When You Are Old

A few months back I presented a series of poems about old age that turned out to be written by young poets. Here’s another one written by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats when he was in his 20s.

“When You Are Old”  is generally considered to be written about Yeats’ love for Maud Gonne, who like Yeats was active in Irish cultural nationalism and their country’s struggle for political independence. Yeats’ largely unrequited love for Gonne has a long and complicated story, the kind I’d often delve into here—but not today. This widely assumed context for “When You Are Old”  makes plain the poem’s historical, denotative meaning. One could paraphrase it like this: “You think I’m just another lovelorn suitor asking for your hand, and possibly other leading bodily parts, now—but someday you’re going to be old, and you’ll realize that the others around you were just after you ‘cause you’re a major hottie who seems to have it going on cultural-politically. I’m not like that. I’m your soul mate, who respects that you’re busy with this, and loves you even though you’re out searching for other things. That’s OK. Just know that someday, like when you’re old, you’re going to miss me. You’ll probably want to google William Butler Yeats some night and see if I’m still alive and what I’m up to….”

Yeats-Gonne

Yeats and Gonne. Yeats may be taking the bow-tie thing a bit too far. Rather than the musical style (or that paraphrase) I used today, I might have gone with this bare-faced expression of the same angst. You’re gonna miss me baby!

 

Did I just loose a bunch of readers* with this base summary of a beautiful poem that is sincerely loved by so many people? Don’t understand me too quickly, I’ll get back to what I think when I encounter this poem before I finish.

Indeed, this poem is especially well loved by older people and by a great many women.** If there’s a greatest hits of love poems in English, this poem is there. And I don’t think they’re wrong or missing some unavoidable explication of the poem’s context. I can’t say Yeats’ intent when he wrote it as a young man, or when he published it still being both of those things; but I doubt it was simply to dis an ex that wasn’t exactly an ex. And those that love the poem Yeats made are experiencing it in other contexts close to their own hearts and lives.

I’m close to Yeats’ age when he died, though still younger than Gonne who lived to be 86. The future mood predicted in this poem written by a twenty-something doesn’t ring false to me. I don’t dwell in the past, but it comes to visit me from time to time, and I’ll think of old lovers and not-to-be lovers absent and missing in time and place. For older people, some of those people remembered are dead, and so their present times and places are further obscured by the crowded stars. We often expect our poets today to write of their experience, but it turns out that we aren’t necessarily going to trade Yeats’ skill with a beautiful line for an authentic memoir-poem by an age-group peer.

One could trash this poem on gender role/sexual politics counts. Fine if you do—art is argument to a large part—but I doubt the women who love this poem do so all because they have self-worth issues. And after all, the poem doesn’t predict crushing regret at not bedding W. B. Yeats, or a reader’s personal equivalent. It only asks for a quantity of “a little sadly,” which doesn’t hurt anybody. Patriarchy aside, I suspect every letter in every acronym can accumulate such thoughts over a life-time. And throw out love, sex, and success, and we still cherish memories of any connection where someone saw and bowed to the pilgrim soul inside us. The youth in us seeks it, the old in us remembers it. Even 20-somethings.

So where does this pilgrim soul stand on “When You Are Old?”   That want for connection it speaks of and the word music it’s sung in captures me entirely. It’s good not to trust poetry and poets entirely, but to give oneself over to this song is worthwhile.

I’m sure this poem has been set to music often, but that didn’t stop me. I used an interesting acoustic guitar tuning that someone said had been used by Mary Chapin Carpenter: C G D G B C for this, and then added another of my simple-is-all-I-can-do piano parts. That’s one of the joys of music: sometimes it doesn’t have to be complicated to please us. The player gadget is below to hear my performance. Here’s the text of Yeats’ poem if you’d like to read along. We’ll be back soon with more of our April celebration of National Poetry Month. Spread the word if you can.

 

 

*I’m hopeful I didn’t, if only because listener/readers here should already know that I’m going to mix things up. If you think today’s music is what I’ll do next time, you should hear the #NPM2020 piece I’ve been working on—and you probably will be able to in the next few days.

**Here’s a 10 minute video where someone old and someone woman both declare their love for this poem.

Winter Sleep

What age are we when we write poetry? What age should we be?

