Old Man Playing with Children

Ransom, John Crowe

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Dec-21-2015
  • Last revised: Dec-21-2015


“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.


John Crowe Ransom was, like his student Randall Jarrell, as prominent a poet as he was a literary critic. He was a member of the Southern group of modernist poets known as The Fugitives; a founding editor of The Kenyon Review; and the leading proponent of a school of literary criticism called the New Criticism, defined by its very close reading of the text and analysis of it based strictly on its merits as an independent work of art.

“Old Man Playing with Children” is a typical John Crowe Ransom poem: it is a succinct, formal narrative of a seemingly ordinary event or scene, but one made poetical and extraordinary by virtue of its irony and an exegesis that succeeds—just—in skirting didacticism and rhetoric. One finishes a John Crowe Ransom poem wiser than when one started it. 

Formally, this poem is a gem. The irony of the “discreet” first observer, the distant rhyming of “unriddle” and “middling,” the reference of the adjective “middling” to the middle-aged “you” who are in the middle of “‘the elder to these and younger to me,” the repeated dichotomies ("Grandson, grandsire. We are equally boy and boy," "the snow on the head with snow on the wind,” “the elder to these and younger to me,” and “the first brief childhood and the brief second”) - these elements of comparison, equation and contrast are a syntactic tour de force in a 20 line poem.

“Old Man Playing with Children” successfully raises the controversies of ageism and the social construction of what is “normal” or “appropriate” behavior for the elderly. That the old man’s self-analysis of his behavior comes from a mind "you cannot open with conversation” raises the possibility of senility, which in turn raises the question of just how rational his actions are or how accurate an interpreter of these actions the second observer is. The nested series of points of view, especially given the indeterminateness of veracity, creates an ambience of Propertian ambiguity for the poem, in which an apparently wise apology from a spry senior for his cavorting with his grandchildren is far more complex than one perceives on first reading.

Nevertheless, as a paean to having fun at any age, to preserving the childish joy in romping in the backyard with one’s grandchildren, and as a fierce polemic against a pseudo-respectability that others foist on the elderly, this poem will serve students of geriatrics well. A comparison of this man’s stance vis-à-vis the restrictions, both personal and social, of the narrator in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” would provide a lively discussion in any class involving the elderly.

Primary Source

Selected Poems


New Directions


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York

Place Published

New York, New York





Page Count


Page Count

vi + 111