LET three persons read the story of Œdipus. The first, notwithstanding the almost superhuman suffering of the hero of the Greek drama, would still deem it inconceivable that Œdipus should have come to desire only death, to crave that as the one boon. The second, moved irresistibly by the infinite pathos of the tragedy, would nevertheless understand it, and would admit, reluctantly or otherwise, the necessity of the consequence. The third reader would simply acquiesce with nodding head, untouched, apparently, by the pity of it.
Needless to ask who the readers are ; each has already made himself known. Unquestionably the first is Youth, the second, Manhood, and the third, who merely nodded assent, Age. Were we to learn their ages in terms of years, we should know them no better, and, quite possibly, not so well. Since, be the first reader of eight or of eighty years, be the third of seventy or of seven, the fact remains that the first is young, the third old, and the second at the prime of life.
For years are like milestones. They tell how far — not how fast, how well, or how ill one has gone ; and truly, how far is the least part of the journey. Life, men have long since decided, is not to be measured by length of days. “Forty days ! ” Stevenson quotes from De Bouflers, “Forty days! that is almost the life of a man if one counts only the moments worth counting! ” The partition of the threescore and ten into Youth, Manhood, and Age, with an approximate number of years assigned to each, is acknowledged to be merely a matter of convenience. We confess the makeshift daily when we say of one, that at heart he was always a boy; of another, that she is a woman only in years, or, in all but years ; of a child, that he is old beyond his years.
Life has its youth, its maturity, and its age, but there is no marking off these periods at so many years each. They are not to be tallied with any average man, — a fiction as futile as the old economic man of Adam Smith and his brethren. Many a man dies at fourscore who has lived through only one of these divisions, while another dies at twenty, having passed through youth to extreme age. Clearly, even to approach accuracy in the apportioning of these periods some manner of sliding scale must needs be used that will apply to each man as he is, not as he could or should be.
The mode suggested above with regard to the reading of the old drama may serve as well as another to draw the lines between the lad and the grown person, between manhood and age. One may consider the relation of the individual to death — to the idea of death. And this is only another way of considering his relation to life, for the old, “ Who knoweth life but questions death?” is but a hint of the intimate relation between human life and meditation upon the one great mystery.
Death is the arch-fiend of childhood. It supersedes that seemingly innate enemy of common babyhood — the Bear — and stands henceforth on the threshold of things, alone, unparalleled, the Terror of Terrors. The child conceives no reasonableness in death ; like the displaced Bear, it is a kind of wicked accident. True, he listens patiently enough while his elders tell him of heaven, repeating after them with glib obedience that “ papa has gone to live with God ; ” his little heart persists; nevertheless, in its blind pagan terror. The weeping and wailing, the tragically mocking ceremonial, and the eloquent void in the household speak a language far more intelligible to him than the euphemism of his friends.
Although as time passes, this and that husk may be stripped away from the fetichism, the kernel remains; still, the greatest of evils is a terrible accident called death. A most depressing heritage, this, one would say ; yet the spirit of youth does not appear to be overborne by it. An overhanging punishment, or a prospective interview with the dentist, clouds a day for the least imaginative, yet apparently this ever impending death in no wise troubles the child. And for this reason, because in the nature of things the thought of death occurs to youth but seldom, and in such rare instances, it is almost invariably attended with an antidotal idea of remoteness, of impertinency. Death is terrible, yet it is not for us, Youth says ; it is for men and women — for the old. For that Old Age that lies so far, so very far, in the distance, that truly the to-morrows before us are countless!
This is the very touchstone of youth. It does away with that artificial, external mode of classification, and discriminates the ore according to its real properties. It includes Hawthorne’s Donatello in the category of youth, and shuts out wise little Paul Dombey. It makes it appear that Tito Melema was as truly a child as Tessa herself, more truly so than his own little Lillo ; that the eighteen year old author of Thanatopsis was not a youth; that the little hand-maiden Blandina was older than the eldest of the Ramses. For death when it overtakes one who has considered the fact of dying only vaguely, as an accident against which he himself was somehow insured, overtakes a child, whether the Ætatis graved upon his tombstone be followed by characters representing six years or sixty.
