Former poet laureate Donald Hall wrote the collection published as Essays After Eighty for what might seem, at first glance, a pretty tragic reason: “New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures.”
You see, he’s very old. As of this writing he’s 87. I would say he’s still sharp as a tack or going strong or one of the other clichés by which we condescend to the very old, but he himself forbids my flippancy: “When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power.” Without using a word as infelicitous as “ageism,” he has written the most powerful excoriation of that prejudice I’ve ever encountered. Also, the clichés would be false. He’s not sharp as a tack at 87. No one is. Age brings diminishment, and Hall is not here to blunt the fact: “there are no happy endings, because if things are happy they have not ended.”
This book is a clear-eyed account of what it’s like to become old as an observant and articulate person. I think the theme of aging, which (duh) is hardly new, is due for a crescendo in the symphony of the century. Unless utter environmental catastrophe of a superseding intensity swamps us first, the vast quantities of very old people are going to force us to rethink our societies. And each one of us alive today is increasingly likely to have to face the fact of extreme age ourselves. We’ll need models, literary exemplars to guide our own performance of old age. Hall’s on my list because of paragraphs like this one:
When I was thirty, I lived in the future because the present was intolerable. When I was fifty and sixty, the day of love and work repeated itself year after year. Old age sits in a chair, writing a little and diminishing.
For some reason (fine, we can just call it morbidity) I’m obsessed with books written by people who know themselves to be dying or who have reached an age when death is omni-imminent. (For example Clive James’ Latest Readings.) Due to a lively sense of my own mortality (fine, we can just call it hypochondria) I’ve devoted a probably inordinate amount of time to the question of what death means for life. If you believe—as I do and an increasing proportion of the rest of my society does—that death is a total dissipation, a curtain without encore, does that fact or the awareness of that fact have implications for the conduct of daily life?
It seems to affect people in wildly different ways. Clive James was inspired by his leukemia to a frenzy of minor writing, producing the above-mentioned book of essays, an ongoing column in the Guardian, and then a new collection of poetry. J.G.A. Pocock, on the other hand, commenced his magnum opus, Civilization and Barbarism, a five-volume study of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, when he was 75. At 26, I have only my fantasies to add to this list of anecdotes. But I can say that last year when I had a minor medical scare (see above, under “hypochondria”) I told my beloved that my immediate instinct had been to drop the novel I’m working on and write as many short stories as I could. So I guess the prospect of death would propel me in a Jamesian rather than Pocockian direction. As for Donald Hall, since death is approaching him slowly and clearly, step by step up the lane outside the window where he sits most days and watches the barn, he has a motto: “Technology speeds, then doubles its speed, then doubles it again. Art takes naps.”
Between his naps he’s written these essays. Not a bad way to live.