The old year has departed. Here is a loose translation of a waka by Ki No Tsurayuki (c. 872-945). You will recall that a waka, in form, is like a hokku — but with two extra lines added. In Japanese the number of phonetic units was:
Waka was considered a “high-class,” aristocratic form of verse, and unlike hokku, it often deals either openly or subtly with romance. It is thus in general a more personal and emotion-centered verse than hokku.
Regrets At the ending year — A mirror; Seeing the reflection — Reminded of transience….
As you see, we can take this as a combination of two verses, sharing “a mirror” as the link that joins them:
1. Regrets At year’s end; A mirror.
2. A mirror; Seeing the reflection — Reminded of transience….
We picture someone — whether man or woman depends on the individual — looking into a mirror, and feeling sadness at the face reflected there. It shows signs of age, and is not as it once was. That, of course, reminds us of our own impermanence, of how all things in life are transient and passing — including youth and beauty.
As Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote,
Quant’e bella giovinezza, Che si fugge tuttavia!
How beautiful is youth, Which nonetheless is fleeting!
We see in the waka a kind of internal reflection similar to that in hokku: the passing of the year is reflected in the passing of beauty and youth.
As regular readers here know, I am not a big fan of the verses of Issa, but there are a few worthwhile examples among them. Here is one:
The pine I planted Has also become old. The autumn evening.
I repeatedly stress that (unlike haiku) it is necessary tostudy how to write hokku, because it has definite standards and principles and characteristics that must be learned. It is also necessary to learn how to read hokku.
The history of modern haiku, paradoxically, is an illustration of that. Modern haiku began through the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the old hokku. Western writers read a few examples of hokku, and they focused on its superficial characteristics, without understanding its inherent aesthetics. They read hokku without understanding what they were reading, and then went on to create modern haiku. As students of hokku, however, we can see what they missed.
Issa’s verse is an autumn hokku. That means it should express the season. Of course it mentions autumn, but does it express it?
A student of hokku will know that autumn is the season of decreasing yang (active, warm) energy, and the increase of yin energy (passive, cool). And that autumn, in human life, corresponds to old age. And that in a day of 24 hours, autumn corresponds to late afternoon and evening.
A student will also know that at the heart of hokku aesthetics is impermanence — the knowledge that everything in this world is transient, nothing lasts. That which is born must eventually age and die.
Knowing these things, let’s look at the hokku again:
The pine I planted Has also become old. The autumn evening.
In hokku we have the principle of internal reflection, where one element is “reflected” by other elements. So in this verse we have
The aging of the pine;
The “autumn” of the day (evening)
The implied aging of the writer.
All of these things express declining yang and increasing yin, which is the essence of the season of autumn. So the autumn evening is reflected in the aging of the pine and in the implied aging of the writer. Everything in this verse is in harmony, speaking of age and impermanence.
There is also an additional cultural element, which is that in Japan and China the pine tree is an old symbol of age and longevity, but one need not know that to appreciate the verse in an English-language culture. But one does have to understand how the elements of the hokku work together to express the nature of autumn, and how we see it in the pine and in ourselves.
Here is the verse in transliterated Japanese:
ware [waga ueshi matsu mo oi keri aki no kure
I planted pine too aged has autumn ‘s evening
I have noticed that one online modern haiku group has begun presenting a few member verses classified as “stand-alone hokku.” As one might expect from the haiku site context, they exhibit neither the aesthetics of the hokku nor its correct form in English. That seems to always be what happens when people attempt hokku without understanding its standards, principles, and characteristics — they just end up writing more modern haiku instead of hokku, no matter if they confusingly attach the title “hokku” to it. Just calling a verse “hokku” does not make it so. It must have the aesthetics and standards of a hokku, and those one must learn, whether the intent is to read or to write it. Otherwise one just adds to the confusion.
By the way, the use of the term “stand-alone” in referring to hokku is largely modern haiku jargon. A real hokku is a hokku whether it is presented in the context of linked verse, embedded in prose, or used independently. Many people are under the mistaken impression that Masaoka Shiki invented the independent hokku (which he began calling “haiku”) near the beginning of the 20th century, but that is not true. Hokku were often used as independent verses by Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century, and became quite common.
Today’s poem is my translation of another work by that unique poet of Egyptian Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), who wrote in Greek. It is titled Κεριά, pronounced kair-YA. It means simply
The days to come stand before us Like a row of lighted candles — Golden, warm, and lively.
