Old age brings with its advent, its own implications just like any other phase of human life and the wisest thing we can do when age “creeps up” on us is to explore its possibilities and profit by it.
R.S. Thomas, “the hewer of stony verse”, wrote “Good”, a wonderful poem, in which not a single image or phrase seems out of place, and the simplicity of its themes and directness of language show the characteristic care with which Thomas selected and arranged his words.
The poem itself is quiet and restrained and achieves a slow grandeur denied to most evocations of death, old age and the passing of time. The scene is set immediately as “the old man comes out on the hill”, hinting undoubtedly at a long, possibly tiring lifetime’s journey. The opening image makes a dramatic and lasting impression on the reader and establishes a sense of purity and perfection as the old man attempts to recapture his “earlier days” spent in the valley below.
This is quickly followed by beautifully crafted figures of speech, “the stream shine” obviously representing the old man’s life cycle, his aspirations and joys, but in a way it is almost ironic; the “stream” will continue to “shine” unlike his own life which will be soon be over. At the centre of the purely descriptive life of this poem is the church, its building and its practice, clearly influenced by Thomas’s own background, since he was an Anglican priest who served the Church of Wales as a “parish vicar”. Next we hear “the littler of children’s voices” an evocative, joyful metaphor that implies a joy in the natural cycle and continuity of life.
But “A chill in the flesh” reminds the old man that his death is near at hand. The image of death as, “The shadow under the great boughs of life” is particularly effective and holds a hint of a real (if limited) immortality which is then contrasted with the images of continuing life, the idea of death being balanced by the “herbs” that grow in the old man’s garden and the wind scattering “the scent of wild beans” Yet there is a further reminder of the close link between death and life, suggesting they are mutually dependant as;
“The kestrel goes by with fresh prey in its claws.”
R.S. Thomas’ verse is filled with highly charged words that speak of unspoken things and this is clearly evident in the last image in the poem as the old man’s grandson is seen ploughing “the earth’s body” as;
“… his young wife fetches him cakes and tea and a dark smile.”
The last three lines have a rhythmic intensity and culminate in a simple yet solemn statement that “…It is well.”
“On Platform 5” by Edward Storey, there is a sense of a life wasted. Based on honest observations of the poet, the pity the reader is invited to feel for so much wasted life is not dwelt on but linger as an angry question in the silences that pass between and elderly relative and his/her family saying goodbye to each other at a railway station. In the poem, Storey’s tone of voice is severe as he condemns the lack of care in our society for the old. In focussing on a leave taking between relatives at a railway station, he emphasises the distance, unspoken between the family group and turns our attention to the anxiety and fear of extreme loneliness in old age leaving only a;
“…terrifying journey back to yourself”.
The painful daily habit of being alone he tells us cannot be disguised no matter what is done “with you lined face” and the superficiality of “the parting platitudes” that “spill about the closing the door” is reiterated with brutal honesty in the lines;
“Soon there will be far distances between and duty letters counting out your year”.
The poem ends as “The station moves away”, an effective metaphor, simply stated, as life, companionship, however superficial, is preferred to the fear of returning to a silent house. A final powerful visual image sums up what is felt.
“A magazine stays clenched in your lap.
And your white knuckles tighten round each fear.”
“Death in the village” by Graham Hough is a complex poem, but one that impressed me for the quiet way it builds up in force, starting from the small presence of the old lady, which then expands to show her acute loneliness and complete isolation from the outer world. It concerns her thoughts and feelings on the last afternoon of her life and is filled with delicate, if somewhat elaborate images that permeate throughout and parallel the fragility of both her physical and mental state as she contemplates her life.
The reiteration of acute loneliness and rejection are built up in the revelation of a series of “visitors” both real and imagined who come like ghosts to the old lady in the last hour of her life.
Her eyes are “vague” and “dark” and the poet employs three negative sentences as “Through a drift of tangled leaves” the two children “she had never had” come to her, closely followed by “the husband she had not loved”. Finally, two lovers who had courted her;
“Come back again, one brown with blazing eyes, the other with seaweed in his hair”.
We are told “she had not been kind” to either.
The last three stanzas describe her death and although there is some comfort in her imagining that her “visitors” are with her as “they held her”, at the moment of death, the reality is that she died completely alone in an indifferent world, the sad silence of her unfulfilled life clearly emphasised in the conclusion of the poem.
“Only the cat picked out with the mincing feet
His delicate way among the caret flowers;
And all the rippled quiet lay smooth once more.”
As people advance in years, they become more introspective, if not always by choice. Children may marry and move away. There will be losses to death, grief and loneliness and contact with family members or grand children can be fulfilling reminders of the continuity of life and one’s place in the grand scheme of things and it is these ideas and attitudes that are expressed in the poems discussed.