Themes and Meanings

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Mutability and loss are recurrent themes in Justice’s poetry, and “Men at Forty” is no exception. Doors closing, a stair landing in motion, a father’s features becoming discernible in his son’s face, and men being filled with something like the sound of crickets all become intimations of mortality.

Subtly and with originality Justice touches on traditional ways of imagining the human life span: the journey metaphor, for example, was invoked by Dante Alighieri in the opening words of The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), which translate as “in the middle of the journey of our life.” It is also implicit in poems by Robert Frost (“The Road Not Taken,” 1916, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” 1923) and many others. In “Men at Forty,” as has been noted, it is as if men first notice they have embarked on a voyage after they have passed the midpoint of the biblical life span of three score years and ten. The trope of a stage of life being expressed as a time of day, found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (1609) when the aging speaker says, “In me thou seest the twilight of such day,” becomes, in “Men at Forty,” the aural metaphor of the “twilight sound” of crickets. The commonplace conception of human life as an arc, rising and falling, which is part of a double entendre in the title of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” (1918), is in Justice’s poem suggested by the men at midlife being situated in houses at the top of a slope.

What destination awaits people at the end of their journey through life? The last stanza of “Men at Forty” presents a mystery followed by a certainty. The sound of the crickets is “immense,” as will be the change from life to death, but the poem is ambiguous as to whether that immensity represents something positive or negative. The chirping of crickets can strike one as festive; many people in Japan keep crickets in cages as pets. It could, however, be experienced as frightening—the insect world taking over, as one imagines it does after the body decays. Perhaps to some the chirping simply sounds eerie. One cannot say, on the basis of this enigmatic aural image, that the poem either suggests an afterlife or rules it out.

Yet whatever lies beyond, if anything, the fact of death is certain, and its certainty is symbolized in the poem’s last image—“mortgaged houses.” People have their bodies, as it were, only on loan: They must be given up at death. When questioned about the last line of “Men at Forty,” Justice replied, “the houses become, I’d like to think, almost an image for their bodies, the men themselves, extensions” (Platonic Scripts). Verbal technician that he is, Justice chose the precise adjective, for “mortgage” is, etymologically, “dead pledge.”

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