Feeling Old at Any Age

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.


Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.


And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

—A.E. Housman

I wish I had had this little poem handy when I turned 25. That was the only time in my life that I really felt old. The phrase “quarter century” echoed in my mind and kept me more or less depressed for weeks.

Worse, I felt self-conscious about feeling bad. When I thought about it, I knew that twenty-five is not old, damn it, by any definition. Yet I felt ancient, and I felt stupid about feeling ancient. It was a losing proposition from every angle.

In 12 short lines, Housman seems to capture a similar phenomenon without self-consciousness as the “I” in the poem realizes he has “only” 50 of the biblical three score and ten left to live. There I was at 25, with “only” 45 left!

If the three score and ten is accurate, as of next month I’ll have only seven left; yet I feel younger than I did at 25.

Milton vs. Malt

…What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert th’ Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

…And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think…
—A.E. Housman

john miltonImagine poor Milton. It’s the 17th century. He is alone, blind and sleepless in the dead of night, composing the perfect blank verse that in the morning he will dictate from memory to his amanuensis. He is at war within himself. On one side are his unforgiving Puritanism and his learning in literature, history, philosophy, theology and the Classics. On the other side are the actual facts of his life: the deaths of children and wives, his blindness, and the terrible price he has paid for his anti-royalist politics.

It’s an unfair match-up. No wonder Satan gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost (“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”). Lining up “I ought to be joyful” against “I’m miserable” is always tough, at least for me.

Nearer to our own time, Housman takes a different approach to essentially the same problem. Feeling blue? Hoist a few pints and cheer up, he says. Repeat as necessary.

Right. The opportunities for a personal train wreck there are pretty obvious. Better, I think, to find the people who love you and let them help you through “the embittered hour.” No bargaining with God required. No hangover either.

Ars Poetica Redux

Recently a friend pointed out that this blog quotes a lot of poetry. I suppose it does, but I don’t think of this as a “literary” site. It’s just that I spent a lot of time in school studying literature. I probably would have a Ph.D. if I could have stuck with it. The proponents of literary theory, as it was practiced in the ’70s, however, can claim the kill on that one.

I like to tell the story of my leaving grad school as if the whole thing were a heroic march to better things. The truth is considerably less grand. To begin preparing for the program’s comprehensive exams, I had enrolled in a course in which the reading assignments included Roland Barthes’ S/Z. Barthes used words like hermeneutic, semic and proairetic. He speaks of “lexia” and the “axis of castration.” Dear God.

I managed to force myself to read through about half of the book, my personal b*llsh*t alarm trumpeting like a fire klaxon through every word. The critical moment arrived when I gave up. I closed the book and held it in my hand for a few seconds. Then Marge heard the crash.

“What was that?” she asked.

“It was this book hitting the wall,” I answered, “I don’t know if what I’ve been trying to read is true or not, but I am utterly certain that it doesn’t matter.”

Suddenly there was no turning back. In a single heartbeat, I moved from wondering whether I would stay in grad school to making formal arrangements for my departure.

I kept the book around for years. Every time I found myself wondering if I had made the right decision, I would take the book from the shelf and spend a few minutes turning pages in it. I never again found it necessary to knock paint off the wall with the book, but I also found that I never regretted my decision to leave grad school.

I have nevertheless continued to read. In the process I’ve made friends with a great many books, ranging all the way from “brain candy” to classical literature. Some of it makes me feel smart, and some of it is just plain fun. Better still are the moments when things I’ve learned from reading connect.

Years ago, for example, I had a good time reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I had a real “aha” moment while reading Strong Poison. As the novel reaches its climax, Lord Peter, having driven himself to the brink of exhaustion to save the woman he loves from the gallows, falls asleep over a book of poems by A.E. Housman.

When he awakes, he knows the identity of the killer and the method of murder. And so did I.

Housman, I knew, really only published one collection of verse, a book called A Shropshire Lad. The best known poem in the book is called Terence, This is Stupid Stuff. The last section of the poem tells the story of King Mithradates who, in order to thwart would-be assassins, developed immunity to the poisons of his time by deliberately ingesting them, “first a little, thence to more.”

Now, in the Lord Peter novel there is a character, someone close to the murder victim, who has unusually shiny fingernails. This I knew could be an indication that the body contains high levels of arsenic. Therefore, to commit the murder, Mr. Fingernails prepares a meal laced with arsenic and shares it with the victim. Victim perishes, but Fingernails, thanks to acquired immunity to arsenic, does not.

Elementary, as another fictional detective might have said.

Anyway, what all of this means is that literary allusions and snippets of poetry are probably inevitable here. I hope most readers enjoy it, but those who do not should remember that there will not be a quiz at the end of the hour.