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.

Forgiveness and Remorse

Forgiveness is different in old age. In the hurry of youth and middle age, we often either push forgiveness aside or bestow it hastily in order to get on with things. In our latter years, old resentments drift out of the silence, out of the memory that cannot remember the word for that thing over there, but can recall all unkindnesses in great detail – the ones we received as well as the ones we perpetrated. Often those we want to forgive (or seek forgiveness from) are not available; they have passed out of our orbit through time, through death, through dementia.

Old age is teaching me many things and one of them is that the human condition is universal. Sympathy is replaced by empathy. There is no time or heart left for enemies. We are all friends in our common human afflictions. And David Whyte says that friendship is all about forgiveness. He says it “is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn.”

And then there is the issue of forgiving ourselves.

Yeats wrote a poem that is a dialogue between the Self and Soul. Unlike similar medieval dialogues, the Self gets the final word here and it is about forgiveness:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

“Casting out remorse” is easier said than done, but the result, according to Yeats, is a recovery of the innocence of Eden. In his “We must laugh and we must sing, / We are blest by everything,” the old Irishman sounds almost like Blake. Heaven all around us! But can we “cast out remorse” without doing something about it? David Whyte refers to the section of the Lord’s Prayer that implies in order to beg forgiveness ourselves, we must forgive “those who trespass against us.” It is a package deal. Of course, often the hardest person to forgive is oneself. I know.

I also find myself contemplating the need to beg forgiveness from this earth that we have been blessed with, out of which our kind was spun and nurtured. How it and its creatures have been abused in my lifetime! How can we ever atone!

Isak Dinesen too references the Lord’s Prayer in her sad story of watching giraffes from her beloved Africa being shipped to Europe:

The giraffes turned their delicate heads from the one side to the other, as if they were surprised, which they might well be. They had not seen the sea before. They could only just have room to stand in the narrow case. The world had suddenly shrunk, changed and closed round them.

They could not know or imagine the degradation to which they were sailing. For they were proud and innocent creatures, gentle amblers of the great plains; they had not the least knowledge of captivity, cold, stench, smoke, and mange, nor of the terrible boredom in a world in which nothing is ever happening….

As to us, we shall have to find someone badly transgressing against us, before we can in decency ask the Giraffes to forgive us our transgressions against them.

The giraffes and the polar bears and the elm trees and the monarch butterflies. Who can we forgive that will reciprocate the forgiveness we need from the world we are destroying? These are not easy questions, but they are on my mind.

Yeats says he is “ content to follow to its source /Every event in action or in thought; /Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!” Measure first. A good carpenter will tell you to measure twice. Maybe realization is enough, but I’m not sure. I think I rather feel, with Dinesen, that more is needed before we can “in decency” throw off all remorse.

This week’s story is “The Iscariot” and references the most infamous sinner of all and describes a woman who sometimes feels like she is running a close second. And, perhaps, a different way to look at remorse and redemption.