Between the years of forty and sixty a man who has properly regulated himself may be considered in the prime of life. Having gone a year or two past sixty he 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.
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.
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.
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.
But 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.
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.
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.
Old as I am my spirits are first-rate;
Somewhere within this gray-blurr’d old shell 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.)
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.
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—
O ripen’d joy of womanhood! O happiness at last!
I am more than eighty years of age, I am the most venerable mother,
Gentle old face surrounded with the plain lace edging of its cap, and the silver hair so smoothly folded.
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?
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, my noblest joy of all!
My children and grandchildren, my white hair and beard,
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,
Old age superbly rising, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe,
And the approach of——but I must not say it yet.
Old age, alarm’d, uncertain:
I am sitting here alone, fearfully weak yet,
My brain more and more palpably neglects or refuses even slight tasks,
I shall rally or partially rally—only every time lets me down a peg, the pegs coming gradually out,
Shadows of nightfall deepening, soon to be lost for aye in the darkness.
Shadowy death dogs my steps,
Draws sometimes close to me, as face to face;
Surely, slowly ebbing, my strength can’t stand the pull forever, and must sooner or later give out.
My disease is now call’d progressive paralysis, with a more or less rapid tendency (or eligibility) to the heart—
Formidable isn’t it? The worst is there may be something in it,
The doctors put four chances out of five against me—gave me quite up more than once—
Perhaps soon some day or night while I am singing my voice will suddenly cease.
There has come to me a notion, amounting to a certainty, that I am dying! Friends to whom I have mentioned this fear, endeavor to chase it away by saying that it is the result of my brooding thoughts; and that such vagaries often come into the minds of people under a great dread. I do not answer them, but I feel none the less the certainty of my death. Nor is it painful to me.
I myself for long, O death, have breath’d my every breath,
Amid the nearness and the silent thought of thee—
I do not fear thee.
Deadly weak, my sufferings much of the time are fearful,
But the spark seems to glimmer yet,
Fairly buoyant spirits— better spirits and comfort than I deserve—
It is all right whichever way.
Our time, our term has come,
The pomp and hurried contest-glare and rush are done,
Nor yield we mournfully, we who have grandly fill’d our time;
We welcome what we wrought for through the past,
And leave the field for them, they too to grandly fill their time,
For them we abdicate, to be in them absorb’d, assimilated.
Now for my last—ineffable grace of dying days,
Old age flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death,
Only desirous of quietly waiting the final change,
Exit, nightfall, and soon the heart-thud stopping,
The soothing sanity and blitheness of completion.
O Death! O you striding there! O I cannot yet! a battle-contest yet!
Our joys of strife and derring-do to the last!
Something to eke out a minute additional,
A poem expressing the thoughts, pictures, aspirations fit to be perused during the days of the approach of death,
The most triumphant, jubilant poem.
This ought to express the sentiment of great jubilant glee, of athletic sort—for great deaths, devoirs, works—in battle, in martyrdom—for great renunciations—for love, for friendship —especially for the close of life (the close of a great true life,)
I have prepared myself for that purpose.
Let me look back a moment,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot,
I and my book, casting backward glances over our travel’d road.
How sweet the silent backward tracings!
The wanderings as in dreams—the meditation of old times resumed—their loves, joys, persons, voyages,
Precious ever-lingering memories, (of you, my father—what is yours is mine—you, mother dear, you, brothers, sisters, friends,)
How the soul loves to float amid such reminiscences!
Thanks in old age—thanks ere I go,
For beings, groups, love, deeds, words, books—or colors, forms,
For shelter, wine and meat—for sweet appreciation,
For health, the midday sun, the impalpable air—for life, mere life,
For all my days—not those of peace alone—the days of war the same,
(A special laurel ere I go, to life’s war’s chosen ones,
The cannoneers of song and thought.)
As soldier from an ended war return’d,
As traveler out of myriads, to the long procession retrospective,
What is there more, that I lag and pause,
E’en at the exit-door turning, crouch extended with unshut mouth,
As a friend from friends his final withdrawal prolonging,
Loth, O so loth to depart!
(So hard for his hand to release those hands—no more will they meet,
No more for communion of sorrow and joy, of old and young,
A far-stretching journey awaits him, to return no more,)
An old man’s garrulous lips among the rest,
Dull, parrot-like and old, with crack’d voice harping, screeching chirps—lingering-dying ones,
Shunning, postponing severance—seeking to ward off the last word ever so little,
Garrulous to the very last,
Good-bye and good-bye with emotional lips repeating—
Is there a single final farewell?
Behind a good-bye there lurks much of the salutation of another beginning.