The Poem

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“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 experience is that children take little note of time, whereas it seems to pass more and more swiftly as one ages. Thus, Justice’s poem implies both that one does not have the impression in youth of being carried along (the men at forty feel the movement “now”) and that the gentle swell one feels in middle age may become rougher later on.

The sense of time passing is again suggested in the poem’s third sentence, which notes that men at forty see in mirrors a blend of the present and the remembered past: Deep in his own features the middle-aged man detects the face of the boy he was as well as that of his own father as a middle-aged man. In the only sentence which takes a single line, the speaker states that men at forty “are more fathers than sons.” In this condition, belonging more to the world of the adult than to that of the child, men at forty are being filled, the poem’s fifth sentence mysteriously declares. What fills the men is never made explicit, but the fifth sentence provides a powerful simile which describes it as being like the sound of “the crickets, immense,/ Filling the woods at the foot of the slope.”

Forms and Devices

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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//...

(This entire section contains 479 words.)

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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, Summer, 1989). The poem’s quietness also provides a contrast to the last stanza’s dramatic aural image of crickets, its three lines ending on stressed syllables. The understatement of the poem’s next and final line (“Behind their mortgaged houses”), achieved by its ending on another unstressed syllable, and by its being an offhand prepositional phrase, makes the line all the more piercing.

Justice’s skill with language lies not only in his ability to fashion a well-shaped verbal construct and to create a distinctive and dignified voice, but also in the beauty, clarity, and power of his images. They involve not only sight, but also perceived motion (the stair landing), remembered warmth (the father’s face), and sound (the crickets). Cannily, Justice tightens his poem’s unity by tying its elements together—by the rhyming of “father” with “lather,” for example—and by establishing a list of activities in the poem’s first half: closing doors, standing on a stair landing, looking into mirrors. The poem’s second half is tied together by the motif of secrets running through the stages of childhood, adulthood, and old age. The boy wishes to be like his father and so “practices tying/ His father’s tiein secret”; the father is privy to adult rituals such as shaving, with its “mystery of lather”; and, later in life, men will arrive at the ultimate enigma, symbolized in the poem by the sound of crickets.