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Chapter XII Old Age

ONCE more,' the old man cried,

ye clouds,
Airy turrets purple-piled,
Which once my infancy beguiled,
Beguile me with the wonted spell.
I know ye skilful to convoy
The total freight of hope and joy
Into rude and homely nooks,
Shed mocking lustres on shelf of books,
On farmer's byre, on pasture rude,
And stony pathway to the wood.
I care not if the pomps you show
Be what they soothfast appear,
Or if von realms in sunset glow
Be bubbles of the atmosphere.
And if it be to you allowed
To fool me with a shining cloud,
So only new griefs are consoled
By new delights, as old by old,
Frankly I will be your guest,
Count your change and cheer the best.
The world bath overmuch of pain, –
If Nature give me joy again,
Of such deceit I'II not complain.'

As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.'

OLD AGE

ON the anniversary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge in 1861,
the venerable President Quincy, senior member of the Society, as well
as senior alumnus of the University, was received at the dinner with
peculiar demonstrations of respect. He replied to these compliments in
a speech, and, gracefully claiming the privileges of a literary
society, entered at some length into an Apology for Old Age, and,
aiding himself by notes in his hand, made a sort of running commentary
on Cicero's chapter De Senectute. The character of the speaker, the
transparent good faith of his praise and blame, and the naivete of his
eager preference of Cicero's opinions to King David's, gave unusual
interest to the College festival. It was a discourse full of dignity,
honoring him who spoke and those who heard.

The speech led me to look over at home – an easy task – Cicero's famous
essay, charming by its uniform rhetorical merit ; heroic with Stoical
precepts, with a Roman eye to the claims of the State ; happiest
perhaps in his praise of life on the farm ; and rising at the
conclusion to
a lofty strain. But he does not exhaust the subject ; rather invites
the attempt to add traits to the picture from our broader modern life.

Cicero makes no reference to the illusions which cling to the element
of time, and in which Nature delights. Wellington, in speaking of
military men, said, " What masks are these uniforms to hide cowards ! "
I have often detected the like deception in the cloth shoe, wadded
pelisse, wig, spectacles and padded chair of Age. Nature lends herself
to these illusions, and adds dim sight, deafness, cracked voice, snowy
hair, short memory and sleep. These also are masks, and all is not Age
that wears them. Whilst we yet call ourselves young and our mates are
yet youths with even boyish remains, one good fellow in the set
prematurely sports a gray or a bald head, which does not impose on us
who know how innocent of sanctity or of Platonism he is, but does
deceive his juniors and the public, who presently distinguish him with
a most amusing respect : and this lets us into the secret that the
venerable forms that so awed our childhood were just such impostors.
Nature is full of freaks, and now puts an old head on young shoulders,
and then a young heart beating under fourscore winters.

For if the essence of age is not present, these signs, whether of Art
or Nature, are counterfeit and ridiculous : and the essence of age is
intellect. Wherever that appears, we call it old. If we look into the
eyes of the youngest person we sometimes discover that here is one who
knows already what you would go about with much pains to teach him ;
there is that in him which is the ancestor of all around him : which
fact the Indian Vedas express when they say, " He that can discriminate
is the father of his father." And in our old British legends of Arthur
and the Round Table, his friend and counsellor, Merlin the Wise, is a
babe found exposed in a basket by the river-side, and, though an infant
of only a few days, speaks articulately to those who discover him,
tells his name and history, and presently foretells the fate of the
by-standers. Wherever there is power, there is age. Don't be deceived
by dimples and curls. I tell you that babe is a thousand years old.'

Time is indeed the theatre and seat of illusion : nothing is so ductile
and elastic. The mind stretches an hour to a century and dwarfs an age
to an hour.' Saadi found in a mosque at Damascus an old Persian of a
hundred and fifty years, who was dying, and was saying to him- self, "
I said, coming into the world by birth, ` I will enjoy myself for a few
moments.' Alas ! at the variegated table of life I partook of a few
mouthfuls, and the Fates said, 'Enough! '" That which does not decay is
so central and controlling in us, that, as long as one is alone by
himself, he is not sensible of the inroads of time, which always begin
at the surface-edges. If, on a winter day, you should stand within a
bell-glass, the face and color of the afternoon clouds would not
indicate whether it were June or January ; and if we did not find the
reflection of ourselves in the eves of the young people, we could not
know that the century-clock had struck seventy instead of twenty. How
many men habitually believe that each chance passenger with whom they
converse is of their own age, and presently find it was his father and
not his brother whom they knew ! '

