The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Men at Forty” is a short poem in free verse, its twenty lines divided into five stanzas. The meditative lyric both expresses how it can feel to be at the midstage of one’s life and reflects on the condition of being middle-aged. Although Donald Justice was himself in his forties when he wrote it, the poem is in the third person, the poet wanting to convey an impression not so much of his personal experience as of the way things are. This is characteristic of Justice, although it is not characteristic of the dominant American poetry of the 1960’s, which came to be called “confessional.” As Justice said, in an interview collected in his book Platonic Scripts (1984), he “conscientiously effaced” his self in his poetry.

The poem’s five declarative sentences affirm different facts about the situation of men at forty, all of which have to do with a sense of time passing. The men, one reads, “Learn to close softly/ The doors to rooms they will not be/ Coming back to.” The rooms are metaphoric; they are the rooms of one’s past which adults learn to leave behind—not with a boisterously youthful slam of the door, but with a quiet, perhaps wistful, close. In the poem’s second sentence the men feel the landing of a stair moving beneath them “like the deck of a ship.” Again the image seems not literal but rather to be a way of referring to the impression one has in middle age of being carried along on a voyage. Common human...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Many of Justice’s poems are gracefully expressed within the constraints of traditional forms, but “Men at Forty” proves that he could skillfully write free verse as well. When asked what determines a line in unmetered verse, Justice observed (in Platonic Scripts) that it seems to be whim but that the poet should enforce the whim so that it comes close to being a perceptible principle. In “Men at Forty” meaning becomes the principle governing when lines are end-stopped and when they are enjambed. The enjambment in stanza 2, for example (“They feel it moving/ Beneath them now like the deck of a ship”), mimics the gentle swell being described, and the enjambment between stanzas 4 and 5, and between the first two lines of stanza 5 (“something// That is like the twilight sound/ Of the crickets”), creates a sense of flow appropriate to the pouring into and filling of the men which is being discussed.

Another principle seems at work when one notices that most lines end on an unstressed syllable. In part this fits the poem’s quiet tone, which mentions doors closing “softly,” a “gentle” swell, and such intimate moments as a boy secretly practicing “tying/ His father’s tie” and the father’s face being “warm with the mystery of lather.” Such a tone is consistent with the elegantly restrained and self-effacing voice of the poet who once said he “would prefer quiet to loud any day” (Chattahoochie Review,...

(The entire section is 479 words.)