Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview
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Old Age

Old age seems to be a subject that concerns male poets rather than female ones, perhaps because old men have always appeared to have more value to society than old women, and therefore they are more willing to expose their feelings about aging. The theme occurs in poems about “Time and Change” also, but the poems discussed here are those that focus on old age specifically, rather than the more general idea of time passing.

The Elizabethan poet George Peele praises old age in Polyhymnia (1590), his tribute to Queen Elizabeth I's retiring servant, Sir Henry Lee (1531– 1611). The famous closing song, “His golden locks time hath to silver turned,” reminds us of what the old knight has lost: his hair is grey; his helmet, once glistening, is now a hive for bees; his home is a cottage, not the court. But then he reminds us of the more important and lasting virtues that the old knight still retains; although “beauty, strength, youth are flowers but fading seen;/Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.” The old knight serves on his knees now, rather than on his horse; he prays for his queen instead of fighting for her.

Many of Shakespeare's sonnets are concerned with the passing of time and therefore aging, but the one most centrally about growing old is Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” (1609). The time of year is autumn, and the metaphors for the poet's sense that he is growing old are all chosen as representing transitional times. In the first quatrain he is autumn, when “yellow leaves or none or few do hang.” Summer, his youth, is over, but the winter of old age is not yet upon him. In the second quatrain the speaker is twilight, again a transitional time between daylight (youth) and night. This metaphor deepens the poet's sense of aging as he recalls that the night so soon to descend is “death's second self that seals up all in rest.” The third quatrain intro

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