Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"There Is A Door I Have Shut Until The End Of The World"

This year I find myself at the midpoint of my fifties.  Mind you, I have no complaints.  Unlike Dante midway through his life's journey, I do not consider myself to be lost in the midst of a dark wood ("selva oscura").  However, I keep being unwittingly confronted with dire pronouncements about this stage of life.  Am I too complacent?

For instance, I discovered by chance that Philip Larkin has some fairly horrific (but, as always, entertaining) things to say about one's fifties.  (Yes, I know:  what a surprise!)  But I shall save Mr. Larkin's thoughts for another time.  (Hint:  they are contained in a letter to Kingsley Amis.  Again:  what a surprise!)  In addition, while idly perusing a volume by Jorge Luis Borges, I came across a poem that I had read before, but hadn't thought about in quite some time.  Who knows why these things return to us when they do?


There is a line of Verlaine I shall not recall again,
There is a nearby street forbidden to my step,
There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time,
There is a door I have shut until the end of the world.
Among the books in my library (I have them before me)
There are some I shall never reopen.
This summer I complete my fiftieth year:
Death reduces me incessantly.

Jorge Luis Borges, A Personal Anthology (1967).  The poem is translated by Anthony Kerrigan.

As I did recently with translations of a poem by Wang Wei, it may be interesting to compare Kerrigan's translation with another translator's version.


There is a line by Verlaine that I will not remember again.
There is a street nearby that is off limits to my feet.
There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time.
There is a door I have closed until the end of the world.
Among the books in my library (I'm looking at them now) are some
     I will never open.
This summer I will be fifty years old.
Death is using me up, relentlessly.

Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (1999).  The poem is translated by Kenneth Krabbenhoft.

Yikes!  Death has been "reducing me incessantly" (or "using me up, relentlessly" -- take your pick) for more than five years now.  Little did I know.

                         Eric Ravilious, "Interior at Furlongs" (1939)   


zmkc said...

I'm 55 and somehow I allowed it to scare the living daylights out of me for a while. Really though, if one's looking at a halfway point in life, even taking an extremely optimistic view, it's all downhill from 45 or so in actual fact. So 55 is insignificant, from that perspective. (Reading this over, I realise I appear to be clutching at very flimsy straws).

Fred said...


I know well what you mean for I just reached 73 a few days ago, and I find myself wondering occasionally, when I've done something, whether this will be the last time I will do this.

Stephen Pentz said...

zmkc: we should take comfort where we can find it, I suppose. (As long as it doesn't involve purchasing sports cars, hair transplants, cosmetic surgery, etc.) On the other hand, if we consider our span to be the traditional "three score and ten," then we have been on the downhill slide since we turned 35!

Or, how about this (perhaps, as you say, "a very flimsy straw"): "you are only as old as you feel." (Or some variation on the same.)

As always, thanks for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I wish you a belated Happy Birthday!

Perhaps the Taoist and Buddhist sages and poets (or the Stoics) might suggest that pondering whether one may be doing something for the final time is a wise thing to do at any age. But maybe that is cold comfort. But it is true, I think.