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.)