But not to press too hard on these deceits and illusions of Nature,
which are inseparable from our condition, and looking at age under an
aspect more conformed to the common sense, if the question be the
felicity of age, I fear the first popular judgments will be
unfavorable. From the point of sensuous experience, seen from the
streets and markets and the haunts of pleasure and gain, the estimate
of age is low, melancholy and skeptical. Frankly face the facts, and
see the result. Tobacco, coffee, alcohol, hashish, prussic acid,
strychnine, are weak dilutions : the surest poison is time. This cup
which Nature puts to our lips, has a wonderful virtue, surpassing that
of any other draught. It opens the senses, adds power, fills us with
exalted dreams, which we call hope, love, ambition, science :
especially, it creates a craving for larger draughts of itself. But
they who take the larger draughts are drunk with it, lose their
stature, strength, beauty and senses, and end in folly and delirium. We
postpone our literary work until we have more ripeness and skill to
write, and we one day discover that our literary talent was a youthful
effervescence which we have now lost.' We had a judge in Massachusetts
who at sixty proposed to resign, alleging that he perceived a certain
decay in his faculties ; he was dissuaded by his friends, on account of
the public convenience at that time. At seventy it was hinted to him
that it was time to retire; but he now replied that he thought his
judgment as robust and all his faculties as good as ever they were. But
besides the self-deception, the strong and hasty laborers of the street
do not work well with the chronic valetudinarian. Youth is everywhere
in place. Age, like woman, requires fit surroundings. Age is comely in
coaches, in churches, in chairs of state and ceremony, in
council-chambers, in courts of justice and historical societies. Age is
becoming in the country. But in the rush and uproar of Broadway, if you
look into the faces of the passengers there is dejection or indignation
in the seniors, a certain concealed sense of injury, and the lip made
up with a heroic determination not to mind it. Few envy the
consideration enjoyed by the oldest inhabitant. We do not count a man's
years, until he has nothing else to count. The vast inconvenience of
animal immortality was told in the fable of Tithonus.1 In short, the
creed of the street is, Old Age is not disgraceful, but immensely
disadvantageous. Life is well enough, but we shall all be glad to get
out of it, and they will all be glad to have us.

This is odious on the face of it. Universal convictions are not to be
shaken by the whimseys of overfed butchers and firemen, or by the
sentimental fears of girls who would keep the infantile bloom on their
cheeks. We know the value of experience. Life and art are cumulative ;
and he who has accomplished something in any department alone deserves
to be heard on that subject. A man of great employments and excellent
performance used to assure me that he did not think a man worth
anything until he was sixty ; although this smacks a little of the
resolution of a certain " Young Men's Republican Club," that all men
should be held eligible who are under seventy. But in all governments,
the councils of power were held by the old ; and patricians or patres,
senate or senes, seigneurs or
seniors, gerousia, the senate of Sparta, the presbytery of the Church, and the like, all signify simply old men.

The cynical creed or lampoon of the market is refuted by the universal
prayer for long life, which is the verdict of Nature and justified by
all history. We have, it is true, examples of an accelerated pace by
which young men achieved grand works ; as in the Macedonian Alexander,
in Raffaelle, Shakspeare, Pascal, Burns and Byron ; but these are rare
exceptions. Nature, in the main, vindicates her law. Skill to do comes
of doing; knowledge comes by eyes always open, and working hands; and
there is no knowledge that is not power. Beranger said, "Almost all the
good workmen live long."' And if the life be true and noble, we have
quite an-other sort of seniors than the frowzy, timorous, peevish
dotards who are falsely old, -namely, the men who fear no city, but by
whom cities stand ; who appearing in any street, the people empty their
houses to gaze at and obey them : as at " My Cid, with the fleecy
beard," in Toledo ; or Bruce, as Barbour reports him ; as blind old
Dandolo, elected doge at eighty-four years, storming Constantinople at
ninety-four, and after the revolt again victorious and elected at the
age of ninety-six to the throne of the Eastern Empire, which he
declined, and died doge at ninety-seven. We still feel the force of
Socrates, "whom well-advised the oracle pronounced wisest of men ; " of
Archimedes, holding Syracuse against the Romans by his wit, and himself
better than all their nation ; of Michel Angelo, wearing the four
crowns of architecture, sculpture, painting and poetry ; of Galileo, of
whose blindness Castelli said, " The noblest eye is darkened that
Nature ever made, – an eye that hath seen more than all that went
before him, and hath opened the eyes of all that shall come after him ;
" of Newton, who made an important discovery for every one of his
eighty-five years; of Bacon, who " took all knowledge to be his
province ; " of Fontenelie, " that precious porcelain vase laid up in
the centre of France to be guarded with the utmost care for a hundred
years ; " of Franklin, Jefferson and Adams, the wise and heroic
statesmen ; of Washington, the perfect citizen ; of Welling-ton, the
perfect soldier; of Goethe, the all-knowing poet ; of Humboldt, the
encyclopedia of science.'

