Jenny Joseph’s “When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple”

Jenny Joseph’s “When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple”

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 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 practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Warning!

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.

Jenny Joseph's "When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple" at Debra Eve's LaterBloomer.com
Queen Elizabeth doing purple proud

 

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 is shown sitting 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 Joseph's "When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple" at Debra Eve's LaterBloomer.com
Red Hatters in Multnomah Falls, Oregon

 

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,” can be found in her Selected Poems.

I, for one, have become partial to red and purple. But I don’t think Jenny foresaw this generation of long-living, pharmaceutical-dependent seniors. I’ll say no to growing fat, thank you, and skip my mother’s diabetes.

But as a Later Bloomer, I love “Warning” as an ode to nonconformity and admire this 82-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.

What outrageous things will you do when you don’t have to set an example for the children? Is it time to make up for the sobriety of youth?

45 Responses

  1. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, as an ex-hippie, rebel who shocked my conservative Italian family going braless, letting my hair grow down my back, wore cut-a-way jeans and short shirts and rode my bike bare-footed and carefree. Oh, I so enjoyed those rebel years. Raising the kids on a case of Romein noodles, loud music and lots of adventure.

    She is still there … that rebel teenager … that rockin’ young mother … and in my later years I have no problem resurrecting her … although now I do it with words :)

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Florence, all I’ve got to say is — one day we’ve got to meet and hang out. Everything you’ve written, here and on your blog, I can relate to. You sound like my sister separated at birth! Thanks so much.

    • Diane
      |

      @florence fois.. is there ever such a thing as a ex hippie.. she too still lives in me,spending my teen and early 20’s in Southern Calif. Skateboarding,surfing(more time at the beach than school) I mean who could pass up a day at the beach with friends with “Woodies full of surfboards and and the Sun and surf beckoning you to come enjoy the day.. I don’t live near there anymore but hope to spend my last yrs out there in the winter with my hubby of 40+yrs.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I agree, Diane. No such thing as an ex-hippie. I grew up on So Cal, too, and remember those days well.

  2. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    I had no idea she wrote this at the age of 29. Thanks much for telling us about this remarkable poet. (And I love the picture of the Queen in all that purpleness!)

    • Debra Eve
      |

      You’re welcome, Anne! I found hundreds of images of the Queen wearing various shades of purple, so I wonder if it’s a sly wink at that poem. I, too, find it amazing that Jenny wrote this poem at age 29.

  3. Ellen M. Gregg
    | Reply

    I don’t have children, but I have nine nieces and nephews. I’m their cool Auntie Ellen, because like to have fun, I’ll talk to them about anything, and I’m honest about things I’ve done and tried and would like to do and try – sometimes to the chagrin of their parents. :-D

    I look forward to more of the same for myself, and with them.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I’m like you, Ellen. Never had children, but I love being the cool auntie. I would have made an awful parent, because I like hanging out more than disciplining. Luckily, the kids need both, so thank goodness there are women like us around! A couple of my nieces are really young adults now, and it’s so wonderful to see them embrace it.

  4. Marcia Richards
    | Reply

    Hi Debra! I’ve always loved this poem! Nonconformity is part of my makeup, so this description of an old woman wearing purple suits me. My 91 yr old aunt is a member of the Red Hat Society and my mom is still, at 89, so young at heart. She’s recently fallen in love with the man of her dreams, she still sits in her easy chair with her legs draped over the side arm, and she giggles at risque jokes.
    Acting your age has it’s place in a lifetime but, after 50 anything goes! Thanks for sharing the poem. I needed to read it again. :)

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Great for your aunt! After researching this piece, I’m really considering joining a chapter. And I ove that your mom has found the love of her life at age 89. I agree, Marcia, after 50 anything goes!

  5. Lee Jenna Tyler
    | Reply

    Thank you so much, Debra, for writing of Jenny Joseph. I had started to quote this to a friend who is in her 30’s and there wasn’t an one hint of recognition. I hope we set examples for the children in reading Jenny’s poems; aloud and often! I wonder, when she was 26, who it was she pictured in her mind first wearing purple. And did this woman also cut flowers in other’s gardens? And spit? Despite her not liking purple herself, I bet she admired that woman! I do ;)

    • Debra Eve
      |

      We definitely need to keep women like Jenny and Erma Bombeck (whom I wrote about a few weeks ago) alive for the next generation. That’s a great question, who she based those images on, because they’re so specific. (And yet so universal.) Thanks for stopping by, Lee!

