Perhaps the best known poem on old age written in the last 50 years is Philip Larkin’s The Old Fools, which appeared in High Windows, published in 1973. It rails against old age, beginning with the verse:
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? …
But what Larkin is describing is extreme old age. There is an earlier phase euphemistically described as the “golden years”. When we know our days are numbered and begin to lose our friends and peers. Billy Collins begins by describing this phase in his poem, Obituaries. It is very different in tone from The Old Fools. While Larkin rails against age and its infirmities, Collins takes refuge in humour and fantasy. Starting with a playful reference to Yeats’ poem, Sailing to Byzantium, Collins ends with passengers aboard Noah’s ark. But in his account the passengers are not
“ the couples of the animal kingdom,
but rather pairs of men and women,
ascending the gangplank two by two…
all saved at last from the awful flood of life.”
Yep, they are the departed, shuffling off this mortal coil on their way to the world beyond.
Imagine that – death as a voyage on Noah’s ark! Only a poet could have done it, I guess, a very witty poet.
By Billy Collins
These are no pages for the young,
who are better off in one another’s arms,
nor for those who just need to know
about the price of gold,
or a hurricane that is ripping up the Keys.
But eventually you may join
the crowd who turn here first to see
who has fallen in the night,
who has left a shape of air walking in their place.
Here is where the final cards are shown,
the age, the cause, the plaque of deeds,
and sometimes an odd scrap of news —
that she collected sugar bowls,
that he played solitaire without any clothes.
And all the survivors huddle at the end
under the roof of a paragraph
as if they had sidestepped the flame of death.
What better way to place a thin black frame
around the things of the morning —
the hand-painted cup,
the hemispheres of a cut orange,
the slant of sunlight on the table?
And sometimes a most peculiar pair turns up,
strange roommates lying there
side by side upon the page —
Arthur Godfrey next to Man Ray,
Ken Kesey by the side of Dale Evans.
It is enough to bring to mind the ark of death,
not the couples of the animal kingdom,
but rather pairs of men and women
ascending the gangplank two by two,
surgeon and model,
balloonist and metalworker,
an archaeologist and an authority on pain.
Arm in arm, they get on board
then join the others leaning on the rails,
all saved at last from the awful flood of life —
so many of them every day,
there would have to be many arks,
an armada to ferry the dead
over the heavy waters that roll beyond the world,
and many Noahs too,
bearded and fiercely browed, vigilant up there at every prow.