The Old Fools

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange:
Why aren't they screaming?

At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petaled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous, inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

by Philip Larkin

Other poems of LARKIN (93)

Comments (4)

The idea that Philip Larkin sterotypes anyone is very far from the truth and reveals a lack of understanding of what he is saying. This is a wonderful poem written by one of our most far-seeing and human writers.
I hope to revive comment on such a moving poem, deserted for two years! When the million-petaled flower of being here folds in, horror becomes the essence of your being, until 'foolishness' takes over. There is no mocking, no stereotype in Larkin's poem: only a worded scream of anguish. Better to die young. Of such bliss I've been deprived. Must face the ignominy of pissing my pants. How? Larkin tells me: by getting lost in not being there. It's not you, it's some old fool.
Re: last comment. OF COURSE he is afraid of getting old and dying! ! ! I don't find the tone mocking, simply a truthful observation of ageing/death as he sees it. Larkin was not young when he wrote this, so if he does use a sterotype, which I don't think he does, he would certainly be including himself. The last two sections of this poem are brilliant, moving, depressing and great poetry.
Here Larkin seems to stereotype the eldery in a mocking tone- maybe he is afraid of growing old?