Poet Donald Hall while writing memoir in essay form after age 80 said that part of why he turned to prose was that after a certain age he no longer felt he had the urge to, or could, write poetry. I’m not that old yet, but after so many decades of writing poems I’m more likely to ask myself why this poem needs to exist.

This never occurred to me as a younger writer. It was enough that the urge was there, that the work of shaping it was rewarding, that the existence of some new set of words in some novel order representing a moment of experience had occurred. There are times when we may suppose this always is—at least approximately. We’re all our own first reader. For some of us, some of the time, our only readers. Even if we believe we’re writing a poem for someone else, that first audience is still inevitably connected with the poem’s creator.

I don’t know that there’s any pattern in that first audience disliking its own poem at times. Does one get better at crafting poems or observing experience with time? Does one get better at staying out of the way of the poem when that’s necessary? Does one get more preceptive at the ways the poem fails to meet, or cannot meet, some more perfect state? Does one just realize that some days you eat the bear, and other days the bear eats you?

A couple of years back I had some fun looking at a compiled list of the 20 most anthologized American poems of the modern era. Now of course such a list reflects any number of factors, some of which are extra-literary, such as prejudices, impact, and probably even some ivy-tower log-rolling. But still, these poems can safely be considered as successful with an experienced audience early in our century.

One thing surprised me. About half of these poems, the ones that are presumed to reflect the author’s masterpieces, were written in the author’s 40s. Six more were written in the author’s 30s. Just one was written by a writer past 50 (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” published when the writer was 65). Only two were written by writer’s in their 20s (the list’s youngster was T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”,  completed when the author was 27.)

But how old were these poets in their souls of experience, the place from where they wrote these poems? It’s not unusual for younger poets to take on the air of more experienced people in their poems. This past fall we presented a couple of well-known and liked poems considered to be about old age: Rilke’s “Autumn Day”  and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.”  Rilke wrote his autumn of one’s years poem in his 20s, Shakespeare’s was penned in his 30s.

Yet neither sounds false to this older reader.

Similarly, there are times when I’m writing that I feel younger than my years. It’s a commonplace that there’s a sense of play in the arts, something that past a certain age is increasingly rare to find in off-hand physical activity.

So perhaps you, like I, may feel unstuck in time when writing. Our writing may not be objectively timeless, but our mental flight seems so.

While thinking about these things this winter, I came upon this poem* that seemed to me to be a fine expression of the experience of old age experiencing the unsettledness of sense of age.

Edith M Thomas engraving

Edith Matilda Thomas. One thing I’ve found out: Emily Dickinson classmate Helen Hunt Jackson helped launch Thomas’ writing career.

 

There’s not much here today about the author, American Edith M. Thomas, who published “Winter Sleep”  in 1896, when she was just in her 40s. I don’t know that much about her yet. It’s strictly metrical and all rhymed up, but once or twice it seems to strain natural speech to make its rhyme and meter.

What’s impressive about it is that it strikingly presents not just old age, but the approach of death as an unstable state, the dream of life. This isn’t an “autumn of my years” poem—it’s a “winter of my years poem.” I immediately sought to set it to music for performance. To hear what I came up with, use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*”Winter Sleep”  is another poem and poet I was introduced to by Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. Here’s a link to the text of the poem and you can sign up for Poem-A-Day there too.

Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs”

Here’s one of the best-known of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which means it’s clearly one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.”

Since I’m not a real scholar or expert in such things, let’s take a look at it as if it was another of our presentations of lesser-known poems by little-known poets. You may want to follow along with the text, which can be found here. What might we see if we encounter it this way, without preconceptions?

The first thing one might notice is the antique language. In this case it’s not so much a case of “need to look that one up” words so much as it’s the olden-days tenses, pronouns and word forms: “mayst, ”thou,” “see’st,” “fadeth,” “doth,” “perceiv’st,” and “ere.” Given that the sonnet is a compressed form (this one uses 121 words) that might put one off. The syntax too, is not modern-day natural speech, but then when undertaking a sonnet even modern-day poets will sacrifice some of that for sound and compression of expression reasons.

