John Crowe Ransom

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry


“Old Man Playing with Children” is a 20-line poem (5 quatrains with an ABBA rhyme scheme) describing an elderly man playing outside with his grandsons. The poem opens with the observation of a “discreet householder” that this “grandsire”—whom he sees dancing around a “backyard fire of boxes” in “warpaint and feathers”—will “set the house on fire.” The second quatrain introduces the point of view of a different spectator (perhaps the poet, but this remains unclear), who proceeds, in first person, to “unriddle” for the reader the thoughts of the old man, since the latter’s is a mind one “cannot open with conversation.” 

The remainder of the poem is in quotations, reflecting the soliloquy of the old man - as related to us by this secondary spectator - explicating his reasons for playing so exuberantly with his grandchildren, reasons which are, remarkably, quite straightforward and logical, yet couched in mordant commentary. The first of the three stanzas explaining his behavior and views is justly famous: 

"Grandson, grandsire. We are equally boy and boy.
Do not offer your reclining-chair and slippers
With tedious old women talking in wrappers.
This life is not good but in danger and in joy." 

The playful old man goes on to reject the values of “you/the elder to these and younger to me/who are penned as slaves by properties and causes.” Rather, the old man affirms his decision not to repeat the “ignominies unreckoned” of his own sedate adulthood. Instead, he “will be more honorable in these days.”, i.e., playing with children.

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