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The Fickleness of Age

All forms of literature probably hold a great deal more meaning than people commonly get out of them; but prose may be likened to a cup which one can easily see to the bottom of, though it is often deeper and fuller than it looks; while verse is the fount through which thought and feeling continually bubble from the heart of things. The sources that underlie all life may be finding vent in a rhyme where the poet imagined he was breathing some little, superficial vein of his own; but in the reader he may unawares have reached the wells of inmost passion and given them release. The reader may himself live with a certain verse and be aware of it now and then merely as a teasing iterance that


"From some odd corner of the mind

Beats time to nothing in the brain."


But suddenly some experience, or perhaps the exfoliation of the outer self through the falling away of the withered years, shall open to him its vital and cosmical significance. He shall know then that it is not an idle whisper of song, but a message to his soul from the senate where the immortals gather in secular counsel and muse the wisdom of all the centuries since humanity came to its earliest consciousness. The bearer of the message may not have known it in the translation which it wears to the receiver; each must read it in his own tongue and read meaning into it; perhaps it always takes two to make a poet, and singer and listener are the twin spheres that form one star.

A valued correspondent of ours, one of those whose letters are oftener than we should like to own fraught with the suggestion of our most fortunate inspirations, believes himself to have been recently the confidant of the inner sense of certain lines in a familiar poem of Longfellow's. Its refrain had, from the first reading, chanted in the outer chamber of his ear, but suddenly, the other day, it sang to his soul with a newly realized purport in the words,


"A boy's will is the wind's will,

And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."


The words are, as the poet promptly declares, the burden of a Lapland song, which "is haunting his memory still," which "murmurs and whispers still," which "is singing and saying still," which "is mournful" and "sweet" and "fitful" and "fatal" and "strange" and "beautiful." Yet he seems not to have known, as our friend now thinks he himself knows, that they express a difference, unrecognized hitherto, between youth and age, and rightfully attribute to the young a steadfastness and persistence in objects and ideals formerly supposed the distinguishing qualities of the old. In other words, they have precipitated into his consciousness a truth unwittingly held in solution by both the poets in their verse. Or, if it was conveyed to him by their sensible connivance, he is the first who has been made its repository. Or, if he cannot claim an exclusive property in the revelation, it is now his, in his turn, by that sad right of seniority whose advantages are not ours till there are few or none left to contest them with us. One has not been promoted to them because of any merit or achievement; one has simply lived into them; and how much of one has died in the process of survival! The lines speak to our friend's age a language which his youth could not have understood, and it is because he is no longer young that he perceives how long the thoughts of youth were and how brief the thoughts of age.

He had always fancied that his later years should be a time of repose in the faiths, loves, and joys through which he realized himself. But nothing apparently was farther from the fact. Such length of thoughts as he had, such abiding pleasures, such persistent hopes, were from his youth; and the later sort were as the leaves of the tree to the tree itself. He put them forth at the beginning of an epoch, a season, and they dropped from him at the close. In as great bitterness as is consonant with his temperament he has asked us why youth should ever have been deemed fickle and age constant when so precisely the contrary is true. Youth, he owns, is indeed full of vain endeavors and of enterprises that come to nothing, but it is far more fixed than age in its aspirations. His aspirations change now with such rapidity that they seem different not only from year to year, but from month to month, from day to day. He has not merely discarded his old ideals, he loathes them. He used to like going out to dinner, above all things; and he was fond of lunches, even of afternoon teas; but in a day, in an hour, such delights became wearinesses and vexations of spirit. Formerly he enjoyed travel with all its necessary concomitants. It amused him to check his baggage and depart from stations, to arrive at hotels and settle himself in new rooms; the very domiciliation in sleeping-cars or the domestication in diners had a charm which was apparently perennial; a trip in a river-boat was rapture; an ocean voyage was ecstasy. The succession of strange faces, new minds, was an unfailing interest, and there was no occurrence, in or out of the ordinary, which did not give him release from self and form a true recreation. The theatre does not amuse him now, though the time has been, and lately, for the curtain, when it rose on a play, new or old, to lift his spirit with it and to hold him entranced till its fall. As for the circus, he once rejoiced in all its feats; performing elephants could not bore him, nor acts of horsemanship stale its infinite variety. But the time has come abruptly when the smell of the sawdust, or the odor of the trodden weed, mixed with the aroma of ice-cold lemonade, is a stench in his nostrils.