The days gone by remain behind, A sad line of extinguished candles, The nearest still smoking; Cold candles, melted and bent.
I don’t want to look at them; their form saddens me, And it saddens me to remember their first light. I look ahead to my lit candles.
I don’t want to turn back, to see and tremble: How fast the dark line grows — How fast the extinguished candles multiply.
The poem gives a clear visual image of the swift passing of life, of how one eventually realizes that the days behind are many more than the days likely left ahead. And every older person knows that the older one gets, the more time seems to speed up.
Many people, as they age, like to dwell on the past and its memories. But here Cavafy says it makes him fearful to think of all the “dead” days gone by, and it is sad for him remember them as they once were but are no more. Better, he says, not to dwell on the past, but to look ahead at what still remains of life, without comparing it to what came before. All too often, comparing the present to the past can be depressing, particularly as one ages and more and more people disappear from one’s life, and one’s abilities begin to wane. One sees fewer and fewer lit candles ahead, and even their number is only a hopeful guess.
It makes one think of these old words from Dante’s Divine Comedy:
Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.
“No greater pain than to recall, in misery, the happy times.”
I am always impressed by the simplicity and beauty of Cavafy’s poetry. Many modern poets, with their needless and unpleasant obscurity and crudity, could learn much from it.
Today I would like to discuss one of the “fantasy” poems by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats — Sailing to Byzantium.
To grasp the meaning of this poem one must know two things: first, the speaker is a man who has grown old; second, he is dealing with the inner conflict that old people often have. Their minds — their sense of self — feel to them no different than when they were young, but when they look in the mirror, the body of course is very different. So in this poem the poet thinks, “Why not give this mind a body that does not age, an artificial body?” Of course it is a concept that has occurred to many science fiction writers, but Yeats approaches the problem in a way that is not quite so modern in its technology, as we shall see. I will take the poem part by part, as usual.
As it begins, the poet has already made a sea voyage. He has sailed from Ireland (which we can here take in a wider sense as the world of youth and sensuality) and he has arrived in Byzantium (Constantinople), the great city (now Istanbul) that was the capitol of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire, which fell to the invading Islamic Turks on May 29, 1453. For Yeats, vanished Byzantium with its skilled arts was an ideal city of the mind, of the intellectual.
Now we know from these facts that the poem is a fantasy, because Byzantium as city or as empire has not existed for centuries. But in this poem we are meant to concentrate on the contrast of body versus “soul,” which is used here as a synonym for the mind, the intellect. And this poem itself is largely a poem of the intellect, a fantasy that takes place in the mind:
That is no country for old men. The young In one another’s arms, birds in the trees – Those dying generations – at their song, The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect.
The poet says “that is no country for old men.” He is speaking of the place he has already left, which as said earlier, is first Ireland, but also in a wider sense the sensual world of the young, which is a world of impermanence; it does not last. It is a country of “the young in one another’s arms,” that is, of romantic lovers, which of course leads to procreation, the giving of birth, the continual being born, growing old, and dying that characterizes our sensual world. It is a land of birds singing in trees, but those, the poet tells us, are only “dying generations,” their singing lives are short, their death soon. He points us to the “salmon-falls,” the salmon jumping the falls to return to upstream pools to spawn and die; he gives us the image of “mackerel-crowded seas” in which we see only more reproduction and quick death in multitudes.
The poet summarizes this part of the poem dealing with continuous birth, reproduction and death by saying,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
So he tells us that whether it is fish (salmon, mackerel), flesh (young lovers in one another’s arms) or fowl (the birds in the trees), all summer long all creatures “commend” having sex, which leads to birth, which leads to death — the whole round of endless birth and death in our world. “Commend” is used here to mean that they draw our attention to and urge one to follow their pattern, as in the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “To present as worthy of favourable acceptance, regard, consideration, attention, or notice; to direct attention to, as worthy of notice or regard; to recommend.”
So all of this sensual world of creatures being created through sex, being born, aging, and dying is frustrating to our aging speaker. He tells us,
Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect.
Everyone and every creature is so wrapped up in sex and romance and reproduction (“that sensual music”), in being born and dying — all things of the flesh, of the body — that they neglect the mind, they have no use for the minds of old men whose bodies are no longer sensual or interesting, no matter how fine those minds may be. We may also think of such “monuments of unageing intellect” as being what is created by such minds.
