‘Growing Old’ is a poem that captures the fears and anxieties that many of us have about ageing! But is Matthew Arnold being too pessimistic? Read the poem and the complete analysis below, and decide for yourself on whether you think his concerns are valid.



  • Lustre – a gentle sheen or soft glow
  • Bloom – the state or period of greatest beauty, freshness, or vigour
  • Wreath – an arrangement of flowers, leaves, or stems fastened in a ring and used for decoration
  • Mellow – pleasantly smooth or soft; free form harshness
  • Rapt – completely fascinated or absorbed by what one is seeing or hearing
  • Prophetic – seeing the future, as in prophecies
  • Profoundly – very great or intense
  • Immured – enclose or confine (someone) against their will
  • Feebly – in a way that lacks strength or force
  • Festers – become worse or more intense, especially through long-term neglect or indifference
  • Phantom – a ghost


What does it mean to grow old? Is it to lose the glory of the body, the brightness of the eye? Is it for beauty to put down her crown? Yes, but only this.

Is it to feel our strength – not our bloom only, but our strength – decay? Is it to feel each limb grow stiffer, every function less exact, each nerve more loosely strung?

Yes, and more, but it’s not, oh, it’s not what we imagined in our youth! It’s not to have our life mellowed and softened as with sunset glow or a golden day’s ending.

It’s not to look down from a great height, with focused eyes that are thinking of the future and a profoundly moved heart, and weep, feeling the fullness of the past, the years that are no longer.

It is to spend long days and not once feel that we were ever young; it is to add, trapped in the hot prison of the present, month to month with weary pain.

It is to suffer this and feel only half, and weakly, what we feel. Deep in our hidden hearts rots the dull remembrance of a change, but no emotion – none.

It is the final stage, when we are frozen within, a phantom of ourselves, to hear the world applaud the hollow ghost who blamed the living man.


The speaker is in a resigned mood. His tone is tragically pessimistic as he expresses the belief that ageing men have nothing to look forward to as they grow older. In this lyric poem, the poet compares and contrasts two worlds, the youth of life against growing old. This could be a result of the Victorian era’s broad embrace of empirical methods in the sciences, which relied on sense experiences and gave rise to the assumption that what the human eye cannot perceive does not exist – as the man’s senses grow dimmer, his experience of the world around him numbs and dulls. Arnold opposes the possibility of life beyond death, because man cannot genuinely see or perceive it clearly.


Imagery – ‘Mellowed and softened as with sunset glow,/A golden day’s decline’ – The writer paints this picture of growing old, comparing it to sunset as the day ends. However, the comparison is inverse – Arnold observes that humans do not grow older gracefully and elegantly, like a sunset, but instead pass through a series of mental and physical deteriorations.

Personification – ‘It is for beauty to forgo her wreath’ – Beauty is personified as a young, attractive female who wears a ‘wreath’, a pretty crown of flowers and plants, to indicate her status as a queen or goddess through a classical allusion to Greek and Roman sculptures, which often depict goddesses and prominent figures wearing wreaths on their heads. She has been given life-like attributes, such as abandoning its own wreath and being referred to by use of the third person singular pronoun ‘her’.

Alliteration – ‘Prison of the present,’ / ‘hidden heart’ – Arnold employes alliteration so as to emphasise, in multiple instances, the idea that we are so stuck in the present that we forget that the time is ticking and that goes with age. The sense of encasement created by the alliteration creates a claustophobic atmosphere, as if the situation of ageing is inescapable, with no respite.

Simile – ‘Softened and mellowed as with the sunset glow’ – This simile enchances the imagery in this poem and enables the addressees visually compare the softening and mellowing with the sunset glow, which dies down gradually just like youth, but which declines more gracefully and beautifully than the ageing process of a person.

Metaphor – ‘When we are frozen up within, and quite/The phantom of ourselves’ – as the body prepares for death, its degeneration causes the person to become weaker and far less active or capable than they were in youth – for this reason, the verb ‘frozen’ conveys a sense of slowness and coldness, as if the person becomes number with age. The phrase ‘phantom of ourselves’ foreshadows the inevitable death of the individual.


