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The Third Foot

Writers on ageing

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

As is often the way with riddles, the answer to the one that the Sphinx set Œdipus is obvious once you know it: ‘What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon and three in the evening?’ A human being, of course. And that third foot is almost universal for those who, granted longevity, find themselves exploring, perhaps with impaired mobility, the further reaches of the path leading from dreams to history. Of course, much depends on individual health, temperament and material circumstances: having recently had a hip replacement (thus acquiring, at least for a time, a fourth as well as a third foot) I find myself thinking with a new focus about ageing. It’s also made me more alert to what other writers have had to say about growing old, leading me to think about their place along the spectrum that runs from plaintive lament or anger at one end to acceptance, even gratitude, at the other.

One of the best-known considerations of old age is Philip Larkin’s 1973 poem ‘The Old Fools’, written when he was fifty (it’s included in High Windows, Faber 1974). Here the view of the old is unsparingly bleak, while the orderliness of the structure and rhyming make an ironic counterpoint to the processes of degradation described. From the outset the propellant forces are disgust and anger — ‘What do they think has happened, the old fools, / To make them like this?’, a query followed by four more equally scornful (and rhetorical) questions. The second verse briefly widens the view, seeing life as an interval between two versions of oblivion, but then rounds again to the unappealing features of the old — ‘Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines’ and ends with ‘How can they ignore it?’ Yet the third verse begins to move towards some allowance for fellow feeling. Not that it lasts: the final verse, with its unforgettable phrase ‘extinction’s alp’, unleashes another volley of disdainful questions. It’s as if the poet had somehow exposed himself more than he intended and must cover up. The poem’s curt conclusion has a sting:

                             Can they never tell
	What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night? 
	Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
	The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
		We shall find out.

In the end, dissociation is impossible. For all the poet’s objectification of the old, ‘they’ are also ‘we’: the sense of revulsion is inseparable from the fear of what may be lying in wait for anyone. And this is a kind of saving grace, making the poem something more than a ranting diatribe. When scorn proves to be an ineffectual shield after all, fear is what gives the poem its humanity. In the event, Larkin himself, dying at the age of 63, may have been spared the worst of it.

Yeats, like Larkin, hated growing old, with a vehemence intensified by blindness in one eye and oncoming deafness. He was in his early sixties when, nearly half a century before Larkin’s poem, he wrote ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (The Tower, Macmillan 1928). The poem compares the ‘sensual music’ of youth with ‘monuments of unageing intellect’, and has its share of distaste: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick’, though the scarecrow image is markedly less brutal than Larkin’s detailed observations of senescence. In any case, Yeats follows an altogether more positive route: yes, ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’, but this is immediately qualified — ‘unless / Soul clap its hands…’. It is artistic endeavour, in this case the Orphic impulse to sing, that can overcome the human limitation of the heart being ‘sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal…’. The gold mosaics of Byzantium are to be ‘the singing-masters of my soul’, distilling the poet’s prayerful hope that he may be gathered ‘into the artifice of eternity’. The poem’s powerful closing image, of a bird ‘set upon a golden bough to sing’, brings the world of art close to nature — and the song will itself encompass ‘what is past, or passing, or to come.’

In ‘Lullaby’, from W. H. Auden’s last collection (Thank You, Fog, Faber 1974), the poet lies ‘naked, curled like a shrimplet’ in a foetal position, and the song he sings to himself, while admittedly self-regarding (‘Narcissus is an oldie’) is indeed one that sees life as a circle. The poet imagines himself ‘sinless and all-sufficient, / snug in the den of yourself,’ a sufficiency expressed in a memorable image in which he is both ‘Madonna and Bambino’. In the perspective of a lifetime, it is a song of gratitude (‘Let your last thinks all be thanks’) as well as self-forgiveness. In the animal warmth which is the prelude to the sleep of oblivion, guilt and the ghosts of dreams ‘both sweet and horrid’ become of no account.

For sheer balance and objectivity, though, it would be hard to improve on the opening chapter of Penelope Lively’s memoir Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time (Fig Tree/Penguin 2013). As she looks back from the age of eighty, her view of the human condition pulls no punches, but is tempered by an underlying compassion: ‘We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation.’ But for all ‘the diminishment of old age’, it has real compensations to offer: you are ‘no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider’. She suggests that in old age ‘time has looped back’, so that ‘it is almost like some kind of end-game salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new’. But not for her Auden’s retreat into sensuous babyhood: and her assertion that ‘I am as alive to the world as I have ever been’ also reads like a riposte to Larkin (she alludes explicitly to ‘The Old Fools’). She invites us to ‘fold up the past and put it away — available for private study. This is now, and while still present and a part of it, we do best to remember that that is where we are.’ Here is a version of wisdom that combines the relish of the Epicurean with the endurance of the Stoic.

In a rather different mode, the same might be said of Samuel Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape (Krapp’s Last Tape and Embers, Faber 1959). Short it certainly is — under an hour in performance, less than ten printed pages: and of those, a quarter is taken up with stage directions. Structurally it’s both neat and ingenious. Nearing his three score years and ten, Krapp listens to, and ponders, a tape made thirty years earlier reflecting on his life at the time: present and past are cast as two monologues that inform one another. Even within the play’s narrow confines, Beckett captures brilliantly a whole host of themes relating to the dishevelments of old age: obsessive habits, clumsiness, speaking aloud to oneself (including, in Krapp’s case, a delight in the oddity of words), incongruity, loneliness. His themes encompass some of the great abstractions — love, death, time, yet are always fully embodied. It’s properly audio-visual, too, the tape following on from the mime described in the first lengthy stage direction. It’s too long to quote in full here, but the opening sentences give the flavour:

KRAPP remains a moment motionless, heaves a great sigh, looks at his watch, fumbles in his pockets, takes out an envelope, puts it back, fumbles, takes out a small bunch of keys, raises it to his eyes, chooses a key, gets up and moves to front of table. He stoops, unlocks first drawer, peers into it, feels about inside it, takes out a reel of tape, peers at it, puts it back, locks drawer, unlocks second drawer, peers into it, feels about inside it, takes out a large banana, peers at it…

Finally, Krapp concludes that his best years may be behind him, but also that he wouldn’t want to go back in time even if that were possible. Yet the present is tinged with bafflement if not regret, a kind of shrugging acceptance close to resignation: ‘Ah, well’ — the phrase occurs four times.

All these writers map the territory of old age memorably — from Larkin’s gloomy base camp to the rarefied air of Beckett’s oddly bracing grotesqueries. My own taking to the third foot of a stick has conjured heartening instances of people’s readiness to help: the stick as wand. And however ineluctable the forces of ageing, Penelope Lively’s countervailing injunction to ‘stand back, observe, consider’ continues to hold good. There is, too, the challenge which for many writers has been there all along: the determination to do better. For myself, I find the onward drive persists, with an edge of challenge that may even be as good an aid to recovery as physiotherapy. I still feel that, in one sense, my work is only as good as my next undertaking.

Lawrence Sail has published thirteen collections of poems, two books of essays and two volumes of memoirs. In 2003 he received a Cholmondeley Award for his poetry. He has been chairman of the Arvon Foundation and director of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature.

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