Written in 1961 and published in 1962, Warning by Jenny Joseph is a short poem of four stanzas, written in first-person. It depicts the restraints and standards of the society. In this poem, the narrator dreams of the day she will ‘turn old’ so she can break away from these expectations and live her life the way she wants to.
Warning | Summary
The poem begins with the narrator saying that when she is an old woman, she will wear purple with a red hat that does not match with it and does not suit her. She will spend her pension on her entertainment, buying sandals and gloves and brandy, instead of everyday items like butter. And when others ask, she will say she does not have money for butter. She will sit on the pavement and eat free samples from shops and cause all sorts of mischief- ringing alarm bells and running her stick down public railings. All these moments of enjoyment will make up for the serious, responsible way she lived her youth. She will wear slippers in the rain, pick flowers from other people’s gardens and learn how to spit- all the things she cannot do now.
In the second stanza, the poet continues musing about the things one can do when they grow old– wear ugly shirts, gain weight without being looked down upon, eat how much ever one wants and whatever they want. They can hoard all sorts of things in boxes and nobody will question them. In the third stanza, the narrator switches from thinking about the glorious possibilities of old age, and returns to her current reality. For now, she must continue as a diligent adult, fulfilling all the responsibilities of adulthood, such as paying rent and setting a good example for the children. She must continue to adhere to society’s expectations, wearing clothes to keep her warm and not swearing in the street and calling friends over for dinner.
But in the final stanza, the narrator wonders if maybe she should start practicing now. Despite not being an ‘old woman’ yet, maybe she should start a little early and slowly wean into it. After all, if the change is too sudden, the people who know her will be shocked when they see her one day, wearing purple.
Warning | Analysis
Jenny Joseph, a British poet, wrote Warning when she was 28 years old in the 1960s- therefore, much of the societal norms she talks about are relevant to her age and era. She writes from personal experiences; about all the things she is expected to follow and wishes to break free from. The main themes of this piece are the dream of personal freedom and the constraint of societal norms. This appeals to a broader audience– after all, everyone has the smallest desire to act upon their own whim no matter what society may say. And further, the simple, humorous way in which the poem is written creates a sense of relatability and light-heartedness. Joseph uses free-verse, splitting the piece into four uneven stanzas. The repeated use of the word ‘and’ to start several of the lines unifies the text- this repetition of words or phrases is known as an ‘anaphora’. Another interesting point to note is the perspective through which Joseph looks at old age. Rather than looking at it as a limitation- for example, people often associate it with reduced physical capability- Joseph looks at old age as a merit, a path to freedom, and a chance to shun the conventional rules of society, as nobody will look down upon or try to correct senior citizens.
Another area of context to keep in mind is the era and setting the poet lived- as the poet is English, we are assuming that the poem is set from the perspective of a woman in an English society in the 1960s. This gives a deep insight to the social expectation of women specifically. Women were expected to dress and behave a certain way- ladylike, timid and well-mannered. They also had lifestyle expectations placed on them by the society- that their priority should be marriage, tending to the husband and raising children. Certain lines in the poem, such as the poet wanting to “spend pension on brandy”, “grow more fat”, and “wear terrible shirts” made me wonder whether this would have been a problem for men. Would they have been criticized for doing any of these things, as women were? This is a different lens which we may view the poem through.
Warning | Analysis, Stanza 1
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
The poem opens with the narrator stating that when she is an old woman, she will “wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” From this, we assume that purple is not commonly worn among young women of society, and further- looking tidy and put-together is important. This is why she specifies “doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.” She wants to live without caring about how she looks and whether her clothes match, instead simply wearing what she likes. Very interestingly, it is Warning’s opening line that in 1998 inspired the formation of the Red Hat Society, an international organization that was originally for women above fifty years. Now, however, it is open to women of all ages to promote cross-generational friendship. This also proves the reach and relatability of Joseph’s poem.
