By Manfred Weidhorn
When, after the restoration of the monarchy and his own necessary flight from London, the eyeless Milton finally threw himself into the major project of his life, Paradise Lost, he had fears about obstacles to artistic success. He begins that epic, to be sure, with a confidence missing in 'Lycidas', as he proudly boasts of his
The italicised words, like the words a few lines down – "raise", "highth", "great" and "assert" – are brimful with confidence and even pride.
And yet anxiety lurks. In the proem of Book IX of the epic, he wonders whether the project of his life would be undermined by any of three factors:  His working in "an age too late": That is, with the alleged 6,000-year span of the world apparently approaching its end, Milton faces the predicament memorably expressed by his contemporary, Sir Thomas Browne, "'Tis too late to be ambitious."  Or he shares in a putative national inferiority complex because Britain's northern location and "cold Climat" may have caused it to miss out on the religious and artistic creativity that flourished in the warm Mediterranean lands.  Or the problem is neither temporal nor geographical but personal – the fear being that "Years [may] damp my intended wing/Deprest." He is too old now? That is an odd fear in one who had been haunted throughout his career by what might fairly be called premature poetic ejaculation.
Turning out an average of two plays a year, Shakespeare had among some writers a reputation – deserved or not – of being facile, of writing too quickly for his own good. Ben Jonson famously complained that his older contemporary "wanted art" and, by way of clarifying that the problem was not lack of innate talent but unseemly haste in composition, added that he should have "blotted… a thousand lines." Jonson was echoed a generation later in a less jaundiced way by the young John Milton, who, in addressing the deceased playwright, said, "to th'shame of slow-endeavouring art,/Thy easy numbers flow."
If Jonson's sour remarks might spring from a disillusioned playwright's envy of a popular rival, Milton's more reverend words originated in an admiring sort of envy of a past master. Milton himself was one of those "slow-endeavouring" artists put to shame by Shakespeare's ease of composition. Or at least so he complains; whether Shakespeare ever suffered from writer's block or from a sense of unreadiness is as mysterious as every other part of his life, but Milton typically left on record his many instances of poetic malaise.
In his 'At a Vacation Exercise', written at the age of 19, he hails the English language, while apologising that "I know my tongue but little Grace can do thee." A few years later, coming off his fine poem on Christ's Nativity, he tried to write on Christ's Passion; after 56 lines, he stops and later appends a prose note: "This subject the author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinisht." In his early sonnet, 'How Soon Hath Time', he marvels that time's theft of his youth is unaccompanied by the arrival of poetic inspiration: The "hasting days fly on with full career,/But my late spring no bud or blossom show'th." Though he had, at 23, achieved manhood, he felt inferior to more apparently or quickly maturing persons: His "inward ripeness doth much less appear,/That some more timely-happy spirits endueth [is endowed with]." Presumably the last words refer to the Shakespearean type of artist. Years later, in another sonnet, the now blind Milton speaks of "that one Talent which is death to hide/Lodged with me useless." And in a prose pamphlet of that period, he rebukes himself for having so far, when the Church is in peril, been in God's eye "dumb as a beast."
His self-doubt came to a poetic climax when, called upon to commemorate the untimely death of a Cambridge classmate, he felt himself unready for the task. Beginning the poem with an address to the poetic "laurels", he describes himself as
The words I have italicised hammer home the idea that he was forced to undertake a solemn form of poetic expression before he felt up to the task. Considering that he went on to produce perhaps the greatest short poem in the language, the complaint here may spring from false or unwarranted humility. But surely, at least in part, the words echo the lamentation recurrently heard from him that he had not had a chance to complete his elaborate preparations to be a consummate poet, the classmate in this case having thoughtlessly died at the wrong time.
