When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Copyright © Jenny Joseph, SELECTED POEMS, Bloodaxe 1992. Reproduced with permission of Johnson & Alcock Ltd.
Do you recognize this poem?
A 1996 survey BBC identified it as the UK’s most popular post-war poem, beating Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” It’s called “Warning” and was written by Jenny Joseph (1932- ) at age 29.
It reminds me of my mother. She and Jenny were born the same year. Mom revels in her position as the Gypsy Queen of Geri-Antics, wearing loud floral shirts, sporting several toe rings, and eating sausages.
It made me wonder about Jenny herself. Where is she now? Is she actually wearing dazzling blouses and skyrocketing her cholesterol count?
It turns out Jenny has written poetry all her adult life (and earlier, I bet) but this one poem has defined her, despite a large and rich body of work. It has inspired thousands of women to wear purple—but she hates the color herself.
The Red Hat Society
In 1997, Sue Ellen Cooper of Fullerton, California, gave her friend a 55th birthday gift that included a vintage red fedora and a copy of “Warning.” Sue Ellen went on to found the Red Hat Society, “the place where there is fun after fifty.” As of 2011, there were over 40,000 chapters in the United States and 30 other countries.
The women famously wear red hats and purple outfits to their public gatherings, usually tea. In the comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm, a Red Hatter sits with the College of Cardinals. One of the cardinals informs her, “Madame, this is not that kind of red hat club!”
Jenny doesn’t mind that her poem has become more famous than she is, but when asked if she would start wearing purple anytime soon, she replied, “I can’t stand purple. It doesn’t suit me.” (Jenny’s publisher has also informed me that she has never endorsed, nor licensed any of her work to The Red Hat Society.)
An Ode to Nonconformity
Jenny has published thirteen poetry books and won several awards. During the fourteen years between Unlooked-for Season (1960) and Rose in the Afternoon (1974), her first two, she published six children’s books. She has written three books of poetry since age 69. Many of her best, including “Warning,” appears in her Selected Poems.
As a Later Bloomer, I love “Warning” as an ode to nonconformity and admire this 84-year-old woman who quietly created art while holding down various jobs, from running a pub to lecturing in English literature.
In 1999, the prestigious Royal Society of Literature made Jenny a fellow. Here’s Jenny Joseph reading “Warning” (which she considers a minor early poem), but do check out the other works in her Selected Poems.
(Epilogue and confession: I was embarrassingly ignorant of copyright law when I first wrote this post and included “Warning” in full without consent. Recently I wrote to Jenny’s publisher apologizing for my mistake and asking for permission to use the poem. They graciously granted it.)