Having gone a year or two past sixty, a man reaches a viaduct called the “Turn in Life,” which, if crossed in safety, leads to the valley of old age—
I shall range upon the high plateau of my life and capacity for a few years, and then swiftly descend.
In youth and maturity poems are charged with sunshine and varied pomp of day; but as the soul more and more takes precedence, (the sensuous still included,) the dusk becomes the poet’s atmosphere.
I too have sought, and ever seek, the brilliant sun, and make my songs according,
But as I grow old, alone, sick, weak-down, melted-worn with sweat,
The half-lights of evening are far more to me,
And now I chant old age.
Listen, and the old will speak a chronicle for the young:
Ah, youth! thou art one day coming to be old, too; for an hour, dream thyself old.
Realize, in thy thoughts and consciousness, that vigor and strength are subdued in thy sinews—that the color of the shroud is liken’d in thy very hairs—that all those leaping desires, luxurious hopes, beautiful aspirations, and proud confidences of thy younger life have long been buried (a funeral for the better part of thee) in that grave which must soon close over thy tottering limbs.
I sit writing here, in sickness, poverty, and old age,
This late-years palsied old shorn and shell-fish condition of me,
Much like some hard-cased, dilapidated, grim, ancient shell-fish or time-bang’d conch.
The slower fainter ticking of the clock is in me,
I have been growing feebler quite rapidly for a year, failing more and more each successive season, and now can’t walk around hardly from one room to the next, the paralysis never lifting entirely.
My eyes plainly warn me they are dimming,
I easily tire, am very clumsy, cannot walk far—
My lassitude is one of the worst points in my condition,
Being kept indoor for most nine months begins to tell on me.
As the time draws nigh glooming, a cloud,
A dread beyond of I know not what darkens me;
Not my least burden is that dullness of the years, querilities,
Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering ennui,
May filter in my daily songs.
As some old broken soldier, after a long, hot, wearying march, or haply after battle,
The body wreck’d, old, poor, and paralyzed—the strange inertia falling pall-like round me,
Today at twilight, hobbling, answering company roll-call, Here, with vital voice.
One has to obey orders, and do duty, and face the music till he gets formal dismissal—
And may as well come up to the scratch smiling.
Think not we give out yet,
The jocund heart yet beating in my breast—while the heart pants, life glows,
The burning fires down in my sluggish blood not yet extinct;
The embers left from earlier fires shall duly flame again.
The touch of flame—the illuminating fire—the loftiest look at last,
Objects and groups, bearings, faces, reminiscences,
The calmer sight—the golden setting, clear and broad,
So much i’ the atmosphere, the points of view, the situations whence we scan,
Bro’t out by them alone—so much (perhaps the best) unreck’d before,
The lights indeed from them—old age’s lambent peaks.
To get the final lilt of songs,
To penetrate the inmost lore of poets,
To diagnose the shifting-delicate tints of love and pride and doubt—to truly understand,
To encompass these, the last keen faculty and entrance-price,
Old age, and what it brings from all its past experiences.
The rarest and most blessed quality of transcendent noble poetry (as of law, and of the profoundest wisdom and æstheticism) is from sane, completed, vital, capable old age,
A sort of matured, superb, almost divine, invisible magnetism, dissolving and embracing all.
Not summer’s zones alone—not chants of youth, or south’s warm tides alone,
But e’en the profoundest chill, as now, the cumulus of years,
Old age land-lock’d within its winter bay—(cold, cold, O cold!)
Held by sluggish floes, pack’d in the northern ice,
The body, sluggish, aged, cold, the light in the eye grown cold and dim,
These snowy hairs, my feeble arm, my frozen feet, a torpid pulse, a brain un-nerv’d—
These with gay heart I also sing,
Forth from these snowy hairs keep up yet the lilt.
You lingering sparse leaves of me on winter-nearing boughs,
You tokens diminute and lorn—
(Not now the flush of May, or July clover-bloom—no grain of August now;)
Yet my soul-dearest leaves confirming all the rest,
Haply for some sunny day (who knows?) some future spring, some summer—bursting forth,
To verdant leaves, or sheltering shade—to nourishing fruit,
The fresh, free, open air,
And love and faith, like scented roses blooming.
Though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,
That which we are, we are,
The same old man and soul—the same old aspirations, and the same content.
The main things are a pretty good (born) heart and stalwart genesis, constitution—these the main factors.
Old as I am my spirits are first-rate—
Somewhere within this gray-blurr’d old shell, good spirits and primal buoyant center-pulses down there deep;
I believe I have it in me perennially anyhow.
I am satisfied and comfortable and often bless the Lord that things are as well with me as they are, for they might be much worse.
I have myself for company, such as it is, anyhow,
I retain my mentality intact, unimpaired absolutely,
With about the same mentality as ever, I get along sort o’ comfortable, in good heart and good spirits invariably.
The passing hours are so sunny-fine,
I feel today almost a part of some frolicsome wave, or for sporting yet like a kid or kitten,
(Reader, you must allow a little fun here.)
Youth, large, lusty, loving—youth full of grace, force, fascination,
Do you know that old age may come after you with equal grace, force, fascination?
Who are the groups of old men going slowly?
Three old men slowly pass, followed by three others, and they by three others,
They are beautiful—the one in the middle of each group holds his companions by the hand,
As they walk, they give out perfume wherever they walk.
The admirable sight of the perfect old man—over eighty years old,
A man of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person, whose life has been magnificently developed,
The wildest and most exuberant joy, the utterance of hope and floods of anticipation,
Faith in whatever happens—but all enfolded in joy, joy, joy, which underlies and overtops the whole effusion.
When he went with his five sons and many grandsons to hunt or fish, you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang,
You would wish long and long to be with him, you would wish to sit by him that you and he might touch each other.
Or the perfect old woman,
Gentle old face, and the silver hair so smoothly folded,
What a calm serene bearing! How graceful she looks in her old age—
I am more than eighty years of age, I am the most venerable mother,
How clear is my mind, how all people draw nigh to me!
What beauty is this that descends upon me and rises out of me?
What attractions are these beyond the attraction of my youth?
O ripen’d joy of womanhood! O happiness at last!
As life wanes, and all the turbulent passions calm,
I take on the usual privilege of years—to go slow, to be less vehement, to trust more to quiet, to composure.
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs really finish’d and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all,
The brooding and blissful halcyon days,
Natural happinesses, love, friendship,
The undiminish’d faith—the groups of loving friends.
O the old manhood of me, old age superbly rising, my noblest joy of all,
My largeness, calmness, majesty, out of the long stretch of my life;
To old age: I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly as it pours in the great sea,
Calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe,
And the approach of——but I must not say it yet.