Unlike Shakespeare, who did not have the benefit – if it be that – of a university education, Milton did. And then some. As one who after graduating college took off for no less than five years to read books at home ("ease and leisure was given thee for thy retired thoughts"), he was obviously a person with a deep sense of the importance of readiness for the sacred poetic vocation. And not only poetry; he entered even into the polemical-prose phase of his life with the same hesitancy: "I should not write thus out of mine own season when I have neither yet completed to my mind the full circle of my private studies." He was loath "to leave a calm and pleasing solitariness, fed with cheerful and confident thoughts, to embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes." Only reluctantly was he finally bestirred enough to "relinquish the other pursuits in which I was engaged and to transfer the whole force of my talents and my industry" to the religious and political struggle of the day and to the "left-hand" discipline of prose.
Lacking any similar sense of mission, Shakespeare was merely churning out plays for the theatre, which, judging from the attitude of Bacon and other thinkers of the day, was at that time as frivolous a vocation as writing for TV seems to intellectuals today. Milton, by contrast, was gradually girding himself for a major poetic project celebrating God. But then the English Civil War erupted, and, as l'homme engagé, Milton put his literary project on the shelf and turned, at least book-wise, to the noisy, sweaty, bloody streets.
That spurt of activism either cost him his eyesight or was paralleled by growing blindness. So when he belatedly turned to his magnum opus, he confronted the consequences of the accumulation of the years. He faced the ghastly question of whether, by wasting so much time, first in maturation and then in the distractions of the political struggle – "long choosing [a topic] and beginning late" – he had at long last missed the boat, had somehow been side-tracked from his rendezvous with destiny. His anxiety now was the opposite of what it had been when he was young. Instead of feeling under-prepared, he feared that his time to create might have passed him by. That worry, definitively portrayed in Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle, is not unknown to some people. The question is, had time and circumstances finally outwitted him, not only at first stealing his youth unproductively but also in the end depriving him of the proper occasion to fulfil himself grandly? Had he, in short, aged awkwardly, ineptly?
The answer is given by Paradise Lost itself; hence, whether fearing unpreparedness in 'Lycidas' or encroaching senility in the epic, his anxieties proved to be unnecessary. But anxiety, it has been said, is ontological – meaning, it is in the human DNA. Or as an old man on his deathbed said more earthily, according to Winston Churchill, "He had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened."
The disconnect between the need to compose a poem and the poet's readiness to do so is one unfortunate result of aging, whether that aging involves an ascent to maturity or a descent to senescence. The passage of time also presents a different sort of challenge to some poets: the loss of something precious in the sensibility. At issue is not so much the readiness to write, as it is the general comfort zone within which the psyche of the poet is operating, or – to put it differently – how available in daily life is a sense of vision, insight or aesthetic bliss.
A pair of 17th-century poets briefly wrestled with the experience of losing something vital during the process of growing up. Henry Vaughan speaks of a lost joy:
These lines are thought to refer to the Platonic idea of the soul's pre-existence, as well as to Jesus's remark that the kingdom of God is open only to child-like souls. The words "this place" and "second race" refer to the fallen world and to its manifold quotidian imperfections. In this view, what the world calls "maturing" merely means coming into full acquaintanceship with original sin and its baleful consequences. The temptation to turn to nostalgia, even to evasiveness and flight, is consequently strong:
Vaughan's younger contemporary, Thomas Traherne, also sings of a blissful early phase:
Like Vaughan, Traherne contrasts that lost innocence with the paraphernalia of dreary everyday life among adults:
In the early 19th century, that sense of loss was detached from Christian notions of celestial origins and universal depravity. It was given instead a secular gloss, as part of the modern tendency to replace theological explanations with psychological ones. Whatever the reason, it is a curious fact that virtually all the Romantic poets expressed a nostalgia for some early, irretrievable innocence – an obsession not to be found in most writers of earlier periods.
