LONDON, England / The Epoch Times / Literary & Visual Arts / April 25, 2011
A Reading of 'Old Age' by Edmund Waller
The Antidote—Classic Poetry for Modern Life
The seas are quiet when the winds give o'er;
So calm are we when passions are no more.
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal that emptiness which age descries.
The soul’s dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time hath made:
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view
That stand upon the threshold of the new.
Edmund Waller (1606 – 1687)
How do we see old age? As a time of decay, misery, and isolation? Or as a time when our life’s achievement comes to fruition?
Edmund Waller’s beautiful poem allows us to contemplate the many paradoxes of youth and maturity—and that final mysterious moment we all dread but have to face.
Waller begins with a vision of the “seas” becalmed when the “winds” are over and at rest. We feel a sense of vastness and tranquillity. He takes us into the experience of old age, when our “passions are no more.” In our frantic society, such an existence would seem like death, but here we feel peaceful and oddly free.
Why should we feel liberated? Because when all our passion is spent, we can recognize the world around us for what it is. We realize how “vain” we were in youth to boast of “fleeting things.” When the money has dried up, the flashy car has broken down, and the moment of fame has quickly faded, we look to the horizon.
The first stanza ends with a couplet that captures something of the strange riddling magic of our days—and our transition from early exuberance to later reflection. It poses profound questions that are not easily answered by any reader. For instance, when the “clouds of affection” part they reveal a disturbing “emptiness.” Is this a form of despair or a kind of cleansing? Do we really want to lose our affection only to be confronted by nothingness? Is a life based on convenient lies better than one based on the cold honest truth?
At this point, we should pause to admire Waller’s use of plain words in unexpected ways to provoke us to think and feel more deeply. The use of rhyme has a humble, touching dignity that implicitly suggests that the world is not chaotic but full of connections we can look for.
For me, Waller’s view appears remarkably close to the Buddhist notion of attachment, and the belief that holding onto transient phenomena, as if they could last forever, can only lead to disappointment and bitterness. To become enlightened, we need to become detached—we have to learn to let go of what will only pass away.
At the start of the second stanza, this realization of emptiness leads to a new image: “the soul’s dark cottage." This powerfully atmospheric phrase evokes both homeliness and fear. It’s as if, turning a corner, we can see the cottage through the cool night air —a place of refuge and yet full of uncanny possibilities. It as if we see ourselves for the first time and shiver in wonder.
This cottage has certainly taken a beating. Yet it is precisely because it is so “battered” that it “lets in new light.” The “chinks” that “Time” makes in its walls, and our armor, mean that the truth can be seen more fully. We can be sure that in our four score years and ten, we will be tested by suffering, but we can overcome it. Paradoxically, we become “stronger by weakness.” Even while our body sags, our mind rises. Little by little, we approach the great summit of life.
The poem ends with a surprising sense of renewal. Waller delights in the irony that in old age we leave the old behind. We stand on “the threshold of the new.” We stand at the end of one life and the beginning of another. Is this the religious promise of heavenly eternity—or something as yet unknown? As the ever youthful Peter Pan said, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
Edmund Waller (1606 – 1687) was an English poet and politician.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.
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