  6. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    This is such an awesome post! (The poem, too!) When I was 33, I bought a new Firebird, thinking, “I want one of these before I’m old enough to look silly in it.” When I bought my new Camaro ten years later, I know better – and I think it’s awesome when I see 50- and 60- something ladies driving them! I expect I’ll still be driving something similar, a little too fast, banging my head to heavy metal LOL. :D

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Love this image of you, Jennette! In the 1960s, I remember my favorite aunt driving a convertible Austin-Healey and wearing white go-go boots. I thought she was so cool. In retrospect, I realize she was in her late 40s at the time (and that woman is still rocking it). It’s the only way to go :)

  7. Priska
    | Reply

    Like Florence,
    I’m an ex-hippie who also shocked conservative German parents by going bra less and wearing cut away shorts.
    I know that we’re supposed to dress age appropriate when we reach mid-life. My version of age appropriate is that my cut off jeans now go halfway to my knees instead of halfway up my bottom.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      We’re so different from our parents’ generation, aren’t we? I don’t think our kids or nieces and nephews realize how much rebelling we did! I love your site, Priska, because it embraces age inappropriateness! Let’s never stop growing and having fun.

  8. Hi Debra,

    I came here because this is such a great headline. I’ve never heard of the poem and love it as well as what you write about it’s meaning. Lol that your blog design is purple and red too.

    Strangely I’ve always hated purple too like Jenny but strangely after I turned 40 I bought a purple shirt and found I liked it. Now I’m into a bit of purple. So even when we get older we can change our ways :) Bravo for that and being a nonconformist :)

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Annabel! It’s so funny, because my web redesign was really organic, and I kept trying to avoid the purple background. I tried so many other colors! But purple was just right, and that’s when I remember this poem (LOL) and decided to just go for it.

  9. Kate MacNicol
    | Reply

    What an inspirational post. I’d read the poem years ago but to read the history and see what she’s up to now is not only heartwarming but it strengthens my belief that I will write well into my old age. I’m a mix of reserve and out-there and my adult kids get a big kick out of when Mom “speaks her mind.” I think it’s why I write; quiet reserved Kate really does have a LOT to say to just about anyone who will read or listen:) It’s hard to let go of the nice girl syndrome. Thanks for making my day and giving me lots to think about.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I’ve been a “nice girl” all my life, Kate, more at home with books than with putting myself “out there.” In fact, this web redesign was a bit racy for me :) Writing does make for the perfect outlet, but I too want to start taking more chances with my life and my writing. Glad you enjoyed it!

  10. Patricia
    | Reply

    I’ve never heard that entire poem, only the first couple of sentences. It’s lovely and I love it.

    I hope to never be “one of those ladies” though, because the Red Hats where I live are actually quite rude. I admire spunk in mature women, but just because you don a red hat does not mean you can do whatever the hell you want.

    Here’s to aging gracefully and not letting society dictate how we should conduct ourselves (so long as we are still respectful to others).

    And, here’s to purple.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Ah, yes, geri-antics at its worst. I’ve seen it too, Patricia. I agree with you 100%. It’s possible to be a graceful and courteous nonconformist. My aunt is a genteel grand dame — she does her own thing while making everyone around her feel unique and interesting. I never want to be “one of those ladies” either!

    • Kate Welty
      |

      I have considered joining the local red hat society but they sure don’t make it easy.and I dont like red hats & would never wear one. In some ways I think they miss the point of the poem entirely. I now have the freedom to be a nonconformist(which I kinda have been allmy life to a lesser extent). Thanks for listening! As a wheel chair bound 64 yr.old it delights me to find this blog of young at heart wild women! (if it’s your nature to be wild).

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      It’s certainly my nature, Kate! I’ve always wondered about the Red Hat Societies…my mom wants to join but she’s having trouble finding one taking new members in her area. Are they cliquish, perhaps? Something I’d like to follow up on at some point. But, as you mentioned, the whole point of the poem is nonconformity and I can understand why you’d not want to conform by wearing a red hat!