Wordsworth in various poems wrestles with the sense of a decline in vision, resulting not so much from growing old as from merely reaching adulthood and maturity. In the 'Immortality Ode', he laments that
He provides as explanation – in lieu of original sin – the induction into the routines, habits and conventions of everyday life:
The task of the poet is not to lament or, like Vaughan, to wish for a retreat but to make the best of the altered circumstances:
In the 'Ode to Duty', he again surrenders to the change: He seeks to be controlled by duty because the youthful "unchartered freedom" and "weight of chance-desires" have lost their allure. He seeks instead "a repose that ever is the same." Stability and reflectiveness now trump variety and excitement; duty replaces whimsicality. In the 'Elegiac Stanzas', he laments,
Wordsworth's contemporary and sometime friend, Coleridge, sings in similar tones in his 'Dejection Ode':
The theme was continued by the next generation of Romantic poets. For Shelley, the maturation process cramped his physical life and, by extension, his poetic inspiration. Addressing the West Wind, he wished that he still possessed the spontaneity and strength of youth; he regretted that he no longer had the power of boyhood to be "the comrade of thy wanderings over heaven." Instead, "A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'ed/One too like thee – tameless, and swift, and proud." One notes again that he, like Wordsworth and Coleridge ("bow"), speaks of adulthood, not necessarily of the disabilities of old age; speaks of a general mental slowing down, not necessarily of a loss of poetic inspiration – though in the end that does in fact come into play as he asks the wind, and nature itself of which it is a part, to reignite his inspiration so as to enable him through poetry to "Scatter… my words among mankind" and to "Be through my lips… The trumpet of a prophecy."
Shelley's contemporary and sometime friend, Byron, traces his own fall from youthful grace in a characteristically more earthy, diluted and colloquial manner:
Byron's conclusion parallels that of all these poets, albeit in his usual succinct and lively manner, which includes a nod to Ovid: "There's little left but to be bored or bore." But that pessimism is not the only way to view the passage of time. If a little bit of aging into early adulthood or middle age induces a spiritual loss, a lot more of it induces a spiritual gain. Even Wordsworth, despite his eloquent laments about loss, was able to crawl out of depression and to see a fresh vista, to put a new spin on old age. He speaks of the "Strength in what remains behind…/[of] The faith that looks through death,/In years that bring the philosophic mind." Detachment, wisdom and faith were to replace that youthful enthusiasm.
Browning, following up on that thought, issues a full-throated celebration of the fruits of experience at the expense of the joys of innocence. Whatever may have been lost in the transition from youthful ebullience to mature adult responsibility seems, according to him, to have been more than compensated for by the further transition into old age. One form of euphoria is thus replaced by another form, by a fulfilment that comes from experience, from the sense of having seen everything in life there is to see, from something approximating – or summed up by the word – wisdom. If adulthood entails a loss of innocence and vision, old age brings the gain of a different sort of vision; less sight than insight. (To paraphrase Bacon on God, a little bit of experience in young adulthood disillusions, but a lot of experience revives the soul.)
God plans the entirety of one's life, of which "Youth shows [and sees] but half." The advantage of aging is the accretion of wisdom: "How good to live and learn." It takes old age "To grant youth's heritage." Only the older man can say,
One line sums up the desirable aspect of aging, with its gift of wisdom: "Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old."
Browning echoes here the closing thought of Milton's 'Il Penseroso':
The inexperienced Milton, writing those lines while still young, was possibly idealising old age, but, centuries later, Yeats had earned his right to celebrate the blessings of age. He had looked at it from up close and loathed what he saw. He lamented that "An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick" and that old age is something "tied to me/As to a dog's tail." Nevertheless, he proudly insisted that old people can still "descant/Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song" and then concluded with a Browningian swagger,
Whatever pains old age entails – and he assures us that they are many – are redeemed by a heightened sensitivity, a greater self-awareness dearly bought by decades-long experience (as had been celebrated by Browning):
"Not in boyhood" is an indirect rebuff of Shelley. Decrying the departure of bodily strength "at life's end," he aspires to "remake" himself with "an old man's frenzy" in the mould of Timon and Lear. In 'The Wild Old Wicked Man', he again boasts of the superiority of old men over young:
The very process of aging, which is the subject of universal complaint, is to him an outright blessing:
Old age brings a satisfaction, a sense of closure and achievement, known to few:
Yet an unanswered question about the meaning of life necessarily lingers: "But louder sang that ghost, 'What then?'"
