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Thursday, 14 September 2000

Literature and Aging

Written by  Rochelle Furstenberg

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Great poets and writers, whether young or old, live with a sense of mortality: all men die; we live our lives under the shadow of its end. Writers make us conscious of the passage of time, and the loss that it entails, which we, who reach our elder years, are only too aware of as we increasingly confront loss. Great works of literature are the best self-help guides. They're not into "denial" of life's difficulties. Instead, pain and the fear of death, are confronted, and transformed through art and help us cherish the world all the more.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the greatest English writer of all time. For Shakespeare, time, Janus-like, has two faces. On one hand, it is the revealer of truth: Time brings forth understanding and wisdom, though people are not necessarily wise just because they are old. King Lear, one of Shakespeare's great tragic heroes, was an old man at the beginning of the play but was quite foolish and proud. It is only through experience, and the process of ripening (in Lear's situation, through great suffering), that growth takes place. Time brings seed to fruition and ripening. And as Lear declares, "Ripeness Is All."

At the same time, time is the great destroyer. It devours youth, defaces proud buildings, despoils beauty, and brings down the proud. Time is the Grim Reaper, swinging his scythe, cutting down everything in sight. Anyone touched by death has felt this destruction, the sense of waste and nothingness. Thoughtful people, young and old, have struggled with it.

In the book Shakespeare's Imagery, critic Caroline Spurgeon explains that Shakespeare is expressing the medieval view of time as "the great devourer and destroyer." But he goes beyond the temporary and the temporal, to assert values that withstand time and destruction.

Shakespeare's sonnets, probably written between 1593 and 1596 (and containing many puzzling references to people he loved), offer an answer to this. But first, let us look at Sonnet 30. How uncannily Shakespeare, who was only in his thirties when he wrote the sonnets, sums up the reflections of the older person looking back upon his life!

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought
I summon remembrances of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay, as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

For Shakespeare, it is "thee dear friend," that redeems the world from time's ravages. Friendship, and more generally, love, is the eternal, unalterable value that is not affected by time and change. "Love's not Time's Fool," says Shakespeare in Sonnet 116. Everything else is affected by time and change: youth, beauty, strength, power, prestige. All fades. Love alone remains.

Shakespeare's answer to this can also be found in Sonnet 116 mentioned above when he says "Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds." In other words, Shakespeare is not talking about whimsical, capricious human love, the transitory feelings that are mistaken for love. He celebrates romantic love in many of his plays, like Romeo and Juliet, but it is just a reflection of some higher, more profound love.

A man of the Renaissance influenced by the Neoplatonic ideal of love, he is referring to the basic eternal principle of love that is structured into the world, and underlies everything else -- friendship, love between man and woman, love of children. We yearn for this eternal, unchanging love. It alone defeats death and the vagaries of time.

Last modified on Friday, 15 April 2011 20:16
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Rochelle Furstenberg

Rochelle Furstenberg

Rochelle Furstenberg has been writing and magazine editing for more than 30 years. She has a master's degree in Philosophy and studied toward a doctorate in English Literature before launching her career in journalism, with a focus on the arts and contemporary culture, women's issues, and religious and social topics. She has published in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Hadassah Magazine, The Jerusalem Post and elsewhere. Rochelle is married, with children and grandchildren. She was the director of the WholeFamily Senior Center during the year 1999-2000.

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