Getting Older with "Warning"
By Santiago Eastman Herrera
"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.
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.
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.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
After searching for what feels like forever, I’ve finally done it. I’ve found the best poem ever written. Many have tried their hand at the challenge, but the winner goes not to old hats like Shakespeare or Wordsworth, but to a middle-aged poetess from Buckinghamshire. That’s right, from the land that gave us boiled cabbage and constitutional monarchy, this poem has stood the test of time and weathered all storms. In this magnificent tour-de-force from the 60s, Jenny Joseph tackles a conversation that’s still relevant today: growing old. (You know, because we all have to—don’t believe me? Just wait, that forehead of yours won’t remain crease-free forever.)
22 lines long, “Warning” goes through a speaker’s idealization of what it’ll be like for her to get older and stop caring about the societal expectations that are imposed on women (especially housewives, the literal backbone of society) as they mature. However, the way Joseph goes about it is inclusive, inviting the reader into this paradise of freedom in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or like it's stepping on others’ toes. “Join me,” the poem says. “Be yourself and wear those ugly purple trousers you’ve always wanted to.” (Don’t even try to pretend you don’t have any, we’ve all seen you on your days off.)
Growing up with one foot in the Latin American world and another in the US, I’ve observed the different ways the two cultures treat their elders. Joseph herself says it in an interview: there’s a strange obsession and fear of age in North America (The Lancet, 1999). People are terrified of growing old—and why wouldn’t we be? Every day we’re bombarded with horrible, beautiful people smiling surgically perfected teeth at us while trying to sell skincare, or already hairless models trying to show how good their razors can work in the shower. In the US especially, the second a woman starts getting wrinkles, she’s thrown to the side like bruised produce in a grocery store.
Meanwhile, on the Hispanic side, our elders make up an important part of our society. Slathered with honey, marinated, and then baked at 375°F for a few hours, we wait until the moon is full to really let the juices soak up, and then—y’all thought I was serious, didn’t you? For shame. Fix yourselves.
In reality, for many young adults, it’s an expectation that we’re to grow up, get married, and then find a place for not only our spouses and children to live, but our parents as well. The grandparents can then take care of the children while the parents work to maintain them all. It’s a cycle—parents raise the children and, in return, are taken care of once they’re older. (It’s like a fun little hamster wheel with mortgages instead of spokes.)
There are negatives to this representation: what if the children want to go out on their own? Are unable to take care of others due to illness or disease? What if the grandparents don't particularly care for their grandchildren and want to build their own house made of gingerbread and lure others in from the surrounding woods somewhere? There isn’t the fear of isolation and “wasting away” that permeates the American view of aging. Instead of picking one side or the other, “Warning” finds a happy balance between the two that still leaves some agency for those that willingly enjoy prune juice and saying things like, “There’s a stiff draft in here.”
In only four stanzas, this masterful poem poignantly displays a new way to live in a world that looks at older women as wallflowers (or maybe as that embroidered pattern you see on sofas in Polaroids better left in old boxes). Even though “Warning” is so structured around the speaker, one of its main focuses deals with the people around her—what they’ll see, what they expect, how they’ll react. Like a good karaoke bar, the poem opens up a space for a woman to be able to express herself while still participating in society. Instead of raising a large middle finger to stuck-up pricks, the speaker seems to say, “I can have my fun while inviting others to do the same.” She takes care of her responsibilities and gets things done—but in her way.
The poem has no consistent meter or rhyme scheme. Each line tends to be around 11-12 syllables in length (save for the cheeky exception in line 11), and the constant repetition of “And” at the beginning of the lines lets each one flow into the next. The last line harkens back to the first line, except with a twist: the speaker is now convinced that she doesn’t have to wait until old age to start expressing herself however she wants.
Written right before the major social movements of the 70s, this poem became popular in the US in the 80s, after Liz Carpenter (the first woman executive assistant to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson) wrote an article for Reader's Digest that had the poem printed at the end. Americans responded really well to it, publishing it in other journals and greeting cards, crocheting their favorite quotes onto blankets to threaten their grandchildren with, and even creating the Red Hat Society in the 90s as a way for women over 50 to come together and take part in fun events like tea parties (in red hats and purple clothes, of course), bowling, and other events that show it’s never too late to enjoy yourself. (I’ve later learned that full members are called queens, which… iconic, honestly.)
Personally, what resonated for me was the simplicity of the poem. Sometimes, I get so wrapped up in thinking about my next step (what my future holds, what sacrifices to offer the time gods) that I forget to take the time to enjoy the present. As I get older, I sometimes stop thinking about what it is I want to do and focus more on what I need to do—and that’s no way to live. Even though I’m not technically its target audience, the poem reassured me that I shouldn’t be afraid of inhaling three pounds of sausages at once (been there, done that, hunny) or going out dancing like crazy because, as long as I get my work done, there’s nothing to stop me. “Warning” serves as a reminder that it’s not a requirement to grow sour with age. Sometimes, the best thing to do is find joy in the little things and free yourself from what others think you should do.
I want to end this article with a big shoutout to the whole Soliloquies team, especially Jade, Maze, and Jackie, who’ve made my time on the team a blast. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this journal and I recommend it to anyone who wants to join. Happy April (Fools) and enjoy the end of the semester!
Joseph, Jenny. “Warning.” Scottish Poetry Library, Profile 2021, 6 Oct. 2022, https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/warning/.
Joseph, Jenny. “Jenny Joseph on the Popularity of Her Poem ‘Warning.’” The Lancet, vol. 354, no. SIII30-SIII32, Nov. 1999, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(99)90272-6.
“The Red Hat Society: Social Organization for Women.” Red Hat Society, https://redhatsociety.com/.