On Arnold’s little-known meditation on growing older
‘Growing old’s like being increasingly penalised for a crime you haven’t committed.’ So said the great novelist Anthony Powell, summing up the sense of injustice that accompanies the onset of old age. There’s even a word for a fear of growing old: gerascophobia. In one of his less famous poems, the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822-88) wondered what it means to grow old.
What is it to grow old?
Is it to lose the glory of the form,
The lustre of the eye?
Is it for beauty to forgo her wreath?
—Yes, but not this alone.
Is it to feel our strength—
Not our bloom only, but our strength—decay?
Is it to feel each limb
Grow stiffer, every function less exact,
Each nerve more loosely strung?
Yes, this, and more; but not
Ah, ’tis not what in youth we dreamed ’twould be!
’Tis not to have our life
Mellowed and softened as with sunset glow,
A golden day’s decline.
’Tis not to see the world
As from a height, with rapt prophetic eyes,
And heart profoundly stirred;
And weep, and feel the fullness of the past,
The years that are no more.
It is to spend long days
And not once feel that we were ever young;
It is to add, immured
In the hot prison of the present, month
To month with weary pain.
It is to suffer this,
And feel but half, and feebly, what we feel.
Deep in our hidden heart
Festers the dull remembrance of a change,
But no emotion—none.
It is—last stage of all—
When we are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of ourselves,
To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
Which blamed the living man.
Written in the mid-1860s (probably some time between 1864 and 1867) when Arnold was in his early- to mid-forties, ‘Growing Old’ wonders aloud about what we mean by that phrase: ‘to grow old’. Does it denote physical decay, or mental decline – or loss of youthful good looks? Is ‘growing old’ a state of mind? Are we really only as old as we feel?
For Arnold, unlike Thomas Hardy in ‘I Look into My Glass’, growing old means feeling old – to the extent that we can no longer recall what it was to be young. Whereas Hardy, in his great poem about ageing, curses the fact that his body is weak but his spirit (and desire) is still willing, Arnold sees advancing age as a total erosion of one’s youth – including our memories of what that youth felt like.
Matthew Arnold doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for his metrical innovation. At a time when most of his contemporaries such as Tennyson and Browning were still wedded to the tried and tested poetic forms and metres – rhyming couplets, quatrains, pentameters, blank verse – Arnold wasn’t afraid to experiment with new approaches to these features of poetry. Here, as his editor Miriam Allott notes in her Selected Poems and Prose of Arnold, the five-line unrhymed stanza is Arnold’s own invention.