Recently I celebrated another birthday. Not a particular milestone and certainly no reason to start believing that I’m on the verge of being ‘old’ in any significant sense. The mere mention of the word brings forth a multitude of problems; what exactly is ‘old’? It seems to me more a state of mind than a physical, bodily matter – certainly you can feel, shall we say, ‘matured’ in the prime of youth with respect to feeling, experience and knowledge of popular culture (an area where I’m increasingly feeling that I’m ‘past it’) and on the flip side, someone in the autumn of life can be much more sprightly than a twenty-something. One thing is clear, however – that we live in a society fairly obsessed with ageing and that being the case, it’s hard not to contemplate the advance of age and its effects in fleeting moments, even if you’re still a mere twinkle in the eye.
What is most unfortunate about society’s current collective attitude towards becoming older is that it focuses so heavily on the perceived bad things about age rather than the good. The things gained through age – wisdom, assurance, a richness in thought and achievement – are sidelined for frantic worries about the losses, specifically to appearance and the ability to do -or otherwise, make other people do – things. Someone similarly preoccupied with the subject, given that it is such a common thread in his poetry is W.B Yeats, and his treatment of it is most definitely multi-layered. Reflecting on his own ageing process, he can be perceived as fearful, melancholic and even at times quite horrifying (in poems such as Sailing To Byzantium and Among Schoolchildren), yet the ageing of others is treated with much more delicacy and grace; while it is not seen as particularly desirable, old age does not equal the ending of everything good in life. Broken Dreams deals primarily with the latter view of ageing – as well as many other ideas – though it is interesting how effortlessly Yeats brings together the concerns of age for the young and the old (and perhaps also for the male and female); the separate notions of fading physical beauty, mental strength and an energy for life.
There is so much to discuss about this poem that I could far exceed my word limit (and likely, your attention span) – the topics of memory, death and the afterlife, unrequited love all bear considering. Yet it’s the issue of beauty that emerges as particularly noteworthy, especially in relation to the ageing process and especially with the modern fixation of keeping appearances unblemished and free of the smallest wrinkle. Again, Yeats does not shy away from certain facts; the woman described here is perceived as most strikingly in her visual beauty in her ‘first loveliness of womanhood’, which will be restored in an idealised world after age finally wears to its end. But she does not lose any of her power in the eyes of Yeats and other admirers; she is not adored any less for the diminishing of her physical appearance, there is still ‘something about her’ that seems to be amplified in the paring down of outward distractions and indeed made better for not having to put on ‘burdensome beauty’ – such efforts are not needed. This should surely serve as a reassurance to all those troubled by such anxieties, as is the observation that beauty is not perfect by any means; it is notable that even in the seemingly perfect other-world, Yeats asks for the flaws and imperfections that were present in reality to remain as they were part of what he loved about her – ‘leave unchanged the hands that I have kissed for old sake’s sake’. This poem, with its blurring of different realms and notions, emphasises that it is not the aspects that change that are important but those that we have no chance to change; not the fading of beauty but the faded and passed opportunities, the dreams that continued but were left, sadly for Yeats himself, broken.
There is grey in your hair.
Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing;
But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing
Because it was your prayer
Recovered him upon the bed of death.
For your sole sake—that all heart’s ache have known,
And given to others all heart’s ache,
From meagre girlhood’s putting on
Burdensome beauty—for your sole sake
Heaven has put away the stroke of her doom,
So great her portion in that peace you make
By merely walking in a room.
Your beauty can but leave among us
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
A young man when the old men are done talking
Will say to an old man, ‘Tell me of that lady
The poet stubborn with his passion sang us
When age might well have chilled his blood.’
Vague memories, nothing but memories,
But in the grave all, all, shall be renewed.
The certainty that I shall see that lady
Leaning or standing or walking
In the first loveliness of womanhood,
And with the fervour of my youthful eyes,
Has set me muttering like a fool.
You are more beautiful than any one,
And yet your body had a flaw:
Your small hands were not beautiful,
And I am afraid that you will run
And paddle to the wrist
In that mysterious, always brimming lake
Where those that have obeyed the holy law
Paddle and are perfect; leave unchanged
The hands that I have kissed
For old sake’s sake.
The last stroke of midnight dies.
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)