967 and has a Centre at Warwick School, his alma mater, as well as a high school in Ledbury, named after him.
In 1938, he was a recipient of the Shakespeare Prize, an award for artistic achievement given annually to a British citizen. Some of his notable pieces are “The Everlasting Mercy” and “The Box of Delights”.
Masefield died on 12 May 1967, in the United Kingdom.