Posts Tagged ‘growing older’

Choices, ageing, regrets…with poems

July 26, 2018

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,

labuntur anni, nec pietas moram

rugis et instanti senectae

adferet indomitaeque morti;

Looking back nearly half a century I can see why I loved Horace at school. Even as a school student I found I could tune in to the rhythm of his verse, as well as the images he conjured up of the Roman countryside, food and wine, so very atmospheric. And at the ripe old age of 17, though I couldn’t really have known anything about the subject, l loved this poem of his about ageing and its inevitability: the years slip by and there’s nothing you can do about it; wrinkles and death will arrive, no matter how good you have been… now I really know that. And if there’s nothing to be done, then I have to accept and come to terms with it. Which took me on to this poem by Robert Frost:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The first twelve lines are a single sentence that flows slowly, deliberately, creating a sense of thoughtful reflectiveness, partly through the poet’s use of enjambment which allows his ideas to run on; then the single exclamatory line which follows brings him up short, with the impossible idea that he can always go back and start again… the entire third stanza is his reverie interrupted, and he then re-joins it in the final stanza, where he acknowledges the finality of that original choice.

Notice also Frost’s use of the first personal pronoun, which occurs quite regularly through the poem, reminding us of the personal nature of the choice, and the effect of the hiatus in the final stanza, where ‘I’ is repeated, perhaps anchoring the poet’s responsibility for that choice. A certain feeling of wistfulness – or is it nostalgia? – is created by the exclamatory ‘Oh’, and the word ‘sigh’ in the opening line of the final stanza, carefully placed to balance the ‘I’ at the start of that line and to rhyme with the ‘I’ ending the line two lines further on.

Choices. We make them all the time, little ones and big ones, ones we understand and ones we can’t know the significance of, at least until much later on. At the actual moment of choice, Frost observes, there may seem very little in it: ‘really about the same’.

There’s also the matter of impulse for Frost, the idea of certain choices as leaps in the dark: having considered one option carefully for almost the length of the first stanza, he leaps at the other possibility in a single line. The idea of paths you cannot return along is quite haunting in a way, too, almost as if those turnings on life’s map are erased once you have passed them by.

It’s almost impossible not to apply this poem to one’s own life: it’s a poem with a particular meaning for Frost, but which, once out there in the public domain, becomes almost the property of every reader. I often reflect on my younger years and the choices I made way back when, which helped turn me into the person I am today, whether I like him or it or not. Inevitably such thoughts also which lead me to Edith Piaf’s famous song, Je ne regrette rien. If I regret my past choices, am I not also regretting what I am today, given that those choices helped shape me? I think that depends on how happy or satisfied or content I feel with my life, my achievements and my current self…

I made life-changing choices at school: studied English, not History; studied French and English and not French and Latin at university, chose to be an English and not a French teacher. Long ago now, I chose to leave a relationship which meant a lot to me at the time but which I could then see would not give me what I most wanted in my future. Once made, as Frost acknowledges, fairly soon those choices could not be unmade: ‘way leads on to way’ and one is somewhere and someone else before one realises it…

I’ve mentioned some of the choices I’m aware of having made. Then there are also choices I didn’t have, such as – for instance – to not have had a very religious upbringing. But if I hadn’t, who would I be today? And finally there are choices I didn’t know I’d made, the most obvious example of which was not getting on a plane one day when I was much younger and flying somewhere, so that I’ve ended up today with what’s either a phobia or a total unwillingness, meaning there are a lot of places I’d really like to visit that I’m never going to see…

For me, neither Horace nor Frost have said anything I didn’t already know: what they have done – and here is another skill of a true poet, it seems to me – is to put something I already knew into words I could not, and thereby made me stop and reflect more deeply on those things. My truth was mine: they capture the eternal as well.

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

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