The Poetry of Old Age

On the topic of aging, I most trust poets who are old. Some poets –like Frost and Yeats – wrote poetry throughout a long life. Some turned to poetry in their old age. Thomas Hardy published his first volume of poetry at age fifty-eight and apparently wrote nothing but poetry for the next thirty years. I think poetry lends itself to the old mind, both in the writing and the reading. Good spirits must be distilled.

There are various types of poetry about old age. There is serious poetry and silly poetry. There are elegies for what has been and odes to the joys of senescence. There are genres and tropes. There have been more than a few poems about glimpsing one’s own aging façade in the bathroom mirror – one thinks of Hardy’s “I Look Into My Glass” or Robert Graves’ “The Face in the Mirror.” There are poems of return to places of one’s youth and reminiscences of lost loves. (Yeats is good at this.) Poignant poems capture the difficulties and loneliness of old age. There are no more affecting lines than the end of Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” Other poems are filled with the realization that life is going to go on without us, as in Housman’s “Tell Me Not Here.

Then there are the losses – which some poets see as a mixed blessing. There is the loss of memory. In “The Winter Palace,” Larkin writes that “Some people know more as they get older, /I give all that the cold shoulder.” There is the loss of those we love, as in  Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” And the prospect of our own death, which for some is fearsome (mostly for the younger ones – Dylan Thomas was only thirty-three when he wrote “Do Not Gentle”), for others is welcome (Stevie Smith’s magnificent “Black March” or Auden’s “A Lullaby”). For some the final event is imagined – we hear and see the deathbed scene in Dickinson’s “I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died.”

As I read poetry or novels, I note the age of the poet/author at the time of composition. This is easier in older volumes wherein the date of birth of the author appear on the back of the title page in the Library of Congress information (why did they stop?), but there is always Wikipedia. I find it particularly interesting to read works of poets at about my own age. The human experience is not entirely singular; there are correspondences. And differences.

I read poetry about old age to learn about myself. Poets can put into language what I often cannot. If I cannot speak it, if I cannot even think it coherently, I cannot truly comprehend it. E.M. Forster asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Flannery O’Connor said, ““I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I read poetry about old age to give me words for what I am feeling. To give me courage. And sometimes for comfort.

I have attached a list in progress of some poems about aging that are worth looking at. In addition, as I have noted before, there is a wonderful collection by Harold Bloom entitled: Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems. There is also The Art of Growing Older by Wayne Boothe which gathers poems and other literature about aging into categories. Part of my daily reading for years has been in the Poem A Day books – there are three volumes. The original volume was compiled as a project for The Natural Death Centre in Great Britain, and many of the poems address old age, loss, and death. Many of them also express and bring joy. I will add to my list of old age poems as more come to mind or are discovered; I encourage readers to send me their own favorites. In this business of being on the downside of life’s parabola, we all need comfort, companionship, and a marked-up map.

So what is my favorite poem about aging? I am tempted to cite Frost’s two-liner, written in his eighties:

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.

But no. My choice (at least for today) is from A. E. Housman’s volume Last Poems. Housman published only two volumes of poetry in his lifetime – one at age thirty-seven (A Shropshire Lad) and Last Poems at age sixty-three. I own a first U.S. edition of the latter, and it is a treasured possession. On page 60 is the following poem:

XXXV
When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.

Now times are altered: if I care
To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here’s the fair,
But where’s the lost young man?

– To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long ’tis like to be.

The Mirror of Age

There is a footnote in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” which all of us can identify with:

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jerk of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that he had been about to leave the washing-cabinet which divides the two compartments, and had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass of the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance.

First, we must remember that Freud has defined “uncanny” as the “mixture of the familiar and the eerie.” And, in this case, it was his own image as an “elderly gentleman” that was uncanny. And so, perhaps, it is with old age. The face is familiar but the transformation can sometimes be…eerie. I think part of it is because when we look at our own faces in the mirror or at the faces we love, we see a vision anchored to the past. It is only when we unexpectedly identify ourselves as a stranger that we can see what we really look like to others.

The old face in the mirror is a familiar motif –we see it in poetry. In both Robert Graves’ “Face in the Mirror” and Thomas Hardy’s “I Look into My Glass,” the poet contrasts the visage he sees with how he feels inside. Graves is puzzled:

I pause with razor poised, scowling derision
At the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention,
And once more ask him why
He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption,
To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.

Hardy is more outraged as he views his “wasting skin” and wishes his heart would also waste away:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

For babies, the “mirror stage” starts a process of physical identity. For the aging person, the mirror may serve as an agent of disintegration rather than integration; a secure sense of the physical self developed when young – and as young – is displaced by the changing body in the mirror: “The I or ego which is developed in the mirror stage of infancy is structured precisely to resist the anxiety of bodily fragmentation. In old age, with one’s position reversed before the mirror, the ego finds it more difficult to maintain its defenses” (Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents). Fragmentation rather than integration – no wonder we are disoriented.

Still, we have wonderful self-portraits of artists like Rembrandt in their old age. A triumph of the spirit looks out of Rembrandt’s wrinkled eyes. I have lasted, Rembrandt seems to say, despite and because of this old, battered body. We know Rembrandt used a mirror for his many self-portraits. Clearly he came to terms with what he saw. Such self-examination is not easy, but I think it would be a worthwhile exercise.

The old, deaf, and presumed mad (I’m not so sure) Jonathan Swift, upon being led across a room in his dotage, caught sight of himself in a mirror and cried out “O poor old man.” And so cry we all. But, near the very end, Swift was found rocking himself and muttering “I am what I am, I am what I am.” There is a truth in the mirror. We can deny it, but it is part of who we are and it cannot be rejected anymore than can the self/soul that peers out of the reflected eyes.