It’s Still a Very Good Year (reprise)

(Today is my 61st birthday.  A year ago, I wrote this post about my 60th.  I’m still away, but I’ll be back on Wednesday.  Meanwhile, this post seemed apropos.)

So long ago that I can’t remember when, I read The Romantic Comedians, a novel by Ellen Glasgow about a 65-year-old widower who marries a 23-year-old girl. He sees her for the first time:

The flushed air was so soft that he lingered a moment before going indoors; and it was just as he was turning away that he caught a glimpse of Annabel through the web of sunlight and shadow under the elm boughs. Swiftly, mockingly, she came toward him, like some vision that is woven of desire and illusion; like some vision, he felt, that is as transparent as sunlight and as unattainable as ideal beauty. And while he watched her, it seemed to him that youth itself was approaching; youth as fugitive, as radiant, as hauntingly sad, and as immortally lovely as the dreams of age. In his eyes was the vision, and in his ears was that April whisper of an ecstasy which he had never known in the past, and which, since he was old, he could never hope to know in the future.

Eek. Here’s another passage I want to share with you, though by a lesser writer than Ellen Glasgow:

There are some things in life you cannot understand till you’ve lived them. One is being a parent. You don’t know love or fear till you’ve been a parent. Another is aging. You can’t know what it’s like to lug this duffel bag of experience on your shoulder—a shoulder that, by the way, has been giving you this funny pain lately—unless you’ve actually been stuffing it with experience over time.

That one’s mine, of course, right here on 317am a few months ago. It comes to mind today because, when I first read The Romantic Comedians, I could not have known—simply because I had yet racked up the years—the nature of “the dreams of age.”

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Here’s what strikes me. The passage by Ellen Glasgow is not about the old guy’s yearning for some ecstasy from the past. If that were so, the yearning would be mere nostalgia, and I could say that yes, I’ve always understood that sort of thing. You don’t have to be “old” or even dangerously close to “old” to understand nostalgia. I was nostalgic for 21 when I was 35.  But read the passage again. It is not the April whisper of an ecstasy from the past that stirs the old guy, but “an ecstasy he had never known in the past, and which, since he was old, he could never hope to know in the future.”

Aha! We have located the dividing line between youth and age: the realization that some things never were, and, simply because you’re old, never can be. And with that realization, you must resign yourself to what is and what, at your age, actually can be, or risk putting your dignity in the big trouble.

This doesn’t just apply to chasing youthful women. It applies to chasing youth.

Image of Maud Gonne, old

. . . and Maud Gonne, Yeats's' muse, much later

Which is not to say that age hasn’t its consolations, among them the allowance to withdraw gracefully from the littered fields of ambition, whether in romance (high or low) or wealth or power any other quest for status. But age does put you at a widening distance from youth, and when the distance is sufficient, the careless luxuries of youth are gone. One such luxury is the illusion of infinite time. Another is waking up and not feeling that pain in your shoulder. And of course, another is the pursuit of Annabel, age 23.

I’ve little interest in Annabels. But I understand the whole damned business of Annabels a lot better now than I once did.

While mulling it over—the tragic carnival, the hilarious catastrophe, that we make of the primordial urge to mate and what that urge makes of us—I couldn’t help thinking, as always, of W.B. Yeats. His longing after Maud Gonne lasted eons past their youth, and makes a tender tale indeed. As of May 9, 2010, I’m 60. Yeats was still writing like mad at that age. A good muse is a thing to value.

The photos are of Maud Gonne young and old.  The song “It Was a Very Good Year,” and the man singing it–a mere 53 years old at the time—speaks for itself.

9 Responses to It’s Still a Very Good Year (reprise)

  1. El Tigre, the Sage May 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Amigo, we are just entering a golden age. We still have the dreams, but now we know a little something that just wasn't in our memory banks before. I don't know about you, but I'm planning to have a little fun now that the days of toiling in the mill are winding down. Life is what we make it, no?

  2. interesting, I thought you would have gone for some of "Sailing to Byzantium" for this – might make an excellent companion for this

  3. What, the photo of Maud in her dotage wasn't depressing enough? I'm glad, though, that you know your Yeats. It's food for life.

    El Tigre – From your lips to God's ears…assuming He's listening and in a good mood.

  4. …the dividing line between youth and age: the realization that some things never were, and, simply because you’re old, never can be. And with that realization, you must resign yourself to what is and what, at your age, actually can be, or risk putting your dignity in the big trouble…
    Things that never were still can be and being old does not limit one to 'to do, or not to do'. Old is a state of mind and – in spite of a damn body that started to wear out, put me in a wheelchair, on O² 24 hours a day – I have reached the incredible age of 72 (never thought I would make it)and still have a ball, cry like a teenager, swear like a trooper, and will not use any rotten cream to get rid of my wrinkles.
    Yes, the duffelbag of the past is very heavy at times, but it is also filled with treasures of wisdom.
    What's depressing about the photo of Maud? I think she is still very beautiful and her eyes seem to sparkle … what more do you want?
    And 'putting your dignity in trouble'? By living life to the fullest and making every year a 'very good year'? BULL!
    Yes, El Tigre, Life is what we make it … young or old.

  5. Nice post, Steve. And happy birthday.

  6. Happy Birthday, caro Kaze. Hope you will ‘put your dignity in trouble’ every day of this 61st year of your life :)
    I missed you. Rasoir without Kaze just isn’t the same as Kaze AND Rasoir.
    Bardd and I will drink to your health and happy days tonight.

    • So sweet of you to wish me a happy birthday…and a little mischief as well in my new year. In case Bardd wants to know, Ted will return to 317am in a couple of days. Meanwhile, I try to regain my wits after three weeks in Italy. Goodness!

  7. Loved this post. I did a dissertation on Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Ellen Glasgow in 1980. I chose The Romantic Comedians as my favorite of her works. All three of these women wrote about age. Cather even titled one of her books Not Under Forty. Your observation about the distinction between nostalgia and the realization that certain opportunities are gone forever is an excellent one. Many readers would not know the difference. Glasgow knew all about it.

    • Goes to show you, Shirley, you never know when you’re going to bump into someone who’s read Ellen Glasgow. “The Romantic Comedians” is the only one of Glasgow’s books I’ve read, but as for Cather and particularly Wharton, I’m a big fan of both. Being human’s not easy, but being a human with the years piling up behind you…well, it’s something you want to tell people about, isn’t it?

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