Given this profound sense of alienation that the old poet feels in this world of sex, romance, sensuality, birth and death, he tells us:
An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing For every tatter in its mortal dress,
He feels not only alienated but completely unappreciated in his old age. “An old man,” he tells us, is only a “paltry” (insignificant, contemptible) thing, like a worn out old coat (the body) hanging on a stick (the skeletal frame),
unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing For every tatter in its mortal dress…
That, the poet tells us, is the only thing that saves an old man from being insignificant — if his soul, his intellect, claps its hands and sings, by which he means unless it creates, as a writer writes novels, as a poet composes poems, as an artist paints or sculpts — that is the singing of the intellect (not the brief singing of sensual, mortal birds) — the creation of “monuments of unageing intellect.” And the more the body — the “mortal dress” — ages (tatters), the more the mind should sing (be emphasized, be creative).
But where does an old man learn to do this? He tells us:
Nor is there singing school but studying Monuments of its own magnificence; And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.
The soul learns to sing, that is, learns to create, by studying the products of other such minds, “monuments of its [the mind’s] own magnificence,” that is, monuments by and to the creative mind.
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.
For that reason, the poet tells us, he has left the sensual world and has sailed away to what here is used as a symbol of the ideal environment of the mind and intellect — “the holy city of Byzantium.” Of course, as already noted, this voyage is only a fantasy of the mind — but that is what this poem is — a fantasy of the mind.
Now in Byzantium, the poet calls on the wise men of Byzantium, the “sages.”
O sages standing in God’s holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall, Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing-masters of my soul.
He calls on these sages, whom he views as standing in the holy fire of God (the direct influence of supreme Intellect) like saints standing amid the golden color of Byzantine mosaics on a wall. He tells them to come to him from that fire of the mind, to “perne (turn) in a gyre (circle),” that is, to surround him in a turning, spiralling circle, and become the “singing masters” that will teach the aging poet’s “soul” (his mind/intellect) to sing, that is, to create works of the mind. To Yeats, the spiralling motion of a gyre was representative of the soul (see the excerpts at the end of this article).
But the poet wants even more; he wants to get rid of all traces of his aging body, all traces of the sensual world he has left:
Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is; and gather me Into the artifice of eternity.
He wants the sages of Byzantium to “consume” (cause to disappear) his heart (his emotions) away, because it is sick with desire (with the desires of the sensual world that an old man can no longer enjoy or fulfill), and “fastened to a dying animal,” that is, his emotions are tied to his aging, tattered, mortal body that is (like all created things) subject to death. He wants to be “gathered into the artifice of eternity,” that is, made immortal by being given an artificial body that will house his mind forever.
Then he foresees what that new life will be like:
Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing,
Once he is free of the emotions and free of his aging body, he will not take his new body from any “natural” thing, that is, not from any flesh and blood creature of the sensual world subject to the same emotions, aging and death;
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enamelling To keep a drowsy Emperor awake; Or set upon a golden bough to sing To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Once free of emotions and the aging, dying body, the poet will have his intellect, his mind, placed in an artificial body, one such as the Greek goldsmiths formed in Byzantium out of hammered gold and enamel (melted, colored glass used as surface ornament) to amuse a drowsy emperor. This part of the poem, Yeats himself once explained, came from his reading:
“I have read somewhere that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang”
So the poet wants his mortal body and emotions removed, and he wants his mind housed in an artificial body, like a shining golden, artificial bird in the palace of an emperor at Byzantium, a bird that sings on and on (creates perpetually), never aging, never dying; a bird that sings
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
That is, it sings of the past, the present, and the future — eternity.
So that is the poem. Again, it is just a fantasy created by an old man (Yeats wrote it at age 63, which in his day was considered older than we think it to be now) who can no longer participate in the sensual romance of youth, and so turns to a fantasy of his mind taken from his aging body and put into an artificial body, so that it can go on creating works of the intellect forever, untroubled by human sensuality and emotion.
The flaw in his poetic plan, of course, is that in reality rather than fantasy, even artificial birds wear out. We learned that as children by reading Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Nightingale. There is no such escape of the mind from the senses, from aging, from death, not through any material body, though authors of science fiction keep working on the notion.