If one is able to overlook those two things, or simply accept them as artifacts of the form and the time it was written, the next thing I notice is how much is stuffed into those 121 words. Tonight I’ll go to a meeting with three other poets, two of which are more accomplished than I am, with several published collections under their names. If I was to present to this group a poem with as many ideas and loosely linked tropes as Sonnet 73 (albeit with whatever level of skill I otherwise possess) they would likely be puzzled and displeased with it. Modern poetry is full of a great many styles, but many of them don’t try to push so much into so short a poem.

Let’s briefly look at those thoughts and the images by which we are to experience them. The first two lines open with a common autumn poem touchstone: the turning, falling, and fallen leaves. There are approximately 127 billion English language poems using autumn leaves by now, though there might have been only a few dozen in Shakespeare’s time. I think his image here is dual though, the left-leaves are compared to a balding head.

Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare

He’s not balding, he just has a large forehead. This disputed portrait has not been used to argue that Shakespeare was actually written by Larry Fine or translated from Klingon.

 

This image is further developed or morphed in the next two lines, including the image by which I always remember this poem: the now bare or near-bare branches bereft of the migratory and mate seeking/singing birds of earlier in the year liked to a ruined choir loft. Since choir lofts are elevated, and we’ve started with leaves equaling the now spare hair on a head, they are also the mind and voice which engenders such poetry and song.

Starting in the 20th Century some Shakespeare scholarship relates that ruined choirs image to the destruction and abandonment of Catholic abbeys and churches during his century. If so, Shakespeare has brought an undercurrent of the dangerous social change of his century into his short poem.*

Shakespeare doesn’t linger on that image, though it is so sharp it may have made his point. He next moves on to another image we now find common, the ending of a day related to the later parts of one’s life. His take is the variation (also used in some autumn poems) that there is extra beauty in the endingness, by implication it’s preciousness of limits, and from the luminous colors of sunset. He develops this a bit with an image that would have once seemed common, but has since fallen into disuse: that sleep is a model of death.

The final quatrain before the concluding couplet develops yet another image, one steeped in fire as one of the classical four elements. It’s antique physics, but observationally still rich for anyone that has ever dealt with burning wood: the speaker is the hot coals, hotter than the kindling fire of youth, or the early lapping flames. Since this is ostensibly a love poem, one can take this as another commonplace: fire equaling desire. My reading is that the love poem aspect is yet another layer of image, present, but not the only element, as it’s also about the artistic spirit that could create such a sonnet. The final line in the final quatrain is nearly the equal of the “bare ruined choirs” one. “Consumed by that which it was nourished by” is both a statement about the scientific nature of combustion; about desire, love, and it’s ending; and about the artistic impulse: that we must burn, fill and empty ourselves as if by weightless flame; that we will consume our time, our life-time.

The final couplet, as with many an English “Shakespearean” sonnet, jumps on to something else. In its guise as a love poem, it says that the lover must be extra passionate and devoted, because the poem’s speaker has limited time left and yet they still love them. What should we make of that? As a devotional interpersonal love-note, the thing the poem presents itself to be, it has emotional heft.** As a statement about the artistic drive, likewise. Every time one sets out to make something, we truly don’t know if it’s the last work we will do. As we age (I’m old, this is eminently personal with me) this becomes less and less a moot philosophical point. Treat the work as a lover, treat your lover as a work of art.

So, there’s a lot of territory in this poem. Even doing my best to present it with my performance there’s too much here to absorb in one listening, one reading, in one moment in one’s life. This is a reason why other kinds of poems may be better received. Many modern short poems seek to make one point, or tell a story with a plot rather than a complex instant that has no plot yet, or several plots happening at once. Those poems can work too, and work quickly.

Shakespeare seeks to lure us with his word-music, even now centuries later, even though he’s going to try to put a gallon of thought into a pint-sized poem, and even if he’s going to use a form of English we strain to hear as natural. “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” isn’t just an image, and an allusion to a piece of history that may be unfamiliar to us, it’s a lovely piece of sound. I could go on with other lines that have their compelling worth as sound: “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” or “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.” Can that word-music let us live with the 121 words long enough to get over the things which make us either hear this as “Shakespeare” the brand name or as an example of obsolescence?

