THOMAS HARDY ON AGING: I LOOK INTO MY GLASS

Thomas Hardy, by Walter William Ouless (died 1...

The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy

Yesterday I happened upon an obituary for the younger brother of someone I knew many years ago.  It had a photo.  When I last saw him, he was a good-looking boy of about 13 years.  It was a shock to see what time (and I suspect smoking) had done to him.

Thomas Hardy wrote a sad poem about aging.  It is not like the TV commercials that tell older people their golden years have come, that life is just going to get better and better.   Instead it is a very realistic look at aging and a lonely life.  Let’s examine it part by part:

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

One may think of this as spoken by a man or a woman, but given that it was written by a man, that is the course we shall follow.

Hardy says he looks “into my glass,” meaning his “looking glass,” an old term for a mirror.  And when he looks into the mirror, he sees what all old people see — his “wasting skin.”  “Wasting” here means just what happens to the skin as one ages — it dries and wrinkles and discolors, it loses its fresh appearance, and it is obvious that it has lost its strength and youth.  Its former smoothness and tautness is gone.   The term reminds us of a “wasting disease,” one that gradually consumes the body and its tissues.  So Hardy looks in a mirror and sees in his aging skin and features that he is subject, as  Buddhism would say, to sickness, to old age,  and to death.

By “Would God it came to pass,” he means “I really wish it had happened that….”  People once used expressions like this, and sometimes still do, such as “I wish to God I had studied for that exam!”  But why does he wish his heart had shrunk too?

When Hardy speaks of his heart, he is actually talking about his emotions — about his ability to love and to be hurt.  It was once thought (and we still speak of it that way) that the heart was where the human emotions were centered in the body.  That is why we hear people say, “She was heartbroken when her boyfriend left her.”  So Hardy is saying that he wishes his emotions — his capacity to love and be hurt — had shrunk as thin as his skin — had weakened and lost strength like the skin of his face and neck in the mirror.  But why?  He tells us:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He wishes his emotions had weakened so that he, “undistrest,” meaning without distress — without mental suffering — could “lonely wait” his endless rest.  By this he means that he could wait alone for death (“endless rest”) to come, without being hurt so much by the people who formerly seemed to like or love him, but who now ignore him, “by hearts grown cold to me.”  If his ability to “feel” had shrunk like his skin, the coldness of other people would not hurt him as it obviously does.

This is a common complaint of the old.  Not only are their friends and relatives dying, but also the living people around them — often younger — find old people no longer interesting, so they begin to ignore them, to make excuses for why they have not visited or called.  Loneliness is one of the most difficult parts of aging.  And sometimes that is as true for people who have children as for those who do not.

In keeping with this, I recently heard a few clever words that are often all too true.  A man said,

When I was in my teens, I used to worry constantly about what other people were thinking of me.  Then when I got past 40, I began not to worry so much what other people thought of me.  Now that I am in my 60s, I realize that nobody thinks of me at all.”   There is an old song with the line, “Nobody loves you when you’re old and grey.”  Gay people have their own version: “Nobody loves you when you’re old and gay.”

Both mean the same thing.  When youth and good looks or beauty pass — when you are no longer a possibility for romance, which depends so much on youth and appearance — others lose interest.  As people get older, they gradually become first insignificant and then increasingly invisible to the young.  They often simply do not matter any more.

Hardy was obviously very hurt by all of this, and that is why he wrote:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He continues:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

Time, of course, is what ages us and steals our youth.  Hardy sees time as a negative force — a force that to make him miserable,  “part steals, part lets abide.”  The part it steals is of course the freshness and youthfulness of his face and body, which is now looking shrunken and wrinkled; and the part it “lets abide” — allows to remain — is Hardy’s ability to feel strong emotion and to be deeply hurt by the indifference and coldness of other people toward him.

It is precisely this continuing ability to be hurt and made very unhappy by others that “shakes this fragile frame” (meaning his weakening, aging body) “at eve, with throbbings of noontide.”

Hardy is using “eve” (evening) in a dual sense; he means by it both the “evening” of life — old age — which comes before the “night” of death” — and he means, I think, the evening of the day, when one is often alone with one’s thoughts and emotions.  It is at this time — in the evening of life and in the evening of each day — that Hardy’s fragile, aging body shakes with sorrow and weeping, with the “throbbings of noontide,” meaning the emotions of the height of one’s life that do not weaken and shrink as one grows older; so while the skin wrinkles and loses its vigor, the emotions, Hardy says, unfortunately and definitely do not.  That is why he is left hurt and shaking with weeping and alone in the evening of his life, in the evening of the day.

It is a simple poem, but very powerful and representative of the feelings of countless lonely, elderly people.  It is definitely what I call an “old man’s poem,” or an “old woman’s poem.”  And it is brutally honest.

It is hard for young people to grasp the reality of such a poem, because inherently — like Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill — young people feel the world is theirs, that they will live forever.  Intellectually they know that is not true, but they do not yet realize and fully grasp the fact.  That is why aging is such a shock to many people.  And in a culture in which youth and beauty are so glorified, we have the sad picture of people trying to stave off or deny the inevitable — plastic surgeries, hair dyes, and endless other processes or products intended to mask the realities of life and time.

The problem for the young in understanding this poem, then, is not so much in understanding it intellectually, which can be easily aided by explanations such as I have given here.  The problem lies, rather, in their difficulty in feeling how deeply true it is, because it expresses one of the fundamental realities of life — that everything is transient, that ultimately there is nothing to hold onto, neither person nor object, that there is no material,  unchanging island in a sea of change.  A young person who realizes that is mature beyond his or her years.  But generally it is something the young do not wish to think about.

David

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One Response to THOMAS HARDY ON AGING: I LOOK INTO MY GLASS

  1. Elinor Kapp says:

    As an old woman myself I have long recalled the last lines of this poem with a strange pain that nonetheless has comforted me at times. – they give comfort simply by the recognition that others have felt the pain in being shaken by love and desire when you are old and ignored by society, and perhaps by the secret object of your desire, who is looking for someone younger..
    Thank you, David, whoever you are for your beautiful analysis of the poem. As you imply, it is helpful to tell it to the young because they cannot really imagine what it means, but we who are old recognise the fulness of it at once.
    My response, for what it’s worth, is to write slightly sardonic poems about society’s attitude to aging women.

    Elinor

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