We should take this poem for what it is, the expression of an old man’s conflict between an aging body and a mind that still seems young and potentially creative, even though the old tend to become gradually more and more insignificant and invisible to the young, and consequently often feel they would like to get away to some refuge where they are again respected and considered significant and useful. Old people really do begin to feel that our world is the world of the young, and that it is “no country for old men.” That is perhaps even more true today, with the magazine and television cultural emphasis on youth, beauty, and vitality, than it was in Yeat’s time.
This poem always reminds me of an aging college professor walking through a university campus, seeing the young people sitting and nuzzling one another or playing their guitars and laughing, going about the usual pursuits of the young. I used to call my local university “the land of perpetual youth,” because its inhabitants were always young and never grew old (of course because they were replaced by new young students every year). But the same, of course, was not true of their instructors remaining year after aging year, many of whom could have written a poem such as this, had they the skill. Many of them no doubt sailed to their own Byzantiums by devoting their old age to study and writing, locked away in their studies or a quiet corner of the university library, trying to enter into the “artifice of eternity” through their publications.
By the way, if you noticed that I write “aging” while Yeats writes “unageing,” it is the difference between American (aging) and British (ageing) spellings.
That will give you what you need to understand this poem, so you may stop here. But if you would like a bit more background on the fascination Byzantium had for Yeats, he wrote in his book A Vision:
“I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia [537 c.e.] and closed the Academy of Plato [529 c.e.]. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.
I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books. were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image, and this vision, this proclamation of their invisible master, had the Greek nobility, Satan always the still half divine Serpent, never the horned scarecrow of the didactic Middle Ages.”
In the same work, Yeats wrote on the nature of the “gyre” and excerpts enable us to see that he considered the gyre representative of the soul, which is no doubt why, in the poem, he tells the sages of Byzantium to perne (turn) in a gyre (circular, spiral motion):
“Swedenborg wrote occasionally of gyrations, especially in his “Spiritual Diary,” and in “The Principia” where the physical universe is described as built up by the spiral movement of points, and by vortexes which were combinations of these; but very obscurely except where describing the physical universe. perhaps because he was compelled as he thought to keep silent upon all that concerned Fate. I remember that certain Irish countrymen whom I questioned some twenty years ago had seen Spirits departing from them in an ascending gyre….”
“Line and plane are combined in a gyre, and as one tendency or the other must be always the stronger, the gyre is always expandng or contracting. For simplicity the representation of a gyre is drawn as a cone. Sometimes this cone represents the individual soul, and that soul’s history — these things are inseparable — sometimes general life. When general life, we give to its narrow end, to its unexpanded gyre, the name of Anima Hominis [the Soul/Spirit of Man] and to its broad end, or its expanded gyre, Anima Mundi [the Soul/Spirit of the World].
Today I will talk briefly about a poem by the Chinese writer Bai Juyi (772 -846, also written as Po Chu-yi).
You may recall from previous discussions of Chinese poetry here that most Chinese poems are written in couplets (pairs of lines), with five characters to a line in some poems, seven in others.
I will translate the first two pairs of couplets very literally, so you may see how Chinese poems work. Keep in mind that literary Chinese is not the same grammatically as modern spoken Chinese; literary Chinese tends to be much more compact and telegraphic, rather like the telegraphic nature of old Japanese hokku. Another thing to keep in mind is that Chinese characters have no inherent phonetic significance. That is why the same character can be pronounced quite differently by people in northern China (Mandarin Chinese) and southeast China (Cantonese), by people in Korea and people in Japan. One could even read Chinese entirely as English words, but of course it would not be English grammatically; it would be English words in old literary Chinese grammar.
Each word in the lines below represents one Chinese character, so it is easy to see that this is a five-character poem.
The poem is called Sixty-six:
Ill know heart power decrease
Old perceive light shade swift
Five ten eight return come
This year six ten six
In the first line, “heart” in Chinese actually encompasses both heart and mind. In Buddhist texts the translation “mind” is generally preferred. The Chinese generally viewed heart and mind as the same.
In the second line, “light shade” is composed of characters meaning “bright” and “Yin” — the same “Yin” as in Yin and Yang. Together, as light and shadow, they are used to indicate the passage of time, somewhat reminiscent of these lines from H. G. Well’s excellent story The Time Machine:
“As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day.”
In the third and fourth lines, “five ten eight” is the Chinese way of saying “fifty-eight” — five tens and eight; six ten six, then, is of course six tens and six — sixty-six.
