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Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: marian2 (
Date: April 09, 2005 07:22AM

I was reading the Ted Kooser stuff on the Pulitzer prize thread and it occurred to me that most findable decent poetry about ageing and old age is relatively recent, and perhaps this is because more people get to be old these days, thanks to medicine - so the amount of stuff being written about ageing increases as more poets experience it and more people want to read/buy it, as opposed to, say, poems about infant mortality which was at a peak in the Victorian age, when there was leisure for writing poetry and relatively poor medicine. Because more is written, the quality of the best of it is higher, as there is a bigger pool to select from.

That's fairly obvious, but then I wondered if there's also another effect - in that where lots of really good stuff has been written about a topic, either there is less need to write more (because you can find what you need without writing it)and 'scratch the itch' that way, or is it just harder to find a market except among those who favour contemporariness over other criteria ie whether it's just a 'filling the gap in the market' thing, so what gets published is what fills said gap.

I guess what I'm saying is, how much is interest in poetry as measured by familiarity with work, poetry sales or any other criteria, driven by looking for fellow-feeling in a similar situation, and how much is more objective - interest in the actual work regardless of the subject.

Anyway - really old poems about ageing and old age - anybody know any?

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: April 09, 2005 11:25AM

'TIS the last rose of Summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh!

I'll not leave thee, thou lone one,
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o'er the bed
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love's shining circle
The gems drop away!
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?
--Thomas Moore

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Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: lg (
Date: April 09, 2005 12:52PM

Here's a few from the classic poets search engine:

Of the Four Ages of Man
by Anne Bradstreet

Lo, now four other act upon the stage,
Childhood and Youth, the Many and Old age:
The first son unto phlegm, grandchild to water,
Unstable, supple, cold and moist's his nature
The second, frolic, claims his pedigree
From blood and air, for hot and moist is he.
The third of fire and choler is compos'd,
Vindicative and quarrelsome dispos'd.
The last of earth and heavy melancholy,
Solid, hating all lightness and all folly.
Childhood was cloth'd in white and green to show
His spring was intermixed with some snow:
Upon his head nature a garland set
Of Primrose, Daisy and the Violet.
Such cold mean flowers the spring puts forth betime,
Before the sun hath thoroughly heat the clime.
His hobby striding did not ride but run,
And in his hand an hour-glass new begun,
In danger every moment of a fall,
And when 't is broke then ends his life and all:
But if he hold till it have run its last,
Then may he live out threescore years or past.
Next Youth came up in gorgeous attire
(As that fond age doth most of all desire),
His suit of crimson and his scarf of green,
His pride in's countenance was quickly seen;
Garland of roses, pinks and gillyflowers
Seemed on's head to grow bedew'd with showers.
His face as fresh as is Aurora fair,
When blushing she first 'gins to light the air.
No wooden horse, but one of mettle tried,
He seems to fly or swim, and not to ride.
Then prancing on the stage, about he wheels,
But as he went death waited at his heels,
The next came up in a much graver sort,
As one that cared for a good report,
His sword by's side, and choler in his eyes,
But neither us'd as yet, for he was wise;
Of Autumn's fruits a basket on his arm,
His golden god in's purse, which was his charm.
And last of all to act upon this stage
Leaning upon his staff came up Old Age,
Under his arm a sheaf of wheat he bore,
An harvest of the best, what needs he more?
In's other hand a glass ev'n almost run,
Thus writ about: "This out, then am I done."


by Thomas Stearns Eliot

Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both.

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.

I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.

Signs are taken for wonders. "We would see a sign":
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering Judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fraulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What's not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what's thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils.
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use it for your closer contact?

These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.

Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.


Middle-Age Enthusiasms
by Thomas Hardy

To M. H.

WE passed where flag and flower
Signalled a jocund throng;
We said: "Go to, the hour
Is apt!"--and joined the song;
And, kindling, laughed at life and care,
Although we knew no laugh lay there.

We walked where shy birds stood
Watching us, wonder-dumb;
Their friendship met our mood;
We cried: "We'll often come:
We'll come morn, noon, eve, everywhen!"
--We doubted we should come again.

