Even though coming to terms with our eventual demise is the central dilemma of humankind, it surprises me sometimes how many poets write about death and dying and getting old. It is further surprising that not many of them are good at it. But I wouldn't inflict those on you.
Today's selection, by the much-honored English poet, Philip Larkin, is among the finest. In addition, in an age when interest in poetry is next to nil, Larkin, who died 30 years ago when he was 63, is still widely read. Today's poem, The Old Fools, which concerns Larkin's fear of ageing and dying, was first published in 1973 in the collection, High Windows, so Larkin probably wrote it when he was about 50.
The poem first came to my attention in 2008, when Jane Gross published it in her New York Times column and included some excellent commentary from novelist Hilma Wolitzer. An excerpt:
”...as a writer I was struck with admiration and envy by the startling beauty of the poem’s language. I couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine a lovelier or more accurate way to describe existence than 'the million-petaled flower of being here,' said Wolitzer.
“And then later, as my mother and father began to fail in tandem, to lose their faculties, their personalities, and (perhaps worst of all) their autonomy, I saw the harsher truth in calling that final stage of their lives — those 'days of thin continuous dreaming' — a 'hideous inverted childhood.'
“The poet bluntly asks 'Why aren’t they screaming?' It’s not exactly a rhetorical question.”
Here then is The Old Fools for you today. If you would prefer to listen to it instead while following along in the video, scroll down below this text:
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange:
Why aren’t they screaming?
At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petaled flower
Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend
There’ll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they’re for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines –
How can they ignore it?
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give
An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous, inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.
According to the YouTube page, Larkin's poem is read by Tom O'Bedlam. That's probably not his real name. Tom O'Bedlam is the title of an anonymous poem written, say experts, at the beginning of the 17th century. Wikipedia notes that
”...in How to Read and Why, literary critic Harold Bloom calls it 'the greatest anonymous lyric in the [English] language.'”