I tried in my performance to illuminate the text and its sound as best I could. You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

*I’ve always loved the way Michael Wood presented the beginning of his series of TV programs on Shakespeare by saying he was born into what was a police state due to the whipsawing religious and geopolitical changes/wars/disputes England went through in the 16th century.

**By pointing out that this poem in my mind is expressing something about the experience of making art, I’m not prudishly seeking to eliminate the erotic reading. Many of the best images are bilateral. They aren’t just some thrown-off thing meant to decorate the poem with some cleverness or allusion. The thing used to represent the thing is real, maybe even more real than the thing it signifies. The thing signified enriches the image just as vice versa.

For an example of the erotic use of some similar imagery in a complex emotional landscape see this Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet, a favorite of listeners here.

One piece of evidence that Shakespeare intends this as a complex set of images is that it was likely written when Shakespeare was in his 30s. Sure it reads “true” for this old man, but it’s not memoir as poetry. Memoir as poetry can work too, but I often feel that we’ve over-emphasized that mode.

from Tennyson’s Ulysses

Here’s a piece to celebrate the announced discovery of the oldest intact shipwreck, a 2,400-year-old Greek ship discovered in the Black Sea with its mast, rudder, and even a rower’s bench still in place. This can’t be fully romanced into being Ulysses’ ship—it’s centuries newer—but it does give us an object, beyond the stories, to remind us of ancient sea voyages.

“Tales of brave Ulysses, how his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing.” This vase depicts a ship like the one in the shipwreck.

 

Tennyson’s Ulysses is one of his best-known shorter works, and one I was a bit surprised to find still survives on the seabed of modern teaching syllabuses. I expect that many will read “Ulysses”  as a complement to Tennyson’s American contemporary Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus”  which we’ve featured here, as a pledge from one who is old and past their expected prime to continue to strive. After all, the most quoted section, the one I used, starts right off declaring “You and I are old.”

Well for someone my age or Dave’s—that is to say, old—this understanding might seem natural.*   Indeed, as we recorded this last week, we too were not “that strength which in the old days.” But if one looks at Tennyson’s “Ulysses,”  both biographically and mythologically, there are some surprises to be found.

Would you be surprised to learn, as I was, that this was not some later work by a long-lived poet (as Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus” was),  but instead the work of a 25-year-old? Odd that in our modern times, where we often expect authenticity in our poets, were the poem is expected to be biographically true to the author’s own experience. But of course, it isn’t rare for younger people to feel old and to feel an age is past. Tennyson chose to make his poem’s speaker aged because it did represent something he felt after the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam (the same friend that his book-length epic elegy “In Memoriam A. H. H.”  was dedicated to).

If one looks at the poem and sets aside preconceptions, you may find, even in its oft-quoted concluding exhortations I used, an undercurrent from this inspiration. Not only is this Ulysses a hero well-past the age of his greatest physical vigor, he’s demonstrating in his concluding speech two other characteristics. He’s looking backward to look forward. He recalls his Homeric feats, acts that in that story literally had heroes that “Strove with Gods.” He reminds his crew, in effect, “Look, we are the generation that knew Achilles personally, not the modern folk who only read about him.” Which brings us to the subject of his crew, the men he’s addressing in this exhortation. Homer’s Odyssey  is clear on what happens to them, after deadly battle followed by deadly mistakes: they were all killed, long before this poem begins. Like Tennyson after the death of his friend, those who know, those who shared and could testify to Ulysses soul, are gone. So, when he asks to set sail in that boat, there will be no rowing soldiers on those benches sitting well in order, except in his soul.

So, he’s crazy? Deluded? After all, he’s plainly talking to those that aren’t there. Well this is a poem, a work of art. Ulysses might never have existed, or might not have existed in the way we know him if not for Homer, who also might not have existed. And Tennyson and his friend Hallam? We can pretty well know they existed, even if anyone who could say of the eventually long-lived Tennyson “who we knew” is now dead, and so closely equal to the imagined. This is a poem about the hereness of the not-here.

I was telling my son the other day, “Death is the leading cure for immortality,” but sometimes the cure doesn’t take. I can’t say that the LYL Band’s performance of this part of “Ulysses”  is immortal, but we do strive to seek to find and not to yield. Hear it here:

 

 

 

*An example of the waterworks potential for this poem when read by Helen Mirren, making Stephen Colbert cry.