Sunday, August 23, 2015


When it comes to this business of growing old, I have no advice to give. This is the first time I've done it, so what do I know?  I presume that, like life in general, nothing will go as planned.  And I already know the end of the story.  What remains is the filling in of an undetermined amount of blank space.

I do know that wisdom is not guaranteed.  I question the notion that wisdom comes with age.  I suspect that it is more the case that the opportunities for folly decrease with age.

I also know that I am going to try my best not to be querulous.  Yes, above all, I do not wish to be querulous.

        Animal Tranquillity and Decay

                         The little hedgerow birds,
That peck along the road, regard him not.
He travels on, and in his face, his step,
His gait, is one expression:  every limb,
His look and bending figure, all bespeak
A man who does not move with pain, but moves
With thought. -- He is insensibly subdued
To settled quiet:  he is one by whom
All effort seems forgotten; one to whom
Long patience hath such mild composure given,
That patience now doth seem a thing of which
He hath no need.  He is by nature led
To peace so perfect that the young behold
With envy, what the Old Man hardly feels.

William Wordsworth, Poems (1815).

The poem was first published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, under the title "Old Man Travelling; Animal Tranquillity and Decay, A Sketch."  When originally published, the poem closed with these six additional lines:

I asked him whither he was bound, and what
The object of his journey; he replied
"Sir!  I am going many miles to take
A last leave of my son, a mariner,
Who from a sea-fight has been brought to Falmouth,
And there is dying in an hospital."

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (1798).

I think that Wordsworth was wise to remove these lines from his final version of the poem.  Taking the lines out transforms the poem from an anecdote -- albeit an affecting one -- into a universal meditation on how we make our way through the world.

David Birch (1895-1968), "Morning in June, the Vale of Dedham, Essex"

A parent will sometimes say to a misbehaving child:  "Act your age!"  The same advice seems apt as we grow old.  We ought not to mistake senescence for juvenescence.

Po Chu-i wrote the following poem at the age of 70.

                  A Dream of Mountaineering

At night, in my dream, I stoutly climbed a mountain,
Going out alone with my staff of holly-wood.
A thousand crags, a hundred hundred valleys --
In my dream-journey none were unexplored
And all the while my feet never grew tired
And my step was as strong as in my young days.
Can it be that when the mind travels backward
The body also returns to its old state?
And can it be, as between body and soul,
That the body may languish, while the soul is still strong?
Soul and body -- both are vanities;
Dreaming and waking -- both alike unreal.
In the day my feet are palsied and tottering;
In the night my steps go striding over the hills.
As day and night are divided in equal parts --
Between the two, I get as much as I lose.

Po Chu-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).

In my country, our candidates for President are sometimes in their sixties or seventies.  Don't they have something better to do with themselves at that age?  They ought to be attending to their souls, not displaying narcissistic megalomania.

My advice to all such candidates, left, right, or Martian: "Act your age!" Haven't they read Wang Wei?  "In the sunset years of my life, all I desire is quietude;/The ten thousand affairs of this world no longer involve my heart."  But who am I to judge?  The souls of politicians are beyond my ken. I only know that politicians are among the ten thousand affairs of this world that no longer involve my heart.

Malcolm Midwood Milne (1887-1954), "Barrow Hill" (1939)

Po Chu-i's suggestion that aging involves a balance is a good one.  No more mountaineering perhaps.  But, if we are fortunate, "the soul is still strong."  Just as one ought not to be querulous, one ought not to be funereal.  After all, the World outside is going to go on being its beautiful and wondrous self, regardless of whether we are young or old.

                        The Rapids

Grieve must my heart.  Age hastens by.
No longing can stay Time's torrent now.
Once would the sun in eastern sky
Pause on the solemn mountain's brow.
Rare flowers he still to bloom may bring,
But day approaches evening;
And ah, how swift their withering!

The birds, that used to sing, sang then
As if in an eternal day;
Ev'n sweeter yet their grace notes, when
Farewell . . . farewell is theirs to say.
Yet, as a thorn its drop of dew
Treasures in shadow, crystal clear,
All that I loved I love anew,
          Now parting draweth near.

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1945).

As de la Mare suggests, we are entitled to some wistfulness.  The prospect of loss always involves wistfulness.  But, if one lives well -- a big if -- our love of the World will never wane.  Mind you, I don't claim to have "lived well."  Who could ever say that?  Each day is a battle against outer distraction and inner sloth.  We need the World to bring us to our senses.