One passes out of youth forever when one recognizes the reality of death. The realization that death is a general, an inevitable fact is a token of maturity; no longer the accident of youth, death appears as a fixed element in the process of nature, the old happy-go-lucky “ but not for us,” becoming “for all — for me especially.” It confronts man as a limit or as a goal. “ Whether,” in Stevenson’s phrase, “ we regard life as a lane leading to a dead wall — a mere bag’s end as the French say—or whether we think of it as a vestibule or gymnasium where we wait our turn and prepare our faculties for some more noble destiny,” in any case death is a boundary to be considered. The naturalness of the mystery, so to speak, and the inevitability being conceived, the child is a man. “ We become men,” says Carlyle in the essay on Burns, “ not after we have been dissipated and disappointed in the chase of false pleasure, but after we have ascertained, in any way, what impassable barriers hem us in through this life.” He implies that the pity of Burns’s life lay in the fact that he never really became a man ; that the lesson of life he began to learn in his father’s cottage he never fully acquired.
The barriers acknowledged, the Great Barrier in particular, it follows that life will be accelerated. Death may be revered or it may be dreaded. One may exclaim with Walter Raleigh, “O eloquent, just, and mighty death ! ” Or one may cry out with the bitterness of Claudio in Measure for Measure : —
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.”
Life nevertheless will be quickened for better or for worse. For better or for worse— since the divisions of life belong to the unjust as well as to the just; the tree of knowledge bears fruit both of good and of evil. Villain or hero, he who has discerned the barrier is spurred on to some manner of action, whether it be to have regard for the “ Watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is ; ” to consider, in a worldly or an unworldly sense, the parable of the Talents; or whether it be to gather roses with Herrick, or to imitate the carousal of the Egyptian Mycerinus,— construing the “eat, drink, and be merry ” in its broadest sense.
“ Manhood begins,” Carlyle says further in the same essay, “ when we have in any way made truce with Necessity ; begins at all events when we have surrendered to Necessity, as the most part only do.” Now it is evident that this point of affairs does not always coincide with youth’s so-called majority. There is no magic, no Open Sesame — except in a quite material sense — in the age of oneand-twenty. One makes this truce with necessity, perhaps, at the age of ten, another at forty, still another surrenders only at his death, while a fourth may be forever unaware even of the existence of such a force. Marcus Aurelius was a man when at the age of twelve he took to himself the regimen of the Stoics, and exchanged his bed for a skin upon the floor. In Memoriam is the record of the change in Tennyson. The poem begins as the cry of youth, but the subject strikes deep, the eyes and mind of the youth are opened, and long before he returns to write the prelude Tennyson has found himself. Catullus’ years may have been few in number; he did not die young, notwithstanding. After the final estrangement with Lesbia he was old indeed, and long before that, was it a youth that begged his Lesbia to live, to gather rosebuds while yet they might, in verses informed with tragic importunacy because of the haunting shadow of the night from which there is no waking ? Horace, too, was no less for gathering rosebuds, although his were not the roses of Pæstum; they were milder-hued blossoms, and Horace, like the queen in Hamlet, wore them “ with a difference.” His “ eat, drink, and be merry ” is literal, and the pallid hand of Death that he sees ever and anon — the same that moves Catullus to sue for yet more kisses — serves only to heighten, by a touch of poignancy, Horace’s epicurean delight in the vivid fire, the banquet, and the lights. Browning was a youth when he wrote Pauline. In its vivid, at times almost grotesque imagery, in its extravagance, its utter vagueness, it is of the very warp and woof of unrestrained turbulent youth. Of youth rushing madly no-whither and blindly returning upon itself. The author of Paracelsus, however, is a man full grown; a man who has recognized that
Gives it whatever the significance,”
who has looked about, and ahead, and ascertained the general limits of the country, and who, having selected a course, runs forward eagerly yet with open, seeing eyes.