In addition to putatively wreaking havoc with poetic inspiration and depriving in middle age the adult poet of some child-like spontaneity and unity of being, and in old age bringing some sort of closure, the unavoidable process of growing old affects a third area of deep human concern – love. When Shakespeare (or the persona in his sonnets) worried about his aging, it was for its effect less on his creativity (as Milton feared) than on his love life. The "simple truth suppressed" is that "age in love, loves not to have years told" ("told" means both counted and expressed). Aging, of course, erodes the amatory life of both men and women, but in his sonnets to the "Dark Lady", Shakespeare, like all the sonneteers, looks at the problem from the man's point of view.
Sonnet 138 is about the dissimilar vulnerabilities that the man and the woman bring to a love affair. His mistress is fickle and adept at hiding her infidelity, but the poet-lover has a different problem: his age. Since young women are attracted mainly to young men, the persona reveals "not I that I am old." Thus both the man and the woman have secrets to keep:
That is, eager to advance anything that might delude the woman into thinking that he is young, he closes his eyes to her infidelity and even to her mendacious denial of it because exhibiting such naiveté may make him appear younger than he looks. But the effort is futile: "Vainly thinking that she thinks me young," he knows that she sees through his pretence and "knows my days are past the best." This network of mutual lying paradoxically facilitates their love and, no doubt, portrays the duplicitous behaviour of perhaps more than a few couples.
But the problem of love and age is more complicated than merely the man's unsuccessful attempt to misrepresent his age. Transcending the middle-aged man's coping with the politics of seduction is the larger question of the old man's coming to terms with the disabilities and challenges of old age as they apply broadly to amatory matters. Just how much emotional capacity does an aging man have to love women and, perhaps more important, physical capacity to satisfy their carnal needs? The central problem, to hear poets tell it, is that desire persists even as male magnetism fades.
Thus it was that Byron, in 'On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year', already sounds like an old man, or, at any rate, anticipates the lamentations of old men:
(The "chain" may mean either the present consequences and responsibilities of past free-wheeling love affairs or the persistence of futile desire.) Something has changed in his love life, but what? Is he speaking here of the womaniser now discarding his futile quest for some ideal mate or of the loss of the ability to love – or to make love?
A half century later, Hardy, at the older age of 58, writes less ambiguously. The aging process has opened a chasm within the self, an inner tension. The poet is reduced therefore to wishing that his emotions, specifically his libido, had withered along with his body:
Had it done so, women's indifference to him would not matter, and there would be no psychological dissonance:
But the trouble is that the aging affects the self unevenly, and women still arouse him as they did when he was young, but they no longer are aroused by him:
"Throbbings" is quite le mot juste.
Other poets voice this complaint: Yeats speculates that if Adam had not fallen, the poet would live in a world where "No man grows old, no girl grows cold"; presumably the latter results from the former. Or in Larkin's version of the problem, "Love does distress the young/And plague the old."
One form of suffering caused by the accumulating years is the rise of amatory envy. The aged man comes to feel as an outsider watching young people live as the beholder once did, or wished to do. So Yeats asserts:
While mature, responsible adults self-importantly converse about politics, the unregenerate (or degenerate?) old poet is irresponsibly distracted by the sight of a beautiful young woman:
The solemn adult, "A sixty-year-old smiling public man," remains "mad about women." The old Yeats even contemplates – or ogles – the romp of imaginary youthful beings:
This is the same Yeats, mind you, who celebrated the intellectual and spiritual superiority of old age over youth. These passages may lead one to conclude that what Milton and Browning ignored (the former out of sheer ignorance, the latter out of Victorian propriety) was the gloomy fact that late-stage philosophical serenity does not exempt one from erotic disturbances.
