Poems on… old age


Age is just a number, but what a number it is! An integer that holds mortality in summary. A value that walks hand in hand with life and death. No wonder then, that senescence has been a subject of debate among philosophers for ages. “What kind of road it is (old age), rough and difficult, or easy and passable?” asks Socrates.

The poets also have weighed in on the subject. Here are some stirring examples of poems which consider the character of old age.

Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Ulysses – a hero (and sometimes trickster) of Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey  – muses on the nature of aging and his approaching death in the eponymous poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson. In the end Ulysses concludes that great deeds may yet be done by the old and resolves to renew his travels once more, till death takes him.

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

You can find the works of Lord Alfred Tennyson on bidorbuy.

Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Yes, Cormac McCarthy did borrow the opening line of the poem by W. B. Yeats for the title of his novel (and the subsequent Coen brothers film adaptation). The poem celebrates old age, divorcing it from ideas of degeneration and musing about a natural order and eternity. The poet longs to leave his animal body and unite with the platonic ideal of art and beauty – becoming one with past, present and future.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

You can find the works of William Butler Yeats on bidorbuy.

Ozymandius by Percy Bysshe Shelley

 If Byron is the god of Victorian romaticism, then Percy Bysshe Shelley is the pope. His poem Ozymandius is more a meditation on time itself rather than a poem about old age. Nevertheless, it highlights the transience of life, and the superfluity of great works.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

You can find the works of Shelley on bidorbuy.