Old Man Travelling

Of all the poems in William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, the one that intrigued me the most was Old Man Travelling (on page 103). I am going to use this blog post to try to figure out why it stuck with me  even though I am not sure it’s my favourite poem in the book, and it’s probably not the best. I think there are a number of reasons why I found it so interesting.

What I liked most about it was it’s simplicity and brevity. I am a bit biased in that regard, as I tend to prefer short pieces of poetry. It’s length combined with the relatively simple vocabulary gives it a feeling of unpretentiousness, but it is also very subtle. It seemed to me on first glance to not be very interesting stylistically due to the lack of rhyme scheme, until I noticed the consistent use of caesuras and its iambic pentameter. However, although I’m not very knowledgeable about poetry, I think it is a bit lacking in terms of form and style.

I also liked its sense of irony. The narrator describes a man “who does not move with pain” (line 6) and “hardly feels” (line 14) but it turns out he must be moving with pain since he is going to visit his dying son. I quite like the idea of unreliable or ignorant narrators and shifts in the understanding of a situation.

Another thing I liked was the fact that he was going to visit his dying son. It creates an interesting and stark contrast that is well described by the subtitle “Animal Tranquility and Decay”. It is fascinating to see a tranquil and relaxing scene turn into something much more depressing and existential.

I’m still developing my opinions on the poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge and I chose this one because it seems somewhat unambitious and flawed compared to other poems in the book,  but I still found myself enjoying reading it more than some of the more famous and highly considered poems. It is also very likely that I was able to read it more times than the  other poems over a shorter period of time, so perhaps I will reread the book and continue to develop my opinions.

2 thoughts on “Old Man Travelling

  1. Christina Hendricks

    I really appreciate your post, because this is a poem I had quite a bit of trouble with when I first read it (and, to be quite honest, when I read it a second, and a third time too). I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. I noticed a fair bit of, for lack of a better term, negative descriptions–by that I mean, things like how the hedge-row birds “regard him not,” and who “does not move with pain,” and to whom “All effort seems forgotten.” There are a number of descriptions that are negations, in other words. And I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I like your point that there could be irony in some of it, at least insofar as he probably does move with pain, given what is revealed at the end. I wrote down in my notes from lecture that this poem also shows “torpor without the savagery,” that this is just someone who is “insensibly subdued.” That would fit with the descriptions as negations as well, perhaps.

    I still don’t know exactly how to take this poem, but I really appreciate that you focused on it, as you’ve given me more to think about for my own reading of it.

    1. Griffin Anderson-Baier Post author

      I’m happy that you appreciate my focus on the poem; I tend to enjoy writing on short poems more than writing on major themes and ideas across a number of poems. This poem is interesting because there isn’t very much apparent content or anything clearly didactic about it, at least compared to some of the other poems. I’m not sure if it’s just a series of tranquil descriptions, if it’s a commentary on old age and the way people react to death and being emotionless, or if it’s a subtle metaphor that I can’t figure out.


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