On Growing Old
by John Masefield, 1878-1967
It's slightly disconcerting to know that this poem was written in August 1919, when the poet was just 41 years old. (And less than halfway through a long life: he died a few days before his 89th birthday.) You can of course feel old at any age. It must have been a passing feeling, though, as Masefield continued to live a vigorous and productive life for several decades. Very productive: "seventeen plays, twenty novels, several volumes of critical, autobiographical, and miscellaneous prose, and over thirty volumes of poetry," says Donald E. Stanford in his introduction to the Selected Poems (Carcanet Press; Manchester, U.K.; 1984.)
Masefield was Poet Laureate of Britain from 1930 to his death in 1967. That encompassed the period of my schooling, and we were given several of his poems to memorize. Every English person schooled in the 1950s knows (or at least knows of ) "Cargoes," "Sea Fever," and some lines from "Reynard the Fox."
I always liked Masefield's verse, though somewhat less in adult life than formerly. He walks a little close to the precipice of sentimentality sometimes. I still wince a bit at his rhyming "remembers" with "embers" in this one. Somehow, though, Masefield overcomes his own faults and rises to beautiful, memorable verse.
"spindrift" — sea spray. Masefield did three years' training for the Merchant Navy in his teens, and at age sixteen was taken on for a three-month voyage via Cape Horn to Chile on a sailing ship, the Gilcruix. Other than routine transatlantic crossings as a passenger, that was his entire experience of the sea. Yet those experiences impressed him so much, he wrote numerous memorable sea poems — Stanford's selection includes sixteen — and is often thought of as a sea poet. Even when not writing about the sea, nautical terms crop up all over the place in his verse, as here.
"spinet" — "a small harpsichord having a single keyboard" (Webster's Third)
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• Text of the poem
Be with me, Beauty, for the fire is dying;
My dog and I are old, too old for roving.
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying,
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.
I take the book and gather to the fire,
Turning old yellow leaves; minute by minute
The clock ticks to my heart. A withered wire,
Moves a thin ghost of music in the spinet.
I cannot sail your seas, I cannot wander
Your cornland, nor your hill-land, nor your valleys
Ever again, nor share the battle yonder
Where the young knight the broken squadron rallies.
Only stay quiet while my mind remembers
The beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.
Beauty, have pity! for the strong have power,
The rich their wealth, the beautiful their grace,
Summer of man its sunlight and its flower.
Spring-time of man, all April in a face.
Only, as in the jostling in the Strand,
Where the mob thrusts, or loiters, or is loud,
The beggar with the saucer in his hand
Asks only a penny from the passing crowd,
So, from this glittering world with all its fashion,
Its fire, and play of men, its stir, its march,
Let me have wisdom, Beauty, wisdom and passion,
Bread to the soul, rain when the summers parch.
Give me but these, and though the darkness close
Even the night will blossom as the rose.