It is common to speak in a laudatory way of certain persons as being young all their lives. Nevertheless in the literal sense this phraseology can be applied only to the thoughtless, to those who count their tale of years undisturbed by any suspicion that there is such a thing as life. He who can carry the spirit of childhood over into the country of manhood is blest indeed, yet he who remains a child knows nothing better than that questionable bliss of ignorance. Perhaps no one has ever loved youth quite as Socrates did, mingling a purely unselfish affection with an almost romantic appreciation for the æsthetic charm of youthfulness ; and yet, Socrates’ first care was to make men of his young companions. Stevenson kept the ardor of youth, but the heart that never forgot the secrets of childhood, recognized, and was enriched — and saddened — by the wisdom of manhood. Stevenson was not “ always a boy.” The singularly mature grasp of reality of the Æs Triplex, written at sixand-twenty, proves conclusively that he had passed irrevocably beyond the boundary of youth.
We are prone, in our enthusiasm for youth, to disparage something still better. Youth is action, glorious, unrestrained, yet also undirected, contingent. Manhood is action to a higher degree. Youth is beautiful, but imperfect, not immoral, but unmoral. In youth inheres only the possibility of fearlessness in the literal sense of the word; in manhood alone lie the infinite possibilities of courage. Far more to be pitied, truly, than those who die infantes are those whom, although having witnessed scores of revolutions of the earth, death still finds children. Is that not the sudden death from which the Prayer Book begs deliverance ? “Not from sudden death in respect of itself,” Thomas Fuller petitions in his Good Thoughts for Bad Times. “ But let it not be sudden in respect of me.”
It is curiously interesting, and a bit of solace, perhaps, to observe that anon death makes men of those who were before children, even as it takes them away. An almost unappreciable interval sometimes avails to make the child a man, and enables him to escape the ignominy of being dragged at the wheels, by voluntarily running abreast of the chariot; to enter the land under truce, not under bonds. The story of Sydney Carton exemplifies this plastic power of death. It was truly a “far, far better thing” he did, than he had ever done, for when he approached the guillotine, Sydney Carton was for the first time a man. Charles II., too, the monarch who “ never said a foolish thing, nor ever did a wise one,” who merits nevertheless a kind of æsthetic or literary approbation because of his singularly felicitous apology for being “ an unconscionable time a-dying, gentlemen,” —who knows whether Charles II. did not become a man upon the dawning of that conception ? It appears that heretofore his life had been merely a basking in supposedly eternal sunshine ; that it had lacked even the unity of the old Hedonic commonplace for the reason that the “ to-morrow we die ” of that famous maxim, Charles never dreamed could apply to the king. It is curious to speculate on what an extension of life beyond this point might have brought forth in this man who had lived so many years, only to realize that he was an unconscionable time dying. Something different, it would seem. Better or worse, at least his life must needs have been otherwise.
The third reader (it will be remembered) merely acquiesced in Œdipus’ desire for death, whereupon we conceived that he was old. Age is nothing more nor less than the waiting for death. Manhood implies recognition of death as a limit; age betokens readiness for it, — readiness active or passive, mental or physical. Man may wait impatiently, craving the end or dreading it, as the case may be; he may wait with Christian patience, or with soldierly fortitude; it is the waiting that signifies.
Older than the man of fourscore who sets himself seriously to learn to play the violin is the child that is moved by suffering to dis-child itself, so to speak, and long for death. Such an one was Elizabeth Barrett. After the merest fraction of childhood she became suddenly old. Life to her became thereupon merely a waiting for death, until Robert Browning came into her life. Then she was
Of life in a new rhythm,”
and Mrs. Browning became young, — not a child, but a woman with all the vividness of life before her. After this she was never to grow old ; she never waited a second time for death. She died, literally, passed away, out of the very prime of life, unconscious of the passing, — “ always smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s, and in a few moments she died in my arms, with her head on my cheek.”