Under the general assertion of the well-being of age, we can easily
count particular benefits of that condition. It has weathered the
perilous capes and shoals in the sea whereon we sail, and the chief
evil of life is taken away in removing the grounds of fear. The
insurance of a ship expires as she enters the harbor at home. It were
strange if a man should turn his sixtieth year without a feeling of
immense relief from the number of dangers he has escaped. When the old
wife says, ' Take care of that tumor in your shoulder, perhaps it is
cancerous,' – he replies, ` I am yielding to a surer decomposition.'
The humorous thief who drank a pot of beer at the gallows blew off the
froth because he had heard it was unhealthy ; but it will not add a
pang to the prisoner marched out to be shot, to assure him that the
pain in his knee threatens mortification. When the pleuro-pneumonia of
the cows raged, the butchers said that though the acute degree was
novel, there never was a time when this disease did not occur among
cattle. All men carry seeds of all distempers through life latent, and
we die without developing them ; such is the affirmative force of the
constitution ; but if you are enfeebled by any cause, some of these
sleeping seeds start and open. Meantime, at every stage we lose a foe.
At fifty years, 't is said, afflicted citizens lose their
sick-headaches. I hope this hegira is not as movable a feast as that
one I annually look for, when the horticulturists assure me that the
rose-bugs in our gardens disappear on the tenth of July ; they stay a
fortnight later in mine.' But be it as it may with the sick-headache, –
't is certain that graver headaches and heart-aches are lulled once for
all as we come up with certain goals of time. The passions have
answered their purpose : that slight but dread overweight with which in
each instance Nature secures the execution of her aim, drops off. To
keep man in the planet, she impresses the terror of death. To perfect
the commissariat, she implants in each a certain rapacity to get the
supply, and a little oversupply, of his wants. To insure the existence
of the race, she reinforces the sexual instinct, at the risk of
disorder, grief and pain.' To secure strength, she plants cruel hunger
and thirst, which so easily overdo their office, and invite disease.
But these temporary stays and shifts for the protection of the young
animal are shed as fast as they can be replaced by nobler resources. We
live in youth amidst this rabble of passions, quite too tender, quite
too hungry and irritable. Later, the interiors of mind and heart open,
and sup-ply grander motives. We learn the fatal compensations that wait
on every act. Then, one after another, this riotous time-destroying
crew disappear.

I count it another capital advantage of age, this, that a success more
or less signifies nothing. Little by little it has amassed such a fund
of merit that it can very well afford to go on its credit when it
will.' When I chanced to meet the poet Wordsworth, then sixty-three
years old, he told me that " he had just had a fall and lost a tooth,
and when his companions were much concerned for the mischance, he had
replied that he was glad it had not happened forty years before." Well,
Nature takes care that we shall not lose our organs forty years too
soon. A lawyer argued a cause yesterday in the Supreme Court, and I was
struck with a certain air of levity and defiance which vastly became
him. Thirty years ago it was a serious concern to him whether his
pleading was good and effective. Now it is of importance to his client,
but of none to himself. It has been long already fixed what he can do
and cannot do, and his reputation does not gain or suffer from one or a
dozen new performances. If he should on a new occasion rise quite
beyond his mark and achieve somewhat great and extraordinary, that, of
course, would instantly tell ; but he may go below his mark with
impunity, and people will say, ' O, he had headache,' or ` He lost his
sleep for two nights.' What a lust of appearance, what a load of
anxieties that once degraded him he is thus rid of! Every one is
sensible of this cumulative advantage in living. All the good days
behind him are sponsors, who speak for him when he is silent, pay for
him when he has no money, introduce him where he has no letters, and
work for him when he sleeps.

A third felicity of age is that it has found expression. The youth
suffers not only from ungratified desires, but from powers untried, and
from a picture in his mind of a career which has as yet no outward
reality. He is tormented with the want of correspondence between things
and thoughts. Michel Angelo's head is full of masculine and gigantic
figures as gods walking, which make him savage until his furious chisel
can render them into marble; and of architectural dreams, until a
hundred stone-masons can lay them in courses of travertine. There is
the like tempest in every good head in which some great benefit for the
world is planted. The throes continue until the child is born. Every
faculty new to each man thus goads him and drives him out into doleful
deserts until it finds proper vent. All the functions of human duty
irritate and lash him forward, bemoaning and chiding, until they are
performed. He wants friends, employment, knowledge, power, house and
land, wife and children, honor and fame; he has religious wants,
aesthetic wants, domestic, civil, humane wants. One by one, day after
day, he learns to coin his wishes into facts. He has his calling,
homestead, social connection and personal power, and thus, at the end
of fifty years, his soul is appeased by seeing some sort of
correspondence between his wish and his possession. This makes the
value of age, the satisfaction it slowly offers to every craving. He is
serene who does not feel himself pinched and wronged, but whose
condition, in particular and in general, allows the utterance of his
mind. In old persons, when thus fully expressed, we often observe a
fair, plump, per-ennial, waxen complexion, which indicates that all the
ferment of earlier days has subsided into serenity of thought and
behavior.

