Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Donald Justice's poem Men At Forty


  1. Adam says:

    “Learn to close softly
    The doors to rooms they will not be
    Coming back to”

    “More fathers than sons now.”

    – For me this poem is a reflection on maturity, and describes the movement through the chapters of life. Things we once enjoyed as sons, we have moved on from as fathers. Closing the doors to hedonism, and sensing the quiet weight of responsibility.

    The crickets chirping, behind their mortgaged houses.

  2. Rosanne Boswell says:

    What an awesome poem. I have not had the privilege of reading this before.

    To me, this could also be written, women at forty. There comes a time in our lives when we realize that there are parts of our life, whether dreams unrealized or relationships that have ended, perhaps a life never lived that we will “most likely” not come back to. I say most likely because a door closed softly is different than a door slammed shut.

    This is a sad and melancholy poem. Though the poet is standing still, he feels the ground moving beneath him which I equate to time moving on whether or not I want to go with it.

    Yes, we look in the mirror and those memories of what we expected our life to be come back to us. There is so much life in the memory, it is so real that we can actually feel the breath of those whom we recall on our skin. Indeed we may be that very person we are remembering. My mother once told me she stood in front of the mirror and said to herself, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all.” It was not a happy moment for her but somehow, for her, there was comfort in it.

    Behind our mortgaged houses reminds me that there is a life out there that is yet to be lived or better said that we have not lived. It is a life full of vitality, peace and contentment, no regrets. Perhaps for this author at 40, he feels the life he did not choose calling him, beckoning him to join the chorus and live out the harmony beyond the life at hand and yet we are reminded that he has responsibilities for which he must take care. He has a life, and no matter how lonely his life is and how tempting the call to the wild, he must face the stark reality of the life that now stands in front of him.

    I could go on and on but wow, what a poem.

  3. Steven says:

    To me, at 41, learning to close softly those doors is about learning to accept your limitations, the things that will never be done. When you are young, everything seems possible, maybe too much so. After 40 years, so many things are set, and while you can change some of them, you can’t change all of them. So to learn to close softly a door to a room you will not again enter is to accept that there are many things you will not do, will not experience again, will not achieve. That is sad, but in the letting go is also the need and power to define yourself.

    • Ronald Butler says:

      Steven, now 87, I have loved this poem since I turned 40. I was fortunate to have met Donald Justice at a poetry workshop, and have a treasured inscribed copy of the book which contains this poem. I think your observation is remarkable, and it captures completely the wisdom of this great poem. Thank you.

  4. rebecca guerrero says:

    I like this poem because its interesting and from the begnning to the end it talks about the truth. A man young looks in the mirror and imagnes getting older and must deal with getting old.

  5. william P Hannon says:

    I have this poem for 22 years. I am 61.”The moving beneath them now” line, is to me the beginning of loss…both phisical and mental. As another poet once said,sort of, “I rage Against it”

  6. ea says:

    well, I really like this somber poem of acceptance. I think the closing door thing has to do with how you just don’t get as mad about things as you grow older; you realize you can’t change anything, it’s all futile and you can simply close the door when something fails or someone argues with you, for instance, at 40 than you can as a younger, more passionate or inexperienced person. Though really, I think most people who shut the doors quietly, have always been that kind of person.

  7. Frank Corso says:

    I consider “Men At Forty” to be a reflective and illuminating poem.

    It invokes a realisation of reaching the fulcrum in life; no matter how far back you go or how far forward, this point of balance indicates achieving wisdom and maturity through experience.

    Similarly, the person in the poem can comfortably see himself reaching his father – in the mirror he becomes his father. Growing old is not to be feared. It is a natural process. And reaching “twilight,” death is obviously a process too.

    “To close softly the doors” may refer to the person in the poem whose children are now grown up, or his own childhood imagination that is left behind. Or perhaps God is no longer an option for answers and he closes the door.

    Life is continuous. Climbing, descending and then to take stock of the situation like to “rest on a stair landing.” Afterwards, continue on life’s journey as if “on the deck of a ship.”

    For me, this poem is one of discovery.

  8. Jim W says:

    I turn 40 tomorrow and came across this poem by accident last night. I like the partial stanza quoted here:
    “They feel it moving
    Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
    Though the swell is gentle.”
    It suggests to me that 40 is not old (wishful thinking on my part?) but is a point where one must appreciate that the journey to death is gently beginning. My only concern with this interpretation is that mortality was much different in 1967 when the poet wrote this than it is now.

  9. McIntosh says:

    I think the reference to “close softly the doors” is about regrettable choices he made that he can’t go back and change. He feels himself getting older and knows that he like all of us is going to die, the part with the crickets I agree with Joe M. that “death is a part of life”, we accept it and move on.

  10. Hayes says:

    I think that this poem is talking about as the men grow older he look back on his life and see the mistakes he has made. The phrase close door softly is refering to those mistakes.

  11. Joe M says:

    I think this poem is a realization of the aging process. Also i think the image of “close softly/ the doors,” is a reference to death. Also the images at the end of the peom of “crickets” and other things, seem to express that death is a part of life, that aging ulimatly leads to. So overall this poem to me is about the idea that at some point everyone will realize that they are ageing and that death will soon come. However this poem is not totally negative and it makes me feel like daeth is natural and human, and that people should learn to accept both aging and death as a part of life.

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