Envy of youth, moreover, may arouse regret for opportunities missed. A major poet of the next generation, Larkin, is – in line with the post-World War II greater openness on such matters – more blunt about his envy:
And he (or his persona) cannot keep the envy out of the picture:
One would be tempted to include another brief Larkin poem, one in which he goes beyond sexual candour, beyond envy, beyond ogling, and dangerously close to abuse of minors,
were it not for the fact that it was written when he was only 21 and, as doggerel, was wisely left unpublished.
What are we to make of these poetic expressions of sexual longing in old age? The matter might seem self-evident and settled: A modern reader, coming after the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s, has read (and seen in movies) far wilder suppositions about the sexual component of human nature. But, judging from the agonising of T.S. Eliot in an essay on Yeats, it apparently was not always so. Throughout history, the same decorum that shrouded women's thoughts (and was briefly pierced in Ophelia's rant) applied to old men. Their fathering years over, men were believed to undergo a kind of psychological male menopause, and writers have seemed to reflect a consensus that old men have more important things to worry about than the persistence of the erotic drive in the body's old age. Some ancient thinker even thanked the gods that he no longer was pestered by the insanity of love. There is, to be sure, the occasional outlier, like Anacreon (or his imitators), whose naughty predilection was described by the 17th-century poet Cowley in words that pertain to Hardy et al.: "Th' antiperistasis of age/More than enflam'd thy amorous rage."
But notions of modesty or prudence have been set aside by the poets of the last century or two. Driven by the autobiographical impulse that characterises the writers of the Romantic and Modern ages, they have shown a greater willingness to reveal their innermost thoughts. Nor should one rule out the influence of Darwin and especially Freud; the predominance which they assigned to the sexual drive made it easier to express feelings that hitherto were either thought to be non-existent or were, because damnable and embarrassing, best left unexpressed. (The male meme that women did not enjoy sex has undergone a similar evolution.)
So when Yeats openly confronts the matter in a minor poem, it is rather curious that T.S. Eliot, seemingly oblivious of the changing cultural climate, feels compelled to comment extensively – and ambivalently – on this "confession". Yeats's poem is short and unapologetic:
Yeats is saying  that the sexual drive does indeed persist undiminished into old age (at least in men), even as other interests ("what else?") wane;  that it therefore becomes problematical ("a plague"), presumably because beautiful young women, when confronted by the advances of even a famous old poet, are not so readily responsive (as Shakespeare indeed feared) or because of problems of virility (in the pre-Viagra age);  that the erotic interest inspires, in a semi-Freudian fashion, poetic creativity;  that it, rather than the more normal spiritual inclinations of old age, remains the somewhat embarrassing main subject of his late poetry; and  that others' consequent harsh judgment of him ("horrible") requires a plausible self-defence on his part.
Eliot, while describing some of Yeats's late poetry as "a masterly exposition of the emotions of an old man," expresses distaste for the candour of this particular poem: "These lines are very impressive and not very pleasant." Still, he proceeds to defend the lines by adverting to the common view that old men are supposed to have decently put carnal thoughts behind them:
But how sure can Eliot be that old men "are like that"? This question touches on the central predicament of all literature and goes to the very heart of its putative epistemological value. Literature is not a science but merely a series of educated guesses about human nature. Its subjective insights are therefore open-ended and disputable. When Machiavelli unsentimentally suggests – to take a salient example as a thought experiment – that people resent more a ruler who confiscates their money than one who kills their parents, is he a sick soul who finds relief by projecting his neurosis onto all of us, or a courageous person who tells a truth that other thinkers are too cowardly to reveal? How does one even begin to solve that riddle?
