How might one analyze Jenny Joseph's poem titled "Warning"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jenny Joseph’s poem titled “Warning” is a whimsical presentation on the options available to older people, particularly older women. In lines that have become somewhat famous, the speaker opens the poem by declaring,

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.

The strong colors mentioned in these lines symbolize the boldness the speaker plans to display in old age. Of course, even this boldness seems somewhat tame by more extreme standards, thus suggesting that the speaker will still be a fairly responsible citizen when she becomes elderly. There is, in fact, some humor in the speaker’s assumption that wearing clashing colors is a strong form of self-assertion, and indeed throughout the work the speaker seems a rather respectable revolutionary. Still, the speaker’s tone is confident, and she may even be mocking herself a bit when describing her rather tame and middle-class self-assertiveness.

Slightly more daring is the speaker’s declaration that in old age she intends to drink brandy, indulge herself by buying unnecessary clothing, and then pretend to be poor (3-4). Throughout the poem, the speaker tells us what she intends to do in the future, but in the meantime she is painting a memorable picture of her present personality, which is good-humored and only playfully egocentric.  The only literally (but just slightly) alarming activity she plans to pursue in old age is “press[ing] alarm bells” (6). Otherwise her imagined rebelliousness reflects more the wit and cleverness of her present mind than plans for any really anti-social behavior.

The poem is basically structured as a list – a structure appropriate to the speaker’s imaginative inventiveness. Every new item added to the list displays the vitality of her mind. The poem uses the technique of anaphora, in which the same words are repeated at the beginnings and adjacent lines (such as the repetition of “And” at the beginnings of lines 6-8). The poem also heavily emphasizes verbs, suggesting the vitality of the speaker’s mind and the ways in which she plans to remain variously active as she ages.

Old age, the speaker implies, is not only a time for exploring unexplored facets of life and behavior but is also a time when social pressures relax – when one is not held as strictly accountable, by oneself and especially by others, to rigid standards of behavior (12-15). In line 16, however, the speaker returns to the present. Interestingly, in lines 16-19, she no longer speaks of herself in the singular but now refers to “we.” Is she thinking here of her husband (especially since she refers to “the children” [18])? Is she therefore imagining herself, in later life, as a widow, since no other person is mentioned?  The words “we” and “our” suddenly drop out of the poem beginning in line 20, and the final three lines not only end the poem as it began (by emphasizing the speaker only) but also come full circle by referring, as at the beginning, to the color “purple” (22). Ironically, then, a poem otherwise full of variety ends in a suddenly symmetrical fashion.