In my old age, I am interested in those who have entered this territory before me. I want to know what they were thinking as they approached the end of their lives. I have always taken a lively interest in looking up how old a poet or novelist was when they produced a work I am impressed with (thank you Wikipedia!). But I am especially keen to scout out last poems – particularly when the poet lived long. Or at least to my age.
We do, of course, have the last poems of shorter-lived people like John Keats, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Rupert Brooke. But I want to hear what poets have to say after a long life. There are some collections to look at in this regard (like Harold Bloom’s Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, which is excellent), but the real joy is to ferret them out yourselves. If you have a beloved poet or novelist, read what they wrote in their old age. I will discuss last novels in another blog, but last poems are interesting enough to keep you going for a while.
In fact, more than a few novelists turned to poetry in their old age. Thomas Hardy gave up writing novels after the bad reception of Jude the Obscure – George Eliot did the same thing when her reading public spurned the remarkable (and recommended) Daniel Deronda. And there are some poets that turned to religion in their old age – T.S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Siegfried Sassoon come to mind.
But in looking at poets who have meant much to me over the years, I am particularly taken by those last poems that seem to say that, old and wise as they may have become, the poet has never found the answers – but seems to have found the ability to hold the unknown with great equanimity. Denise Levertov’s final book of poetry (published after she died at age 74) is entitled The Great Unknowing: Last Poems. The great unknowing… And in it we find “Ancient Stairway”:
Footsteps like water hollow
the broad curves of stone
century by century.
Who can say if the last
to climb these stairs
will be journeying
downward or upward?
“Who can say”? Clearly no answers, but some comfort in the hollowing of footsteps. I once worked at a college which occupied the old Springfield Armory buildings – in the wood floors were foot-shaped depressions where operators had stood at wood and metal lathes making rifles for decade after decade. I would stand in those footprints and take a strange comfort in wondering about the dimensions of a life that went before me and in whose vacancy I was now abiding.
Among Robert Frost’s last poems is “In a Glass of Cider”:
It seemed I was a mite of sediment
That waited for the bottom to ferment
So I could catch a bubble in ascent.
I rode up on one till the bubble burst,
And when that left me to sink back reversed
I was no worse off than I was at first.
I’d catch another bubble if I waited.
The thing was to get now and then elated.
Frost is not wondering about whether we are ascending or descending, he is sure we are doing both all of the time, and only hopes that we “get now and then elated.” There are no answers for Frost either, as noted in a couplet he wrote in his old age entitled “An Answer”:
But Islands of the Blessèd, bless you, son,
I never came upon a blessèd one.
This, by the way, is not a new sentiment in old age for Frost – you will find it again and again in his early poetry (e.g. “Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length”). In the very first poem in his very first volume (“Into My Own”), he warns us that if we tracked him down after many years:
They would not find me changed from him they knew –
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
And then we have Thomas Hardy, another poet who says, at the end, that his views of life have not changed much. He gives us a poem (“He Never Expected Much”) on the occasion of his eighty-sixth birthday. (Hardy died at 87.) Here it is:
Well, World, you have kept faith with me,
Kept faith with me;
Upon the whole you have proved to be
Much as you said you were.
Since as a child I used to lie
Upon the leaze and watch the sky,
Never, I own, expected I
That life would all be fair.
‘Twas then you said, and since have said,
Times since have said,
In that mysterious voice you shed
From clouds and hills around:
“Many have loved me desperately,
Many with smooth serenity,
While some have shown contempt of me
Till they dropped underground.
“I do not promise overmuch,
Just neutral-tinted haps and such,”
You said to minds like mine.
Wise warning for your credit’s sake!
Which I for one failed not to take,
And hence could stem such strain and ache
As each year might assign.
But, please look up the last poems of your favorite poet. And if you are interested in reading more about the poetry of age, you can read this prior blog post and look at my ever-growing list of poems about old age. Meanwhile, here again is “Last Things,” a story I wrote a few years ago when I was pondering what to make of the end of things.