These changes of ideal have occurred, not through the failure of any powers that he can note in himself, but as part of the great change from youth to age, which he thinks is far greater morally than physically. He is still fairly strong; he has not lost his appetite or the teeth to gratify it; he can walk his miles, always rather two than ten, and rest refreshed from them; except that he does not like to kill things, he could trudge the whole day through fields and woods with his gun on his shoulder; though he does not golf, and cannot know whether or no it would bore him, he likes to wield the axe and the scythe in the groves and meadows of his summer place. When he stretches himself on the breast of the mother alike of flesh and grass, it is with a delicious sense of her restorative powers and no fear of rheumatism. If he rests a little longer than he once used, he is much more rested when he rises from his repose.

His body rejoices still in its experiences, but not his soul: it is not interested; it does not care to have known its experiences or wish to repeat them. For this reason he thinks that it is his spirit which is superannuated, while its "muddy vesture of decay" is in very tolerable repair. His natural man is still comparatively young, and lives on in the long, long thoughts of youth; but his supernatural man has aged, with certain moral effects which alarm his doubts of the pleasures he once predicated of eternity. "If it is going to be like this with me!" he says to himself, and shrinks from supplying the responsive clause of his conditional.

But mainly his mind turns upon itself in contemplation of its earthly metamorphoses, in which it hardly knows itself for the mind of the same man. Its apprehensions are for the time when, having exhausted all the differences, it shall care for none; but meanwhile it is interested in noting the absurdity of that conventional view of age as the period of fixed ideals. It may be the period of fixed habits, of those helpless iterances which imply no intentions or purposes; but it is not the period in which the mind continues in this or that desire and strives for its fulfilment. The same poet who sang at second hand those words of the Lapland song,


"The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,"


erred, to our friend's sense, in singing of


"The young heart hot and restless,

And the old subdued and slow."


He believes the reverse would rightly characterize the heart of youth and the heart of age. Age is not slow in its mental motions; it is hurried and anxious, with that awful mystical apprehension of the swift-coming moment when time shall be no more and nothing but eternity shall be left. It is not subdued; its heart is hot with rebellion against the inevitable. But for youth there is no inevitable; there is no conclusion, no catastrophe, which it may not hope to escape; and, so it is patient of chances, it is glad of them. Its heart is not restless; it is quite at peace in the bosom which is secure of all the time there is.

Our friend believes that a variety of popular superstitions will fall at the recognition of the truth in this matter, and none more finally than that which attributes to the junior partner the unhappiness of those marriages in which youth and crabbed age try to live together. In such hazardous unions the junior partner is, for some unexplained reason, of the sex which has the repute of a generic fickleness as well as the supposed volatility of its fewer years. Probably repute wrongs it as much in one respect as in the other, but our friend contends only for greater justice to it in the last. In the light that he has come into, he holds that where such unions are unhappy, though they may have been formed with a fair appearance of affection, it is the senior partner who is to blame if blame may ever be attached to involuntary change. It is the senior partner who has wearied first of the companionship and wished for release with the impatience natural to age. This is intolerant of the annoyances which seem inherent in every union of the kind, and impatient of those differences of temperament which tell far more than any disparities of age, and which exist even where there are no such disparities. The intolerance, the impatience, is not more characteristic of the husband where he is the elder than of the wife in the much fewer instances of her seniority. In the unions where two old people join their faltering destinies, the risks of unhappiness are, logically, doubled; and our friend holds it a grotesque folly to expect anything else of marriages in which two lovers, disappointed of each other in their youth, attempt to repair the loss in their age. Where any such survive into later life, with the passion of earlier life still rife in their hearts, he argues that they had much better remain as they are, for in such a belated union as they aspire to the chances are overwhelmingly against them.