  11. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    First of all, I love the color purple, therefore love the new look of your digs Debra!
    Secondly, call me a rebel, but I love purple with red. :)

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Karen! The redesign all came together rather organically, and after trying several times to change it, I gave up :)

  12. Carol
    | Reply

    Just found this poem and it is PERFECT. My husband passed away 5 months ago at the very young age of 66. I have been struggling with living alone, and all of my relatives including our 2 boys live quite a distance away from here, where I live.

    Having said that, I feel so blessed to have the most amazingly wonderful girlfriends who always are there just when I need them the most.

    Friday the 13th of September was very special for me. I went out an purchased a BRAND NEW CAR and, yes, it is PURPLE.

    I am excited to begin my “new normal” and my other car is 11 years old, therefore when I pick up my PURPLE PRINCESS from the car dealership tomorrow, I will be attired with so much purple, nobody will believe it.

    Maturing and gaining more experience are 2 ways I look at “Getting Older” and it sounds way better.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Excellent, Carol! It’s hard to believe Jenny wrote that poem at age 29, and has kept her unwavering artistic vision intact. Have fun in your new purple car. I traded in my 15-year-old one last year. Didn’t quite go purple — the official color is “violet-gray.” :)

  13. Brenda Mansley
    | Reply

    Love this poem. I was born in March 1932 like Jennie and feel she is a kins woman.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      So glad you liked it, Brenda. I’m in awe of Jennie’s wisdom and humor, way back when when was 29, and that she has remained an artist true to herself in the decades since.

  14. […] haven’t started wearing the Color Purple yet (a poem that makes me smile) but, I’m getting my stick ready to run along public […]

  15. Olivia Nicholls
    | Reply

    This poem is so funny for the teenagers when they read it, but when the adults read it, they truly loved this poem. This is not just a poem now, but we can see the poem everywhere. Why? Is it because, the poem is manifesting the many ladies out there. We can see through them what the poem is all about. By the way, thank you for sharing! :)

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thank you, Olivia. You know, I normally tag affiliate marketing comments as spam since I don’t want this site to be about selling, but I’m making a exception here. The stuff in your shop is really cute.

  16. Wilma
    | Reply

    I think she is FABULOUS !! It’s about TIME for Women to just be themselves !!! Thanks Jenny

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      She is! I love the video of Jenny reading her poem. Thanks for dropping by, Wilma!

  17. […] Reminds me of the now famous poem “Warning,” written by another young writer in 1961, when she was 29,  about wearing purple when she gets old.  Here is a recent video of her at 80, reading that poem.  http://www.laterbloomer.com/jenny-joseph […]

  18. Rachel Bowen
    | Reply

    Although I do not think all the poem applies to me, I love the opening lines. I do wear purple, a lot, and red hats, but not at the same time. My ‘purple’ is bright green eyeshadow which one of my friends, older than me at 82, never fails to tell me that I have too much and too bright. I reply, ‘No I haven’t’. She isn’t stuffy, but she always tells one what to do.
    I just ignore her ‘advice’.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Good for you, Rachel! I think this poem is an ode to individuality and the courage to finally be who we are. For some it’s red hats. For others, green eyeshadow.

  19. […] green…I have a few new interests…Life is good. Time to get that purple dress, Maggie! When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple by Jenny Joseph | Later Bloomer by Debra Eve Reply With […]

  20. Judy Labensohn
    | Reply

    So glad to have discovered your web site and the world-wide community of slow growers and later bloomers.

    Long live Slow!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thanks, Judy. I’m a big advocate of all the slow movements — slow food, slow blogging, slow traveling. (Seriously, I’m a card-carrying member of SlowFoodUSA.org.) Relax, enjoy, savor, it’s all good!

  21. […] movement stated in America with Jenny Joseph’s poem, “Warning.” given to Sue Ellen Cooper of California with a red Fedora as a birthday […]

  22. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    Love this poem and your very fine writing telling its history and bringing us up-to-date on Jenny Joseph. My favorite phrase from the poem, one I’ve used often, is “making up for the sobriety of my youth.”

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thanks, Shirley! I’ve certainly been making up for my sobriety ;)

  23. fereshteh
    | Reply

    Hi.how I can find all poems by jenny Joseph?may you help me?plz.tnx

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