‘Youth and Age’, as the title suggests, explores the passing of time and the onset of old age. What does it mean to grow old? In this great Romantic poem about ageing, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) grapples with this very question.
Youth and Age
Verse, a breeze mid blossoms straying,
Where Hope clung feeding, like a bee—
Both were mine! Life went a-maying
With Nature, Hope, and Poesy,
When I was young!
When I was young?—Ah, woful When!
Ah! for the change ’twixt Now and Then!
This breathing house not built with hands,
This body that does me grievous wrong,
O’er aery cliffs and glittering sands,
How lightly then it flashed along:—
Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide!
Nought cared this body for wind or weather
When Youth and I lived in’t together.
Flowers are lovely; Love is flower-like;
Friendship is a sheltering tree;
O! the joys, that came down shower-like,
Of Friendship, Love, and Liberty,
Ere I was old!
Ere I was old? Ah woful Ere,
Which tells me, Youth’s no longer here!
O Youth! for years so many and sweet,
’Tis known, that Thou and I were one,
I’ll think it but a fond conceit—
It cannot be that Thou art gone!
Thy vesper-bell hath not yet toll’d:—
And thou wert aye a masker bold!
What strange disguise hast now put on,
To make believe, that thou are gone?
I see these locks in silvery slips,
This drooping gait, this altered size:
But Spring-tide blossoms on thy lips,
And tears take sunshine from thine eyes!
Life is but thought: so think I will
That Youth and I are house-mates still.
Dew-drops are the gems of morning,
But the tears of mournful eve!
Where no hope is, life’s a warning
That only serves to make us grieve,
When we are old:
That only serves to make us grieve
With oft and tedious taking-leave,
Like some poor nigh-related guest,
That may not rudely be dismist;
Yet hath outstay’d his welcome while,
And tells the jest without the smile.
Romanticism often glamorises and, indeed, romanticises youth: the liberty and sincerity of childhood and adolescence, or the innocence of the child, who, for Wordsworth, was ‘the father of the man’ rather than vice versa. ‘What happened when the Romantics grew old’ would make for an interesting undergraduate English dissertation. Keats, Byron, and Shelley famously never did. Wordsworth did, and abandoned many of his earlier political views. Coleridge, too. And it was Coleridge who wrote what is perhaps the greatest Romantic poem about growing old. In ‘Youth and Age’, he muses upon his loss of youth as old age begins to creep into his very bones, rendering his body weaker as he realises he lacks the vitality he enjoyed during his younger years.
‘You’re only as old as you feel’ might be a rough paraphrase of the main sentiment driving this poem. If we can but remain young in mind, then we are young, no matter that our bodies may be growing older. No: as Coleridge asserts, ‘Youth and I are house-mates still.’ Coleridge’s friend Leigh Hunt described ‘Youth and Age’ as ‘one of the most perfect poems, for style, feeling, and everything, that were ever written’; as well as being widely admired by his contemporaries, ‘Youth and Age’ was also one of Coleridge’s favourites among his poems.
Coleridge appears to have begun working on ‘Youth and Age’ in 1823, when he was in his early fifties. We know from portraits of the poet that he aged prematurely: he looked frail, and had completely white hair, when he was still only middle-aged. By the time he wrote ‘Youth and Age’ in the 1820s, he was just over a decade away from death, although ‘Youth and Age’ concerns itself less with mortality and approaching death than with the process of ageing, of feeling his youthful strength and vigour sap away from him. The metaphor of the house is revealing: his body is ‘This breathing house not built with hands’, implying that a human body is somehow inferior to a man-made house, since it decays so quickly and nothing can be done to restore it. (Of course, this was in the age before plastic surgery, botox, and the like!) The ‘house’ returns, though, in the more positive line that declares, ‘Youth and I are house-mates still.’ Finally, the mind can control the (weakening) body: ‘Life is but thought: so think I will / That Youth and I are house-mates still.’