Alex Kirk (1872-1950)
"Cranborne Chase, Dorset, a View towards Horton Tower" (1935)

We ought to keep our wits about us.  The culture we live in encourages us to worship the false god of Eternal Youth.  Aging provides us with the opportunity to let this false god go.  Just as we should let vanity and self-importance go.  Easier said than done, of course.  A lifetime job.

A bourne awaits us.  I'm not suggesting that we rush towards it.  Dawdling is perfectly fine.  But we should remain mindful of where we are bound.

                         Things to Come

The shadow of a fat man in the moonlight
     Precedes me on the road down which I go;
And should I turn and run, he would pursue me:
     This is the man whom I must get to know.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (Heinemann 1964).

Eric Hesketh Hubbard (1892-1957), "The Cuckmere Valley, East Sussex"


Anonymous said...

About aging Lady Diana Cooper says:

"Age wins and one must learn to grow old. . . so now I must learn to walk this long unlovely wintery way, looking for spectacles, shunning the cruel looking-glass, laughing at my clumsiness before others mistakenly condole, not expecting gallantry yet disappointed to receive none, apprehending every ache or shaft of pain, alive to blinding flashes of mortality, unarmed, totally vulnerable."

Yet she concludes:

"The long custom of living disinclines one to dying. . .Besides, before the end, what light may shine?"

Bruce Floyd said...

Poems about aging abound, and one can find a myriad of them. Shakespeare's sonnet #73 comes immediately to mind, as does Jacques' comment in "As You Like It" that all the worlds a stage.

Keats's "Ode To Melancholy" is about life's evanescence, the importance of accepting life's flying away with us, the connection between mortality and beauty. His "To Autumn," is a serene poem that accepts the process of life, the cycle of it, the coming to bloom and then the inevitable fall from grace.

One could quote Larkin's splendid poem "The Old Fools," which is not, as you know, what it seems.

Hardy has plenty to say about growing old. Arnold provides us with a terrifying poem about aging; Wordsworth seems to apotheosize the aging man--in "Resolution and Independence," "The Old Cumberland Beggar." and "The Ruined Cottage."

Below are some thoughts on aging by two of the greatest poets of the twentieth century: Stevens and Eliot. Put them with Yeats and you have the mighty triumvirate. Some would put Frost in this group. I don't object.

(In my copy of Stevens's "Collected Poems," "The Dwarf" sits just before "A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts.")

The Dwarf

Now it is September and the web is woven.
The web is woven and you have to wear it.

The winter is made and you have to bear it,
The winter web, the winter woven, wind and wind.

For all the thoughts of summer that go with it
In the mind, pupa of straw, moppet of rags.

It is the mind that is woven, the mind that was jerked
And tufted in straggling thunder and shattered sun.

It is all that you are, the final dwarf of you,
That is woven and woven and waiting to be worn,

Neither as mask nor as garment but as a being,
Torn from insipid summer, for the mirror of cold,

Sitting beside your lamp, there citron to nibble
And coffee dribble . . . Frost is in the stubble.

From "Little Gidding"

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
… the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the passages from Diana Cooper, who I hadn't heard of before. They are very apt. I'm not sure about "the long custom of living disinclines one to dying," however. I'm not rushing towards death, but I do think a time comes when one is ready to go.

Thanks again

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you for the compendium of poems about aging, as well as for the poem from Stevens (which appeared here back in September of 2011) and the passage from Eliot's "Little Gidding." They all go well here. There is a great deal to choose from when it comes to this topic, isn't there?

I'm not fond of ranking poets ("best," "major," "minor," etc.), although I do have my favorites, as you know from being a long-time visitor to this blog. However, I cannot resist questioning (good-naturedly) your suggestion that Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens are "the mighty triumvirate." I presume you are talking about the 20th century. Stevens, perhaps. But I'm not sure (even though I love much of his poetry.) But not Eliot or Yeats. Too Olympian and cold-hearted. (Although I love poems of theirs as well; more by Yeats than by Eliot.)

In my humble opinion, none of the three come close to Thomas Hardy. And, if forced to do so, I'd round out my three with Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin. But this sort of thing is, as you know, a mug's game. It is individual poems that matter, no matter who wrote them.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Growing old and dying--these conjoined twins seem to have vexed humankind since humankind watched the days and seasons and years go, watched the inexorable process of nature grind through them. As the leaf goes into the whirl of the autumn winds, rash breeze scattering them, so does man's little life spiral into nothingness, his body fated to turn to ashes.