The compensations of Nature play in age as in youth. In a world so
charged and sparkling with power, a man does not live long and actively
without costly additions of experience, which, though not spoken, are
recorded in his mind. What to the youth is only a guess or a hope, is
in the veteran a digested statute. He beholds the feats of the juniors
with complacency, but as one who having long ago known these games, has
refined them into results and morals. The Indian Red Jacket, when the
young braves were boasting their deeds, said, " But the sixties have
all the twenties and forties in them."

For a fourth benefit, age sets its house in order, and finishes its
works, which to every artist is a supreme pleasure.' Youth has an
excess of sensibility, before which every object glitters and attracts.
We leave one pursuit for another, and the young man's year is a heap of
beginnings. At the end of a twelvemonth, he has nothing to show for it,
– not one completed work. But the time is not lost. Our instincts drove
us to hive innumerable experiences, that are yet of no visible value,
and which we may keep for twice seven years before they shall be
wanted. The best things are of secular growth. The instinct of
classifying marks the wise and healthy mind. Linnaeus projects his
system, and lays out his twenty-four classes of plants, before yet he
has found in Nature a single plant to justify certain of his classes.
His seventh class has not one. In process of time, he finds with
delight the little white Trientalis, the only plant with seven petals
and sometimes seven stamens, which constitutes a seventh class in
conformity with his system.' The conchologist builds his cabinet whilst
as yet he has few shells. He labels shelves for classes, cells for
species : all but a few are empty. But every year fills some blanks,
and with accelerating speed as he becomes knowing and known. An old
scholar finds keen delight in verifying the impressive anecdotes and
citations he has met with in miscellaneous reading and hearing, in all
the years of youth. We carry in memory important anecdotes, and have
lost all clew to the author from whom we had them. We have a heroic
speech from Rome or Greece, but cannot fix it on the man who said it.
We have an admirable line worthy of Horace, ever and anon resounding in
our mind's ear, but have searched all probable and improbable books for
it in vain. We consult the reading men : but, strangely enough, they
who know everything know not this. But especially we have a certain
insulated thought, which haunts us, but remains insulated and barren.
Well, there is nothing for all this but patience and time. Time, yes,
that is the finder, the unweariable explorer, not subject to
casualties, omniscient at last. The day comes when the hidden author of
our story is found ; when the brave speech returns straight to the hero
who said it ; when the admirable verse finds the poet to whom it
belongs ; and best of all, when the lonely thought, which seemed so
wise, yet half-wise, half-thought, be-cause it cast no light abroad, is
suddenly matched in our mind by its twin, by its sequence, or next
related analogy, which gives it instantly radiating power, and
justifies the superstitious instinct with which we have hoarded it. We
remember our old Greek Professor at Cambridge, an ancient bachelor,
amid his folios, possessed by this hope of completing a task, with
nothing to break his leisure after the three hours of his daily
classes, yet ever restlessly stroking his leg and assuring himself "he
should retire from the University and read the authors." ' In Goethe's
Romance, Makaria, the central figure for wisdom and influence, pleases
herself with withdrawing into solitude to astronomy and epistolary
correspondence. Goethe himself carried this completion of studies to
the highest point. Many of his works hung on the easel from youth to
age, and received a stroke in every month or year. A literary
astrologer, he never applied himself to any task but at the happy
moment when all the stars consented. Bentley thought himself likely to
live till fourscore, – long enough to read everything that was worth
reading, -" Et tune magna mein sub terris ibit imago." 1 Much wider is
spread the pleasure which old men take in completing their secular
affairs, the inventor his inventions, the agriculturist his
experiments, and all old men in finishing their houses, rounding their
estates, clearing their titles, reducing tangled interests to order,
reconciling enmities and leaving all in the best posture for the
future. It must be believed that there is a proportion between the
designs of a man and the length of his life : there is a calendar of
his years, so of his performances.2

America is the country of young men, and too full of work hitherto for
leisure and tranquillity ; yet we have had robust centenarians, and
examples of dignity and wisdom. I have lately found in an old note-book
a record of a visit to ex-President John Adams, in 1825, soon after the
election of his son to the Presidency. It is but a sketch, and nothing
important passed in the conversation ; but it reports a moment in the
life of a heroic person, who, in extreme old age, appeared still erect
and worthy of his fame.