The narrator then says she will “spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves and satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.” Usually people say they do not have money for luxuries such as expensive clothes or drinks, but make sure to save up for the typical necessities. The narrator expresses her desire to do the exact opposite of what people normally do. She wants to “gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells and run my stick along the public railings.” These are all considered ‘rude’ or ‘unmannerly’ activities, and those who engage in these, especially in their youth, will be heavily criticized. However, they seem entertaining and the narrator wishes to experience such a thrill. These activities symbolize freedom, which we do not always get to experience in the strict confines of the society.
This is further implied in the next line, “And make up for the sobriety of my youth.” Youth is the time to experience different emotions and have moments of enjoyment, but the narrator is spending hers in complete seriousness and meticulousness, without even a brief chance to relish the beauty of the world. She wishes to compensate for the loss of her joyful youth in her old age, doing all the things she wishes she could have done before. The final lines of the stanza, “I shall go out in my slippers in the rain and pick flowers in other people’s gardens and learn to spit.”, creates a contrast. Because though all these act against society’s expectation, the tenderness of picking flowers versus the rashness of spitting forms an fascinating duality.
Warning | Analysis, Stanza 2
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
In the next stanza, there is a slight shift in the tone. While in the first stanza, the narrator focused more on the things she personally wished to do in her old age- speaking about herself with the words “When I am old” and “I shall.” She now shifts to a more general point of view, addressing the readers with the words “you.” It seems that after talking about her own desire, she is reminding the readers about all the excitements of old age, as though urging them to understand her perspective and join in the enthusiasm with her. “You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat and eat three pounds of sausages at a go” represents the possibility of not caring what the public would say about one’s appearance. Not many people would scorn older women for their choice of dress. Similarly, the next line- “Or only bread and pickle for a week and hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.”- signifies the ability to do whatever they want without judgmental stares and comments.
Warning | Analysis, Stanza 3
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
In the third stanza, the narrator explains rather despondently that for now, she must resign herself to the confines of the society. She must do the same things as everyone else, presumably to maintain a good reputation in the social and professional world– only then will she be able to earn her money and make ends meet. The reason we assume this is because one’s connections and network in society, as well as their image with their neighbors and coworkers is based on the way they conduct themselves, and this plays a huge role in their later life. It decides the way they are treated and the opportunities they receive. Besides this, the narrator mentions that she must “set a good example for the children.” Therefore, she continues to adhere to a structure. She says that adults must “have clothes that keep us dry and pay our rent and not swear in the street. We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.” These are all very typical things expected of adults- the narrator uses them to represent an ordinary standard.
Warning | Analysis, Stanza 4
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
In the final stanza, she returns to first-person perspective. From all this musing, the narrator has confirmed that the old-age lifestyle she is planning is far more appealing than the one she lives now. Though she does not want to adopt all those habits and ventures immediately, she does wonder whether she “ought to practice a little now.” This does not mean suddenly spitting on streets and lying on the pavement- rather, it is an indication that the narrator wants to step out of her comfort zone, and the zone defined by society, even if it is just by an inch. She wishes not to waste her youth living in others’ demands- so she wonders if maybe she can “practice” a little as a young adult- do something of her own will, no matter how small it may be.
She ends with: “So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised when suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.” This highlights two things– one is the importance one gives to other people’s opinions. We have already seen the role society’s standards play in one’s daily life, but the emphasis in this line on “people who know me” brings to light a different perspective. Usually, one is expected to be less reserved or careful around people whom they know well. But from this line, we realise that no matter how close one is to another person, there is always a certain conduct to display, and we do give importance to their view of us, even subconsciously. The second point to note is that out of all the things the narrator listed in the poem, she chooses to start with wearing purple, which is based on appearance. This may allude to the fact that society’s first judgement is often based on looks rather than actions. Many people get away with rash actions due to their good appearance, and vice versa- that is why it is important to dress well. People make assumptions simply based on one’s clothing, even if they are doing something as normal as sitting in the bus. Therefore, the narrator thinking that she may as well start wearing purple now, in her youth, is symbolic of her step forward, out of the confines of society and towards her own happiness.