That question applies to old Yeats and his apparent sex on the brain. Does the readers' refusal to, in Eliot's words, "believe that they are like that" lead to their conclusion that Yeats, like presumably Machiavelli, is a bad man willing to drag along the rest of us as he falls off the cliff of moral respectability and normality? Maligning Yeats would be – in this view – the reader's necessary defence mechanism to deflect a shocking assertion, the reader's way of scapegoating the poet for either besmirching the noble character of old men or for revealing dirty secrets about them. But Eliot, in trying hard to exculpate Yeats by universalising the unsavoury thoughts, performs mental contortions. First he says, "The poet, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol." That clearly means that Yeats had those lustful feelings. Then Eliot elaborates on the normality of it all:
(The words "clarity, honesty and vigour" could also be applied to Machiavelli.) This passage offers the standard argument that the poet, other than in his eloquence, is indistinguishable from l'homme moyen sensuel. When Eliot then says, "To what honest man, bold enough, can these sentiments be entirely alien?" he emphasises that Yeats's feelings have universal import. And when he adds, "the tragedy of Yeats's epigram is all in the last line," does he mean that poetic inspiration gives the poet a pass not available to normal dirty old men? Or is the "tragedy" that sex remains a topic for poetry in old age, while all other subjects fade? Or that all old men have to wrestle with this problem of lust out of season?
The latter explanation seems the most likely, for Eliot proceeds to define a poet as one who, not merely indulging in the confessional mode, rises above personal idiosyncrasy and tells the truth about everyone. At issue therefore is not a neurosis that afflicts old Yeats; he is not at all unique in being attracted to young women, for most old men are. And that in turn sheds light on the larger question of the function of poetry: It is not a form of self-centredness (as Eliot also argues in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', with its idea of the poet's "continual extinction of personality"), but the articulation of the feelings of all people.
Attempting to acquit Yeats, Eliot has contradicted himself. In saying that Yeats speaks "for a moment" only for "men very different from himself," he implies that Yeats does not have that problem. The poet – we are to understand – intuits how other old men think and feel; the poet expresses what is out there, not necessarily what is inside himself. In its prissy twisting and turning, Eliot's argument has gone from suggesting that Yeats is not uniquely troubled to apparently saying that everyone is so troubled, except the detached poetic observer of men's ways, Yeats.
That Eliot gives his blessing to Yeats does not solve the epistemological problem raised by all these poems on sex in old age. The hostile reader who regards Yeats (or Machiavelli) as depraved will not be put off by Eliot's argument but will merely add Eliot himself, because of his defence of Yeats, to the list of moral deviants. And indeed Eliot, for all of his reticence, possibly did give voice, however indirectly and evasively, to the erotic complications of aging. His Prufrock laments
For the embarrassed or hostile reader these lines, in conjunction with Eliot's essay on Yeats, might prove Eliot to be as neurotic as Yeats on this matter. It is, in any case, odd that with so many things to be said in a short essay about the greatest English poet of the half century, Eliot would fasten on what some people might consider a relatively minor issue. Something personal on his part here?
Eliot was not alone in wrestling with the scope of old men's libido in connection with Yeats's poetry. Curiously enough, it turns out that Yeats himself wrestled with this epistemological problem of separating the subjective from the objective, separating what is eccentric about his own sufferings in old age from the universal. Surveying what he calls "the wreck of body", he asks whether the tortures that attend growing old, including presumably sexual frustration, happen to be his own unlucky fate or is a widespread affliction:
Circumstantial historical, biographical and psychological evidence would seem to answer "Yes." Whether or not Yeats is beset by this problem is ultimately irrelevant; most men apparently are. Such an educated guess would vindicate both Yeats and Eliot, as well as Hardy and Larkin (not to speak of the mob of modern novelists), as aged poetic tellers of uncomfortable truths about all of us, truths that most pre-modern writers decorously passed over.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 3 Jul 2017