"Even when we are young, we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads when a grandfather dies," writes Donald Hall in his poem "Affirmation." The it he refers to is, of course, age, and its attendant sense of mortality. Similarly, Julia Kasdorf, in her poem "First Gestures," alludes to the discovery, early in life, that all things will eventually disappear: "Among the first we learn is good-bye, your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom."
Rare is the poet who lives to old age but does not write about it. Most view aging as a loss--of vigor, health, and love. Some poets yearn for their youth or pity their shriveling bodies. William Butler Yeats’s "When You Are Old" depicts old age with regret:
When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
Mathew Arnold’s "Growing Old" also provides a morose portrait of old age:
It is to spend long days
And not once feel that we were ever young.
It is to add, immured
In the hot prison of the present, month
To month with weary pain.
Billy Collins suggests the losses of old age through one of its seemingly benign symptoms--forgetfulness:
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain...
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
William Shakespeare saw death as a welcome deliverance from life’s countless blows in his "Tired With All These, For Restful Death I Cry." Other poets view their final years with a kind of Zen-like calm. "Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, I felt a door opening in me and I entered the clarity of early morning," wrote Czeslaw Milosz in "Late Ripeness." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his poem "Nature," compares the old to a child who must "leave his broken playthings on the floor" and go to bed:
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
Lord Alfred Tennyson approached the topic with irony, basing his poem "Tithanus" on the plight of the Greek mortal who was granted immortality by Zeus thanks to his lover, the goddess Eos. There was, however, one oversight: Eos forgot to ask that along with immortality Tithanus be granted eternal youth, leaving him in a never-ending prison of old age.
Poems on aging are rarely jubilant, but there are those that cast old age in a more tender light. The twelfth-century Chinese poet, Lu Yu, offers this portrait of the old man in his poem "Written in a Carefree Mood":
Old man pushing seventy,
In truth he acts like a little boy,
Whooping with delight when he spies some mountain fruits,
Laughing with joy, tagging after village mummers;
With the others having fun stacking tiles to make a pagoda,
Standing alone staring at his image in the jardinière pool.
Tucked under his arm, a battered book to read,
Just like the time he first set out to school.
For more poems about aging, consider the following:
"In View of the Fact" by A. R. Ammons
"Growing Old" by Mathew Arnold
"Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins
"Age" by Robert Creeley
"Terminus" by Ralph Waldo Emerson
"An Old Man’s Winter Night" by Robert Frost
"Affirmation" by Donald Hall
"I Look into My Glass" by Thomas Hardy
"First Gestures" by Julia Kasdorf
"Touch Me" by Stanley Kunitz
"Nature" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Late Ripeness" by Czeslaw Milosz
"Hail and Farewell" by Charles Reznikoff
"Tired with All These, For Restful Death I Cry" by William Shakespeare
"Like as the Waves Make Toward the Pebbled Shore" by William Shakespeare
"Young men dancing, and the old" by Thomas Stanley
"Tithonus" by Lord Alfred Tennyson
"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas
"The Descent" by William Carlos Williams
"Lines On Retirement, After Reading Lear" by David Wright
"When You Are Old" by William Butler Yeats
"Sailing to Byzantium" by William Butler Yeats
"Written In a Carefree Mood" by Lu Yu
"Warning" by Jenny Joseph