Very probably, like other discoverers, he is too much impressed with the value of his divination. It is something that, at any rate, can appeal for recognition only to the aged or the aging. With these we could imagine it bringing a certain consolation, a relief from vain regret, an acquittal from self-accusation. If one has suddenly changed for no apparent reason, one must be glad to find a reason in the constitution of things, and to attribute one's fickleness to one's time of life. Youth's errors have possibly been too much condoned upon grounds where age could more justly base its defence. It may be more reckless than age, but it is not nearly so rash. It keeps thinking its long, long thoughts and questioning the conclusions to which age eagerly hobbles or hurls itself from its crutches. Youth is deliberate, for it has plenty of time, while, as our friend notes, age has little but eternity before it. Not youth, but age, leaps from life's trolley while it is still in motion, or, after mismeasuring the time and space, limps impatiently before it and is rolled under its fender. You may see physical proof of this difference, our friend insists, in the behavior of two people, one young and one old, at any street-crossing; and why should so many old ladies fall on the stairs, but that they are apt to precipitate themselves wildly from landings where young girls linger to dream yet one dream more before they glide slowly down to greet the young men who would willingly wait years for them?

The distrust of eternity at which our friend hints is perhaps the painfulest of his newly discovered differences between youth and age. Resting so serenely as it does in practically unlimited time, with ideals and desires which scarcely vary from year to year, youth has no fears of infinity. It is not afraid but it shall have abundant occupation in the æons before it, or that its emotions or volitions shall first be exhausted. Its blithe notion of immortality is that it is immortal youth. It has no conception of age, and could not imagine an eternity of accomplished facts. It is, perhaps, for this reason that doubt of immortality never really comes to youth. One of the few things which our friend still believes is that every sceptic who deals honestly with his only history must be aware of an hour, almost a moment, of waning youth, when the vague potentiality of disbelief became a living doubt, thence-forward to abide with him till death resolve it. Endless not-being is unthinkable before that time, as after it endless being is unthinkable. Yet this unthinkable endless being is all that is left to age, and it is in the notion of it alone that age can get back to the long, long thoughts in which is surcease from unrest. Our old friend may accuse us of proposing the most impossible of paradoxes when we invite him to take refuge from his whirling ideals, not in an unavailing endeavor to renew the conditions of youth in time, but in the forecast of youth in eternity. We think that the error of his impatience, his despair with the state he has come to here, is largely if not wholly through his failure to realize that he is not going to wake up old in some other being, but young, and that the capacity of long, long thoughts will be renewed in him with the renewal of his life. The restlessness of age, its fickleness, its volatility, is the expression of immense fatigue. It tosses from side to side and tries for this and that like a sick man from sheer weakness; or, rather, if the reader prefers another image, it is like some hapless wild thing caught by rising floods on a height of land which they must soon submerge, and running incessantly hither and thither as the water more narrowly hems it in.

Undoubtedly the mutability of age in its ideals has been increased of late by the restriction of human hope to the years which remain, few and brief to the longest earthly life, by the sciences which provisionally darken counsel. When these shall have penetrated to a point where they can discern the light, they will "pour the day" on the dim orbs of age and illumine the future with new hope. Then doubting age can enter into the rest now forbidden it and take its repose between illimitable horizons in the long, long thoughts of eternal youth. We speak here in behalf of the sceptic, the agnostic few. For the many who have not lost their hope because they have never lost their faith, doubtless all the trouble of change which disquiets our friend will seem something temperamental merely, and not something essential or inseparable from human nature. Their thoughts have remained long, their ideals steadfast, because they have not lost the most precious jewel of their youth—the star of trust and hope which


"Flames in the forehead of the morning sky."


These are the most enviable of their kind, and there are signs that their turn may be coming once more in the primacy to which their numbers have always entitled them. Only the other day we were reading a paper by a man of that science which deals with life on strictly physical lines, and drawing from it an immense consolation because it reaffirmed that the soul has not only its old excuse for being in the unthinkability of an automatic universe and the necessity of an intentional first cause, but with Evolution, in the regard of some scientists, tottering on its throne, and Natural Selection entering the twilight into which the elder pagan deities have vanished, is newly warranted in claiming existence as that indestructible life-property or organizing power which characterizes kind through kind from everlasting to everlasting. In this consolation we seemed well on our way back to the encounter of a human spirit such as used to be rapt to heaven or cast into hell for very disproportionate merits or demerits; but we were supported for the meeting by the probability that in the fortunate event the spirit would be found issuing from all the clouds of superstition, and when it was reconstituted in the universal belief, that the time, with eternity in its train, would have returned for fitly hailing it in the apostrophe of the Addisonian Cato:


"But thou shalt flourish in immortal youth,

Unhurt amidst the war of elements,

The wreck of matter, and the crush of worlds."


William Dean Howells