“Warning” (by Jenny Joseph)
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 begins with the speaker describing a number of different things she will be able to do when she is an “old woman.” It is a sort of list poem, containing a series of those slightly disobedient actions that may come to mind when people feel too conditioned by societal rules.
All of these things are impossible at the moment because the author must live a life of expected sobriety but, in her old age, she will eventually be able to throw off this cloak of respectability and disregard the opinions of others. Her age will offer her the freedom she has never experienced before.
The first way to experience that freedom comes with the choice to wear whatever she wants.
She adds that her “pension” is going to be spent frivolously on brandy, summer gloves and satin sandals instead of satisfying the essential needs
She plans to move freely through the world, sitting on the pavement if she’s tired, eating as many samples from shops as she can, if she’s hungry, and carrying out a series of actions regardless of social conventions
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 second stanza, she goes on foreseeing the freedom of being old: she won’t care about the things that bother her now, and people will stop expecting her to behave in a responsible manner.
No longer constrained by what society expects to see, she will be able to act as she pleases, hoard anything she wants, and eat whatever may satisfy her.
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 speaker uses ‘We’ to point out the moral code everyone is expected to follow in life.
She returns to the present and contrasts the freedom of the future with her current situation. She feels bound by society expectations, so she has to pay rent, be responsible, and worry about how she acts, especially in front of children and friends.
Her frustration at the way she is expected to behave now makes the previous stanzas more appealing.
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 lines, following the contrast between what one has to care about now and the significant decrease in worries in the future, the speaker presents a rhetorical question to herself, suggesting she might start practising now, so that others may recognise her later, the day she will “suddenly” be old.
This would make herself happier and allow people not to be shocked when, unexpectedly, she “start[s] to wear purple.”
This final word balances the purple of the first line and her ending marries so well with the title ‘Warning’.