Now here is my rather loose version of the poem:
Ill, I know my mind has weakened; Old, I perceive the passage of time. At fifty-eight I returned home again; This year I am sixty-six. All the hairs of my head have whitened; The pond grasses greened eight or nine times. My children have all become adults; The garden thicket is half grown to trees. I watch the hills while resting against a high rock; A stream has been made through the bamboos. It is only the sound of water flowing, But now it never wearies me.
We see in this poem of Bai Juyi (pronounce it like “By Joo-ee”) the kind of objectivity that is also characteristic of good hokku. He does not give us lots of thinking and commentary. He just tells us the situation, tells us what is happening. Even when he is obviously talking about himself, he does it the same objective way in which he speaks about the plants greening around the pond, or the tall rock against which he leans to look at the distant hills.
It is not hard to see why such Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty had a very strong influence on hokku. We have already noted the objectivity characteristic of good hokku. But did you also notice the sense of the passage of time, the feeling of constant change and impermanence, the transience that is also a major characteristic of hokku? And, of course, there is the very strong feeling of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, which is the subject matter of hokku.
Then too, of course, we see the progression of the Yin-Yang process. Bai-Juyi feels the Yang in his body decreasing, the Yin growing stronger as his body and mind age and weaken. And he has watched the cycle of Yin and Yang each year since he returned to his old home, as he tells us through the annual greening of the pond grasses in spring.
Hokku differs from such poems, obviously, in its brevity. It also uses irregularity — a long part and a short part — whereas Chinese poetry is very regular; it is composed in sequences of equal-length couplets, as we saw in my literal rendering of the first part of Bai Juyi’s five-character poem, Sixty-six.
Now here is a little more information, for those of you who like to write poems in the Chinese manner, the kind of nature poems I like to call “Dao” poems, after the Dao of the old Chinese sage Lao-Tze, author of the Dao De Jing — the “Way-Virtue Classic.”
If we look closely at the structure of Bai Juyi’s poem, we can see how the two lines of each couplet relate to one another; for example:
Ill, I know my mind has weakened; Old, I perceive the passage of time.
See how the sequence of the first matches the sequence of the second? Look at the pairs
ill/old; I know/I perceive; mind weakened/time passing.
Now look at the next couplet:
At fifty-eight I returned home again; This year I am sixty-six.
He tells us in the first line what happened at age 58; in the second he tells us what is happening now.
Let’s go on:
All the hairs of my head have whitened; The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.
Notice how he pairs the whitening of his hair in the first line with the greening and sprouting of the pond grasses in the second?
My children have all become adults; The garden thicket is half grown to trees.
In the first line his children have grown to adulthood; in the second thicket shrubs have grown into trees.
Now see what he does in the next two lines:
I watch the hills while resting against a high rock; A stream has been made through the bamboos.
In the first line, we can think of him looking up; note the hills and high rock (Yang elements — remember “high” is Yang);
In the second line, we can think of him looking down; he sees the stream (water and other low things are Yin) flowing (downward flow is Yin) through the bamboos.
I hope that gives budding writers of Dao poems — Chinese-style Nature verse — some hints about how to join two lines in a couplet by linking them through meaning.
If you give this some thought — and if you are a regular reader here — it will probably remind you of the system of internal reflection in hokku, the technique in which we use combinations of things that reflect one another in some way. We also see examples in Bai Juyi’s couplets of the same principles of harmony we find in hokku. You will recall that hokku uses harmony of similarity, which we see in Bai Juyi as, for example:
My children have all become adults; The garden thicket is half grown to trees.
As already mentioned, the growing of the children matches the growing of the trees — harmony of similarity.
We also find the technique of harmony of contrast, which we see also in hokku:
I watch the hills while resting against a high rock; A stream has been made through the bamboos.
You will recall those “looking up/looking down” lines. We can think of them as having this feeling:
Looking up, I see the distant hills; looking down, I see the stream through the bamboos.
One line gives us the “high” (the hills and rock), the other the low (the flowing water of the stream at the base of the bamboos).
Those familiar with old Chinese poetry — or at least translations of it — will recognize the same technique in the last couplet of the well-known (almost too well-known, in fact) poem by Li Bai (Li Po):
Raising my head, I see the bright moon; Lowering my head, I think of my old home.
Bai Juyi was more subtle in his use of “up/down,” but then Bai Juyi was a better poet than Li Bai.
Keep in mind that a Chinese-style poem is just a sequence of couplets, and the length of the sequence — how many couplets are used — is entirely up to the writer.
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.
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.