The loose iambic pentameter helps create a mood of reflection in this poem; the metre, often in the background, suggests a soliloquy or dramatic monologue, while the deviations from it suggest the ambling lethargy of the speaker, as well as a conversational tone. What strikes us in the first stanza is that the poem is not explicitly about what we think it’s going to be about, (the ageing process, mortality) it appears at first to be simply about a plant with two strange names, However, all these other associations stay in the reader’s head, and come into play later on in the poem.
The first stanza develops a theme of naming. The plant with strange names is remembered fondly, we feel, by one who ‘knows it well’ – the phrase suggests a familiarity and wealth of memory associations, an idea challenged later in the poem. Here, however, the gentle internal rhymes, ‘tree’, ‘rosemary’, ‘thing’, ‘clings’, suggest a conversational, fond reminiscence. The word inversion that puts ‘clings’ before the negating ‘not’ encourages the reader to hold both positive and negative meanings in the mind momentarily. We are therefore given the sense of ‘clinging’ – in the sense that the speaker takes an interest in the plant for its names, and ‘clinging not’, in that they seem incongruous with the plant itself.
A sense that the plant is uncomfortable with its names is given by the words ‘decorate’ and ‘perplex’, which stick out prominently as the only polysyllabic words in the last four lines. This prominence itself suggests an incongruence between matter and name, an effect strengthened by the Latin-rooted longer words playing off the Saxon words around them. So the simple, Saxon ‘the thing it is’ is naturally ‘perplex[ed]’ by it’s ill-fitting names. We note that it is not the beholder but the plant itself that is ‘perplex[ed]’ by the names. Here the ‘Old Man’ plant becomes personified, with the implicit irony that just as its name is made to sound inappropriate, its response makes it fully inhabit the ‘Old Man’ title- the plant itself is in a state of confusion, as if it were an old man. Here we see another dimension to the ambiguity around ‘clings not’ – the plant inhabits the name simultaneously with finding it unsuitable. It is this paradoxical feeling of awkward self-consciousness that the poem is trying to create for its speaker.
At the second stanza, the speaker imagines a future for the plant, in a vision of a ‘child’. Whether this child is the speaker’s own, real or imagined, is unclear. However, one might imagine so from the line ‘I love it, as some day the child will love it’. Although neither verb ‘love’ refers to the ‘child’, the pattern of the line, which surrounds the ‘child’ with ‘love’, would be reduced by the casual reader to ‘I love the child’. The vivid detail of the child playing with the plant also gives the impression that the speaker is projecting his own memories onto the vision, an effect strengthened by the neater, more consistent adherence to iambic pentameter in this stanza, which adds movement and confidence to the lines.
The final lines of the stanza come as a surprise, then, when the speaker appears in the vision and cuts it short, ‘forbidding her to pick’. This could be seen as a literal action, with the speaker exercising parental authority. Or it might be read as a closing down of the vision itself in the speaker’s mind. The effect of the short line that starts with ‘Forbidding’ is to give a sense of brutality and suddenness, implying a more complex relationship with the plant, or more specifically the memory of it, than suggested in the first stanza.
Hence at the final stanza we find a far more conflicted, troubled voice from the speaker. The plant is described in similar terms as before, ‘bitter’, ‘shreds’ and ‘shrivel’ have all appeared before. Yet something about their order and proximity here gives a much harsher picture of the plant. The speaker claims that the plant makes him ‘think of nothing’ – surely a contradiction with the detailed vision already seen. Here we imagine he is talking of the past, a reflection that childhood gets forgotten so quickly. The result is a bleakness conveyed in the fragmented final line. All the ‘no’s towards the end of the stanza give a sense of blotting out the vision that’s preceded it, just as a fading memory cuts us off from our past bit by bit.
We notice how, just as the plant came to inhabit its name in stanza 1, the speaker himself now inhabits both. The sense of regret at lost meaning recaptures the associations initially formed by the title, the speaker feels the isolation and confusion of old age. The brilliant phrase ‘I have mislaid the key’ conveys both a profound helplessness in its figurative sense, and the banal tragedy of forgetfulness if taken literally. Here the speaker is an ‘Old Man’, at ‘I see and I hear nothing’ he might equally be the plant itself, or both. This recasts the vision, where the child picks at the leaves of the bush, as another metaphor for gradual loss of memory, and the awkward attitude to the plant, ‘I cannot like the scent’, echoes the issues of identity raised in stanza 1.
The poem explores in paradoxes the problem of identity, as well as a feeling that we are cut off from our past and our future.