Age and Crabbed Youth

YOUTH and Old Age! A parlous strife, in sooth!
We hear our Shakespeare troll his careless lay
(If it be his) of ‘ Crabbed Age and Youth ’
That ‘cannot live together.’ In his day
The adjective and all that follows may
Have had some warrant from the situation;
But in our time we need an emendation.
I humbly offer: ‘Age and Crabbed Youth’;
Adding in sequence, ‘Youth is full of care’
And ‘Age is full of pleasance.’ For in truth
Youth likes to tread the sweet way to despair,
Plucking the dismal growths that flourish there;
Age hugs the fire, and blesses his old self,
Fondling some old brown folio from the shelf.
Especially in our strange time’s confusion,
When all’s bewilderment in life and art,
And disillusion is a new illusion
From which the embittered Hamlet will not part,
Youth stalks in blacks, crossed arms above his heart.

I showed the foregoing verses, intended as part of a rather frivolous occasional poem, to a comparatively young friend of mine who is qualifying for the Ph.D. (He has written a learned paper on ‘The Dram of Eale. ’) He said very gravely that he knew of no ground for emendation in the passage quoted, and that the practice of emending in order to obtain a sense personally preferred was to be considered an unpardonable crime. He added, with a slight frown, that it would be easy to list passages showing that the lines in question really expressed Shakespeare’s idea of the nature of youth and age; but the process would be useless, because the song was probably not Shakespeare’s, having appeared without warrant in The Passionate Pilgrim, 1599.

His verdict, which was no doubt based on sound scholarship, failed to shake my conviction as to the comparative advantages of youth and age. The troubled spirit of youth — even youth academically prolonged — does not, it would appear, admit that harmless humor which one might look for in autumn, ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’ The autumnal haze has a softening effect upon landscape, and suggests inevitably the blue smoke of the peace pipe, the happy emanation of a mind at ease. Surely autumn, rather than a ‘winter of pale misfeature,’ is the natural symbol of the spiritual quality of age. If, however, the conventional parallel of the four seasons be insisted on, it may be pointed out that winter has its exhilaration, its sparkling days of crisp snow crust and azure shadows, its nights of crowded stars and the hearth fire and the old brown folio, and what Stevenson calls ‘the pleasures of shelter.’

Spring, on the contrary, is a callow season of uncertainty and experiment, in the life of man as in the order of the year. Shall we let the furnace fire go out? Is it going to shower? Should one wear an overcoat? Would it be better to postpone that May party? Such questions arise in the physical world; and infinitely more in the world of the spirit. Youth is the passionate pilgrim, in the old sense of the adjective, moving about, with blank misgivings, ‘in a world not realized’; suffering, longing, and doubting. Whence and whither? What is the use of anything? Is life worth living? WHAT IS TRUTH? In the words of a contemporary writer,

Youth is a thing not easy to endure.

Three poets of an earlier time have nobly expressed the higher possibilities of age: Emerson in ‘Terminus,’ Whitman in ‘Old Age’s Lambent Peaks’ (is not the title itself a poem?), and Browning in ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra.’ These are sweet and wise and heartening counsels of the prophets. But now that one comes to an immediate application, does not each of them imply something more of effort than is quite congenial to the season? ‘Peaks’ perhaps suggests a climb; and ‘taking in sail,’ recommended by Emerson, is an operation requiring some energy. Above all, Browning’s conception of age as employed in weighing the past, discerning, comparing, pronouncing, and, as it were, polishing up armor for an ‘adventure brave and new’ — that conception, so characteristically inspiring, seems at times a little exhausting too. Why should we not see in age a cheerful escape from all the intensities, and be content to adopt the attitude of that ancient monarch known to tradition merely as a Merry Old Soul?

Doubtless, if I had succeeded in beguiling my prospective young Doctor of Philosophy into adducing passages of Shakespeare in support of the orthodox view, he would have quoted: —

Youth no less becomes
The light and careless livery that it wears
Than settled age his sables and his weeds,
Importing health and graveness.

I was ready to counter by asserting that the passage was not one of direct self-expression, and by attacking the moral character of Claudius, King of Denmark, which should certainly put him out of court as a witness. Sables and weeds, forsooth! The solemn suggestion impels me to defiance in the following


I shall not wear sables,
I will not wear weeds.
I shall follow gay Fancy
Wherever she leads.
I shall garb me in motley
As the wise soul befits.
I shall carve me a bauble,
I shall jingle my wits.
I shall dance down the road
Till I quite disappear,
And the tap of my tabor
Is the last sound you’ll hear!