The poem is divided into seven stanzas of five lines each, written in the third person omniscient narrative voice. There is no rhyme scheme, however, the lines match up in approcimate length and syllable number from stanza to stanza.

Enjambment – ‘When we are frozen up within, and quiite/The phantom of ourselves’ – the use of njambment allows the writer to carry his thoughts through to the next line, breaking the previous one at an unnatural position – this also conveys a sense of degenaration and decline as the lines imperfectly run on from one to the next.

Call and response – the poem follows a question and response format, where several questions are outlined in the beginning, then answered in subsequent stanzas by the speaker – the purpose of this appears to be in order to outline the difference between our expecations of ageing and the reality.


Matthew Arnold is a poet and essayist, was born in Laleham, Middlesex, in 1822; he expressed an interest in writing from an early age. After earning his undergraduate degree at Oxford University’s Balliol College, he began teaching Classics at Rugby School. Then, Arnold would spend 35 years working as a government school inspector, during which time he developed a passion for learning, which had a subsequent impact on his poetry. While establishing his literary career and assuming the position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford, he also published several of his critical writings.

His poetry is renowed for its subtlety, contemplation of loneliness, and expressing the waning faith of his generation – he was worried about the political state of Britain, and felt that it was descending into archiery.

Arnold died at a relatively young age – in fact, he was only 65 years old when he died of heart failure whilst running to catch a train to see his daughter, so he likely never experienced the advanced type of physical deterioration described in the poem. However, Arnold may have been experiancing a mid-life crisis in 1867 (aged 45), which may have motivated him to consider the brevity of human life and create ‘Growing Old’ as a result of this.


Ageing is inevitable. Arnold conveys the message that ageing is not only inevitable, but it is also difficult process. He perhaps expresses his own fears and anxieties about becoming older, due to the fact that  Arnold was around 45 years old when he wrote the poem. Arnold defies any positive or idealistic notions of ageing, denouncing the idea that we may become ‘prophetic’, or to appreciate ‘the fullness of the past’. He seems to feel that we can neither escape nor prevent becoming older, but simply must learn accept and live with it.

Sometimes we have to accept what we cannot change. The ending of Arnold’s lament concludes: ‘It is – last stage of all -/When we are frozen up within, and quite/The phantom of ourselves,/To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost/Which blamed the living man’. The use of a resigned tone implies that there’s nothing one can do about ageing but accept it.

Life is what we make of it. It is possible to deduce that in the long run, everyone grows old and cannot do everything as they previously did in youth. However, we can accept the state of things and make the most of it or complain about our suffering, the former likely being the better option as ageing is beyond our control.

Although the poem here expresses more personal concerns and anxieties about the problem of ageing, we could also view it as reflective of Arnold’s wider fears in general. Arnold abandoned Christianity and religious faith as a teenager. He struggled throughout his life with it, so the poem is perhaps a reflection of his atheistic or agnostic viewpoint. The poem adopts an anti-spiritual opinion that the body and mind deteriorate over time. This leads inevitably to death, without any suggestion of an afterlife which may counterpoint this pessimistic belief.


  • Ageing
  • Acceptance
  • Midlife crisis
  • Change
  • Degeneration
  • Decay
  • Psychology


  1. Examine the metre and structure of the stanzas – why do you think that it is partly true irregular?
  2. What effect does the use of several rhetorical questions by the poem have on this poem?
  3. Do you agree with the attitudes of the poem? Explore your own thoughts on ageing. Think about your own experiences with elderly people. You may also want to consider your own views on death and the afterlife in relation to the poem.


  1. Discuss the assertion that Matthew Arnold is nostalgic about his youth, in reference to the poem.
  2. ‘Growing old is inevitable and terrifying.’ How far do you think Arnold’s poem expresses this sentiment?

Thanks for reading!

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