Holiday Gifts for Elders 2015

Philip Larkin: “The Old Fools”

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.

HighWindows200Today'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.'”


Maybe if we all started living in the present we would stop obsessing about the end.

I respectfully disagree, Bruce. I've been thinking about the end for 20 years and find it fascinating still to contemplate ii in all its many and widely differing implications.

Thanks for posting that Ronni. Not a poem I was familiar with but one that I really enjoyed. It struck me as though the writer is wallowing to a great extent in the miseries of old age, perhaps even a bit of self-pity. Now who could ever imagine us elders ever actually acting out such nonsensical mutterings. :)

Noting that he was indeed around age 50 when he probably penned this poem, it also struck me as to the insight he had regarding the physical and mental plight of the elderly as they aged. Mind provoking post....

After being a mortician for 25 years, I find that death is the least of my worries and fears. Living can indeed be much scarier at times. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, "Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying … or busy with other assignments. Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. There as well: “to do what needs doing.” There are so many interesting writings on death and dying in literature....... Thanks for this posting, Ronni.

The experience of old age, while it doubtless has recognizable hallmarks, varies enormously from person to person. Ronni, you're still writing a blog, getting around, staying connected. Me too. I'm *not* wildly active physically--lifelong laziness coupled with general osteoarthritis--but as a single woman living alone I HAVE to stay connected. I have a handful of communities I participate in, I write every day, I meet friends out for a meal and conversation, and I'm now, unexpectedly, more active as a classical pianist than I ever have been, though I started playing at three and I'm now 78.

Tell you what drives *me* nuts--ageism from other people. I started dyeing my hair again because I was tired of being called "dear" and shouted at loudly and slowly (my hearing and my mind are both doing fine, thanks). They do that less when my hair isn't gray. Seriously.

My short-term memory isn't anywhere near what it used to be. But--based on my family background--I don't expect to have to deal with serious dementia. So far so good.

Oh--one more thing--while I'll never be Kate again, I will certainly be any number of other combinations. Nothing goes away, y'know--it just recombines.

I absolutely detest being called "dear" by a checkout clerk at the supermarket I regularly go to. Last week with frequent trips to get various food and kitchen items, I was called "dear" every single time even after a brief conversation in which I was reasonably articulate.

I think "Who are you--a seasonal check-out clerk--to condescend to me?" But I say nothing.

As for my hair, it's white and I think it looks great.

Another interesting blog post that provokes much introspection, at least for me. First, Larkin (one of my favorite poets, especially his "This Be The Verse" -- the man does not sugar-coat) was only 63 when he died??? That's still a few short years ahead for some of us, in the rearview for others, but, too young, too young, it seems. Second, to me this poem is more about the mental and physical disintegration that often accompanies (but need not) advanced age, rather than about dying per se -- "it's only oblivion" after all. Finally, as usual for me when I contemplate the great beyond (or lack thereof), I am envious of those among us who have faith in an afterlife -- I wish I were a believer. I've already lived too long to die young and leave a good-looking corpse. But is Larkin's view the only alternative? {sigh} My other favorite meditation on things eschatological (after all, doesn't the whole world die when I do? No? well, MY whole world certainly dies, if not yours...) is Robert Frost's warning, "Provide, Provide." But I am greatly cheered by Kate's comment above, "Nothing goes away, y'know--it just recombines." Thank you for your blog, Ronni! All this and poetry, too!!

First, about being called "dear", I am now 67 and since I was around 50, I'd say, gently, even pleasantly, "Excuse me? Do we know one another? Because "dear" is either an affectionate term used for an intimate, or it is a condescending, ageist form of address, and I'm SURE you don't mean to come across that way."

Second, I have long read and admired Larkin, but he is bleak, and wrote in the era in England when even middle age was a struggle. The very old I have known are quite aware how close the alp; how they respond to that fact depends a great deal on how they lived the many decades that preceded it.

My first reaction to this poem was "I'm not there yet," feeling he was speaking of elder minds who cannot, for various reasons, speak, explain, or complain - that these old ones are beyond the experiences of choice and thought, so they now live within their own minds with their memories, and all we see is the blankness, behind which lie these "lighted rooms." I read that he finds many have fancied denial of death and lived inattentive lives, unable or refusing to see the looming alp. His poem is cautionary, caustic and jolts my mind to read it more (til my own unacknowledged denial is realized?).

Then I can choose. While I've given thought to my death, my thing has been more similar to Bruce's comment - to become more in the present, no matter the time.

Fact is, people are not going to bend over backwards to spare your feelings when you get old. I feel it's my absolute duty to hang in there, with glasses for my weak eyes, hearing aids for my muddled ears and the cultivation of an interested attitude toward others. I don't care if people call me dearie. It's better than being called, "You old bag!"

What I like best about this poem is the last line: Well, /We shall find out.

Something in that line speaks to me of an understanding that undermines the savage attack on the drooling old fools. I hear fear in every line but that one, and in that one I hear acceptance. Even, maybe, a hope that those old fools are somehow reliving their memories: extracting a known book from the shelves; chairs and a fire burning; the blown bush at the window, or the sun’s faint friendliness on the wall.

A good friend is a psychiatrist; he told me, "When I was a resident, doctors did not know how to talk to dying people, so they called in a psychiatrist. I approached the bedside of a dying man in his late 80s, and said, 'I'm Dr. S., Dr. L. thought you might like to talk to someone.'

He said, "The man fixed me with an indignant look and said, 'Young man, GO AWAY. Life's greatest mystery is about to be revealed to me.' "

Philip Larkin is said to have told THE OBSERVER in 1979, "I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any. . . . Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth."

We are the old fools, Mr Larkin,
And with respect, we think you're barkin'
Up a tree that's leafed with lies;
We're simply youngsters in disguise!

Well said, Michael Farman

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