Originally read: March 3, 2013
More information about the Poet: Matthew Arnold
The poem is in quintains and I don't know why. There's kind of an arc set up there, but it's not really harped upon on the poem. Instead the poem opens up with a rhetorical question "What is it to grow old" and right there I feel the audience is set. There has to be some interest about growing old (which is also in the title) -- because the questions don't stop coming.
1) Is it to lose the glory of the form?
2) The lustre of the eye?
3) Is it for beauty to forgo her wreath?
Yes, but not alone
4) Is it to feel our strength - not our bloom only, but our strength decay? (for this line in particular, the line break here brings an emphasis on "strength" in the positive, only to be undercut by "decay" in the next line -- the break of expectation)
5)Is it to feel each limb grow stiffer, every function less exact, each nerve more weakly strung?
Yes, this and more!
Okay, broken down like this -- the poem comes off like an infomercial where the reader expects what "growing old" is not (which of course the speaker utilizes in the next couple of stanzas). Also note that all the rhetorical questions focuses on the physical and/or the "form." From the physical standpoint there's the eye, beauty, strength, stiffness."
However, if looked upon as a "form" construction/metapoetics point -- (damnit I just realized this now) the lines alternate in syllables -- 6-10-6-10-6. I tried looking up the form (not another analysis of the poem) to see if it's a fixed from. I don't know why. I was going to write that the lines were inconsistent and the focus being more on what death "does." But I'm wrong with this.
Moving on, the poem then goes on to what growing up is not,
1) 'Tis not what in youth we dreamed 'twould be!
2) 'Tis not to have our life mellowed and softened as with sunset glow, a golden day's decline!
3) 'Tis not to see the world as from a height, with rapt prophetic eyes, and heart profoundly stirred; and weep, and feel the fulness of the past, the years that are not more!
So the reasonings here are accentuated with the exclamation point which may seem a little overboard, like a constructed passion stating "here, here is what it's not" But note how the "not" sequence goes discusses expectation and ambitious -- which eventually fail -- more of a mental thinking sequence: dreams, mellowness, being a prophet. So form here, the speaker takes on the authority role and states what it means to grow old. This is more like a basic argumentative rhetoric sequence poem: set the question, state what it's not, step in as the authority to state what it is.
"It is to spend long days
and not once feel that we were ever young"
A bit sentimental, but okay -- we were never young focuses more on only feeling old.
"It is to suffer this [weary pain], / and feel but half, and feebly, what we feel / [...] But no emotion - none"
Desensitized to pain caused by age -- it's been seen/felt before.
Then in the last stanza there's a turn to the highly metaphorical:
"It is the - 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 this stanza the stage reference (akin to the quote from "As you Like It") comes up so it's a little cliche, but then the image of the stage completely shifts away to the idea of the self frozen, being a phantom; meanwhile, the outside world "applauds" the withdrawn self and in turn blames the living. A cycle basically. However, I don't know how the cycle works. The "we" brings in a universal cycle and is it as we grow older we become less of ourselves, but the world doesn't care and will applaud the hollow ghost over death instead of helping the phantom which blames the living for being the phantom in the first place?
Not the best analysis on my part.