And so it is some things never change. The oldest piece of epic literature we have, "Gilgmesh, composed over four millennia ago, deals with humans coming to terms, or trying to, with death. The first thing a self-conscious creature understand is how impermanent he or she is. The first question is: what is this thing called death?

When Gilgamesh's friend Euduku dies Gilgmesh mourns terribly, fiercely laments. He goes on a journey to find out about this thing death and how he can avoid it. What good to be able to smite the biggest creatures upon the earth, endure the wind and the rain, the brutal cold, the scalding heat, if in the end one must die. Gilamesh finds "the refresher," one who can give him answers. She does give him the answer, perhaps the answer we give ourselves: much in life is to be enjoyed but humankind is fated to die, immortal life is not for us. Gilgamesh addresses the refresher and then the refresher responds to Gilgamesh:

He who endured many hardships with me
Whom I so dearly loved - Enkidu;
Yes, he who endured my hardships with me!
He now has gone to the fate that awaits mankind!
Day and night I have wept for him
I would not give him over for burial
For what if he had risen at my beseeching?
Six days and seven nights I waited
Until a worm fell out of his nose
Since he has gone
There is no life left for me.
I have roamed the steppe like a hunter
But oh, Refresher, now that I have seen your face, Let me not see Death, Which I so dread!'
The Refresher said to him, said to Gilgamesh:
'Gilgamesh, whence do you direct yourself?
You shall not find the life you seek,
For at the creation of mankind
The gods allotted Death to men.
They retained life in their own hands.
Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,
Make you merry by day and by night.
Make everyday a day of feasting and of rejoicing Dance and play, by day, by night, Let your clothes be sparkling and fresh Wash your hair Bathe your body Attend to the babe who holds you by the hand Take your wife and let her rejoice in you.
For this is the lot of mankind to enjoy
But immortal life is not for men.'

billoo said...

Stephen, came across these lines and thought you might like them:

'We have to learn to give up more and more of what we have accomplished, what we have gathered in and what we cherish. Getting old means giving up something forever at every stage of the process. The trick is to learn how to give up things gracefully and without despair...

We must accept what is and prepare to let go of it...

'As long as we are alive, we have the capacity to develop compensatory skills and seek new insights...

Old age is the ripening of the fruit, the preparation for the harshness of winter, when the roots grow and strengthen, a time when leaf mold decays, making a seedbed for the new growth of mushrooms. It is the closing of the circle...'

Gerda Lerner (and not me, I hasten to add!)




Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing the passage from Gilgamesh, which is apt.

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: Those are wise thoughts. I'm fond of the thought of paring back, of letting things go. It's a good practice at any point in life. But it becomes easier, I think, with age. Many things that used to preoccupy me no longer do so. (But have I replaced them with other preoccupations? Perhaps.) Lerner's point about giving things up "gracefully and without despair" is perfect. Hence my desire not to be querulous as the years proceed.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

The below poem was written by Stanley Kunitz in his late 70s. Since he lived to be a hundred years old, he was not through with changes (though the young are often through with changing). He says that old age need not be an end, but an opportunity to change. Kunitz says a cloud told him "to stay away from wreckage" and

“Live in the layers,

not on the litter.”

The Layers

By Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

“Live in the layers,

not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

billoo said...

Yes, I think you're rights, Stephen: what to hold on to, what to let go some sense that becomes easier as you grow older and learn to put things in perspective. But in another sense it has become more difficult (I suspect) given the anti-ageing attitudes, given the emphasis on the immediate over what is durable, and the stress on innovation, the 'shock of the new'. The very possibility that one could become wiser as one becomes older is diminished, I think, in an information age, a shape-shifting world.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing the poem by Kunitz, which is new to me.

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: Ah, well, I try my best (although not always successfully) to ignore modern culture and its attitudes. I suspect many of us do. I tend to be daydreaming in different centuries most of the time, depending upon whose poetry I'm reading.

As for "the information age": information, yes (most of it useless), but little or no wisdom.

Thank you very much for your follow-up thoughts. Although I'm afraid I'm sounding a bit querulous! Please be assured it is not directed at you, but at the modern world.