We joyed to see strange sheens
Leap from quaint leaves in shade;
A secret light of greens
They'd for their pleasure made.
We said: "We'll set such sorts as these!"
--We knew with night the wish would cease.

"So sweet the place," we said,
"Its tacit tales so dear,
Our thoughts, when breath has sped,
Will meet and mingle here!"...
"Words!" mused we. "Passed the mortal door,
Our thoughts will reach this nook no more."


His Wish To God
by Robert Herrick

I would to God, that mine old age might have
Before my last, but here a living grave;
Some one poor almshouse, there to lie, or stir,
Ghost-like, as in my meaner sepulchre;
A little piggin, and a pipkin by,
To hold things fitting my necessity,
Which, rightly us'd, both in their time and place,
Might me excite to fore, and after, grace.
Thy cross, my Christ, fix'd 'fore mine eyes should be,
Not to adore that, but to worship Thee.
So here the remnant of my days I'd spend,
Reading Thy bible, and my book; so end.


Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: joseph r. torelli (
Date: April 09, 2005 12:53PM

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: jerrygarner7 (
Date: April 09, 2005 02:22PM

Marian 2

As a relic, I found your thoughts more than interesting.
I have noted, I think, a increase in the number of poems dealing with the
death of wild animals and have wondered if this had become a forum in which poets dwell on their own mortality.
Ammons’ ‘Coon Song,’ and Jerfferies’, ‘Hurt Hawk’ depict ‘critters’ meeting their deaths intrepidly. The theme appears to be a choice of death while cognitive functions are still operational.
I have wondered if this is a vehicle with which poets use to deal with their own mortality? Is the loss of autonomy dreaded more than the termination of their existence? Do the themes center on the choice of death over the loss of autonomy?
Is death preferable to the senility and the philological deterioration that age brings?

There are gaps in this line of reasoning, and jumps must be made; however, this is the viewpoint of one dealing with these particular issues.

Comment: Hughes’, “Hawk Roosting,” depicts a hawk where all physiological mechanisms are fully operational, making it an exaltation of life.
Why the predominance of hawks? Why does the loss of flight appear to be so devastating to those chained to the earth?
No answers, just questions.

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: lg (
Date: April 09, 2005 03:09PM

Here's a few more, also from the classic poets list:

An Old Man's Winter Night
by Robert Lee Frost

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him -- at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off; -- and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.


The Old Man Dreams
by Oliver Wendell Holmes

OH for one hour of youthful joy!
Give back my twentieth spring!
I'd rather laugh, a bright-haired boy,
Than reign, a gray-beard king.

Off with the spoils of wrinkled age!
Away with Learning's crown!
Tear out life's Wisdom-written page,
And dash its trophies down!

One moment let my life-blood stream
From boyhood's fount of flame!
Give me one giddy, reeling dream
Of life all love and fame!


The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


from A Woman Young and Old
by William Butler Yeats


HIDDEN by old age awhile
In masker's cloak and hood,
Each hating what the other loved,
Face to face we stood:
"That I have met with such,' said he,
"Bodes me little good.'
"Let others boast their fill,' said I,
"But never dare to boast
That such as I had such a man
For lover in the past;
Say that of living men I hate
Such a man the most.'
'A loony'd boast of such a love,'
He in his rage declared:
But such as he for such as me --
Could we both discard
This beggarly habiliment --
Had found a sweeter word.


Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: chuckl (
Date: April 09, 2005 03:11PM

Holmes' The Last Leaf
Southey's The old man's comforts and how he gained them,and Lewis Carroll's parody of that, You are old,Father William....

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: Talia (
Date: April 09, 2005 09:06PM

I say it all goes back to the whole baby-boomer thing. You baby-boomers leave a mark at every point in your life all over the world.

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: drpeternsz (
Date: April 10, 2005 05:32AM

You're welcome.

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: joseph r. torelli (
Date: April 10, 2005 03:14PM

Pray tell, exactly what is the baby-boomer thing? I'm one of the legions of boomers and had no idea that we all shared the same "thing."

I look forward to being enlightened.


Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: Talia (
Date: April 11, 2005 10:49AM

The baby-boomers are a generation. People born between 1946 and 1964. The baby-boomers have created a change each time they pass through a part of their lives because they comprise such a large part of the population; businesses bend over backwards to accomodate them because of this. Take the social security crisis for exmample...when all those baby-boomers retire it will cost us younger ones to foot their benefits.


Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: April 11, 2005 12:08PM

Just be happy the current crop of elders has not yet realized that they will soon possess enough votes to force our republican form of government to perform to their expectations. All their lives, the folks with big bucks have bought politicians and their loyalties, forcing baby boomers to pay the piper. What has gone around will come around!

No, you say? They will be wise elders and smart enough not to bankrupt the system by demanding complete medical and retirement coverage? Well, mebbe ...

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: April 11, 2005 12:54PM

How calmly does the olive branch
observe the sky begin to blanch :
without a cry , without a prayer ;
with no betrayal of despair .
Sometime while light obscures the tree ,
the zenith of its life will be :
gone , past , forever .
And from thence , a second history will commence :
a chronicle no longer gold ,
of bargaining with mist and mold ;
and finally the broken stem ,
the plummeting to earth , and then
an intercourse not well designed
for beings of a golden kind
whose native green must arch above
the Earth's obscene, corrupting love .

And still the ripe fruit and the branch
observe the sky begin to blanch :
without a cry , without a prayer ;
with no betrayal of despair .
Oh, courage ! Could you not as well
select a second place to dwell ?
Not only in that golden tree
but in the frightened heart of me ?

by Tennessee Williams
("by" Jonathan Coffin, a character in "Night of the Iguana")

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: lg (
Date: April 11, 2005 01:02PM

Hugh, I agree one hundred per cent with what you say. But alas baby boomers are just like the generations they've spawned, apathetic.


Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: Talia (
Date: April 11, 2005 02:22PM

"will soon posess enough votes?" Don't they posess them now? I know better than to assume that just because one gets "older" does not mean that one becomes more moral. I think most of those elders have died off.

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: marian2 (
Date: April 12, 2005 05:18AM

Sorry, Talia - still alive :-)

Thanks for all the responses - the theory was less about what poets write than about what gets taken up by their readership and therefore remains available ie what we are looking for in the way of poetry and whether it is partly, or largely fellow-feeling. The writing bit comes in when we can't find what we want so write something to communicate it to others (I think) . It brought some interesting results - I love the Thomas Moore ( of which I only ever knew the title, from the song), the Hardy scares me - he always seems to know what is in my head better than I do, and brings it out for me to look at properly.

Joe T - thanks for posting the Heaney - I've come across it before but had lost track of it, and it brings back memories of helping my own long-dead mother - usually by washing the salad before the visitors arrived (I was too scatty to trust near the cooker!) . Peace be with your mother-in-law and family.

I hadn't thought of the 'animal death' poetry angle that Jerrygarner7 suggests - that's fascinating - when you contrast these poems with old poems like Tennyson's Oak (Hugh's link) which extol the virtues of gnarled old trees as an allegory for noble human aging and long life. The poets' perspective seems to have changed completely with the advent of medical strategies to prolong life without regard to its quality. Or is it just that, like the 'we've all got to be thin in the face of too much tempting food too easily available' we all purport to want what is less easily had these days - a quick, clean death . As to the questions he raises, I shall enjoy a long think about them and doubtless find no answers, either.

The Old Man Dreams reminded me of that poem about the two people on the yacht watching a couple of young lovers on the beach, and remembering how much more fun life was when they had nothing but youth and optimism. Can't provide a reference as I've lost it again. A lot of people these days seem to indulge in 'mad escapades' in middle age with the help of a few bottles of hooch (Delia Smith's recent frolic at the football match, for example), rather than just dream about them - times have changed since Holmes, or it was better hidden from reporters.

The Jonathan Coffin was another old friend I'd forgotten, Marian - thanks for posting it - and thanks again for all the responses, it's been a very interesting post.

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: April 13, 2005 06:42PM

"I get up each morning and dust off my wits
Open the paper and read the obits
If I'm not there, I know I'm not dead
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed"

That's just one verse of a song by Pete Seeger.

See the whole thing at:

Re: Challenge - bust my theory
Posted by: drpeternsz (
Date: April 13, 2005 07:17PM

go Marian!

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