—, Feb., 1825. To-day at Quincy, with my brother, by invitation of
Mr. Adams's family. The old President sat in a large stuffed arm-chair,
dressed in a blue coat, black small-clothes, white stockings ; a cotton
cap covered his bald head. We made our compliment, told him he must let
us join our congratulations to those of the nation on the happiness of
his house. He thanked us, and said : " I am rejoiced, because the
nation is happy. The time of gratulation and congratulations is nearly
over with me ; I am astonished that I have lived to see and know of
this event. I have lived now nearly a century [he was ninety in the
following October] ; a long, harassed and distracted life." I said,
"The world thinks a good deal of joy has been mixed with it." -" The
world does not know," he replied, " how much toil, anxiety and sorrow I
have suffered." – I asked if Mr. Adams's letter of acceptance had been
read to him.-" Yes," he said, and added, " My son has more political
prudence than any man that I know who has existed in my time; he never
was put off his guard ; and I hope he will continue such : but what
effect age may work in diminishing the power of his mind, I do not know
; it has been very much on the stretch, ever since he was born. He has
always been laborious, child and man, from infancy." – When Mr. J. Q.
Adams's age was mentioned, he said, " He is now fifty-eight, or will be
in July ;" and remarked that " all the Presidents were of the same age
: General Washington was about fifty-eight, and I was about
fifty-eight, and Mr. Jefferson, and Mr. Madison, and Mr. Mon-roe." – We
inquired when he expected to see Mr. Adams. – He said : " Never : Mr.
Adams will not come to Quincy but to my funeral. It would be a great
satisfaction to me to see him, but I don't wish him to come on my
account." He spoke of Mr. Lechmere, whom he " well remembered to have
seen come down daily, at a great age, to walk in the old town-house,"
adding, " And I wish I could walk as well as he did. He was Collector
of the Customs for many years under the Royal Government." – E. said :"
I suppose, sir, you would not have taken his place, even to walk as
well as he." -" No," he replied, " that was not what I wanted." – He
talked of Whitefield,1 and remembered when he was a Freshman in College
to have come into town to the Old South church [I think] to hear him,
but could not get into the house; -" I, however, saw him," he said,
"through a window, and distinctly heard all. He had a voice such as I
never heard before or since. He cast it out so that you might hear it
at the meeting-house [pointing towards the Quincy meeting-house], and
he had the grace of a dancing-master, of an actor of plays. His voice
and manner helped him more than his sermons. I went with Jonathan
Sewall."-"And you were pleased with him, sir?"-"Pleased ! I was
delighted beyond measure."-We asked if at Whitefield's return the same
popularity continued. -" Not the same fury," he said, " not the same
wild enthusiasm as before, but a greater esteem, as he became more
known. He did not terrify, but was ad-mired."

We spent about an hour in his room. He speaks very distinctly for so
old a man, enters bravely into long sentences, which are interrupted by
want of breath, but carries them invariably to a conclusion, without
correcting a word.

He spoke of the new novels of Cooper, and Peep at the Pilgrims, and
Saratoga, with praise, and named with accuracy the characters in them.
He likes to have a person always reading to him, or company talking in
his room, and is better the next day after having visitors in his
chamber from morning to night.

He received a premature report of his son's election, on Sunday
afternoon, without any excitement, and told the reporter he had been
hoaxed, for it was not vet time for any news to arrive. The informer,
something damped in his heart, insisted on repairing to the
meeting-house, and proclaimed it aloud to the congregation, who were so
overjoyed that they rose in their seats and cheered thrice. The
Reverend Mr. Whitney dismissed them immediately.

When life has been well spent, age is a loss of what it can well
spare,-muscular strength, organic instincts, gross bulk, and works that
belong to these. But the central wisdom, which was old in infancy, is
young in fourscore years, and, drop-ping off obstructions, leaves in
happy subjects the mind purified and wise. I have heard that whoever
loves is in no condition old.' I have heard that whenever the name of
man is spoken, the doctrine of immortality is announced ; it cleaves to
his constitution. The mode of it baffles our wit, and no whisper comes
to us from the other side. But the inference from the working of
intellect, hiving knowledge, hiving skill, – at the end of life just
ready to be born, – affirms the inspirations of affection and of the
moral sentiment.2

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