Age does not pioneer. The idea of waiting precludes real action. It is said that when his sons — unworthy as the sons of Œdipus — endeavored for their own selfish ends to prove at Athens that Sophocles was so old as to be irresponsible, the “ singer of sweet Colonus ” triumphantly proved his case against them by the magnificent creation of the Œdipus Coloneus. Hamlet was old. He was aged prematurely and irremediably by the blow that fell upon his early manhood. For him action was forever of the past; nothing remained but death. “ O that this too, too solid flesh would melt! ” is the cry of the real Hamlet. The action that closes the tragedy is extraneous rather than a necessary resultant of the forces of Hamlet’s nature. More truly Hamlet than any other part of that agitated scene is the quiet, expressive “ The rest is silence.”
In a recent collection of aphorisms it is written, “ Do you want to know what hell is ? It is not sulphur, and it is not burning flames : it is losing your interest in things.” In old age interest is not necessarily lost, but it becomes passive : rather than one’s interest, one’s desire or power of acting is lost. Browning’s By the Fireside aptly characterizes this passivity of “ life’s November : ” —
O’er a great, wise book as beseemeth age,
While the shutters flap as the cross-wind blows,
And I turn the page, and I turn the page,
Not verse now, only prose ! ”
Age is fain to be content to “ turn the page, turn the page,” and delegate the action to another. One begins to live in one’s offspring, and oftentimes a real enjoyment gained from this vicarious action is a conclusive proof of age. For manhood is by nature egoistic; it is not enough for man that the song be sung ; he himself must sing it. In the letter of Stevenson’s that closes the collection one may find pathetic indication of this token of approaching age.
“ It is all very well to talk of renunciation, and of course it has to be done,” he writes, two days before his death, to Edmund Gosse. “ But for my part give me a roaring toothache ! I do like to be deceived, and to dream, but I have very little use for either watching or meditation. I was not born for age. . . . Come to think of it, Gosse, I believe the main distinction is that you have a family growing up around you, and I am a childless, rather bitter, very clear-eyed, blighted youth. I have in fact lost the path that makes it easy and natural for you to descend the hill. I am going it straight, and where I have to go down it is a precipice.”
It might seem that this deliberate establishment of the third stage of life as a station at which death is to be awaited would render age ignoble ; that it would do away with those familiar expressive phrases, “ a green old age,” or “ a golden old age ; ” would imply that it were something of a reproach to pass within the confines of age. Not so: Stevenson’s “To travel deliberately through one’s ages is to get the heart out of a liberal education ” would not omit this last age. “ I should not be earnest to see the evening of my age,” writes Bacon, and many would echo his words; but however dying in action, “ like one wounded in hot blood,” may appeal to one personally, does not, after all, Rabbi Ben Ezra’s tribute to age prove life to be æsthetically and morally the more complete because of the pause for consideration between action and death ? Browning’s optimism sees in age a fitting season to pronounce upon life as a whole. When evening shuts, that moment which “ calls the glory from the gray ” represents a kindly opportunity for age lifted above the strife of this life, to “ discern, compare, pronounce at last.”
However, this is not an apology for old age, but merely an attempt to determine its limits. Enough to say that in its moment or moments of waiting, age pronounces upon life, — pronounces it good with Rabbi Ben Ezra, or pronounces it wanting with Obermann, with poor Chatterton, or with Macbeth who found it only
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
In the case of each individual, moreover, his own decision is final. For, however painfully one may speculate, may discern and compare upon the march, one’s view at such time is necessarily incomplete; but when one has stepped out of the ranks, things assume of themselves their proper outlines, and fall into true relations. And once out, one does not go back.