Splendour in the Brown Grass: Some thoughts on Getting Older with Poetry

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death.
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

—William Wordsworth: “Ode: Intimations of Immortality

Unlike his fellow great Romantic poets—John Keats, Percy Shelly, and George Gordon, Lord Byron—William Wordsworth did not have the good fortune to die young and tragically. While his peers blazed like meteors and consumed themselves in their brilliant flames, Wordsworth had to figure out how to grow old.

Did I mention that he was 33 years old? Yeah, Romantic poetry has always been a young person’s game.

The Intimations Ode has always been popular with Latter-day Saints because Wordsworth appears to confirm our doctrine of a pre-existence with lines like, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting.” I’ve never been much impressed with this argument. This is not really what Wordsworth is trying to do in the poem, and even if it were, having one’s doctrines confirmed by poets is not really a compelling theological augment. We are none of us nightingales or Grecian urns.

But the Intimations Ode is one of the world’s great poems about aging. Specifically, it is about the tradeoffs that come with getting older. What do we lose and what do we gain? The poem moves through several different philosophical positions, as odes are supposed to do (the form is loosely based on the arguments of the chorus in classical tragedy). The classical ode is an internal argument that moves to some kind of resolution. The Immortality Ode is structured something like this:

  • Statement of the problem: “I am 33, and the world just doesn’t fill me with the same awe and wonder that it used to, and what am I supposed to write poetry about now.”
  • An exploration of the cause of the problem: Children have come straight from a beautiful and glorious heaven, and when they are young, they can still perceive the beauty and glory of everything they see because they dimly remember how it was in the beautiful and glorious heaven.
  • A statement of the resolution: We lose the power to see the glory of the natural world when we are older, because we don’t remember heaven anymore. But we gain the ability to see the earth as it is, and we acquire the wisdom to invest the earth-as-it-is with meaning and a different kind of beauty. There are four things that one gains with age: “the primal sympathy,” “the soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering,” “the faith that looks through death,” and “the years that bring the philosophic mind.”

When I read the poem now, at 56—23 years after Wordsworth declared me dead to the beauties of nature—I can’t resist the urge to see how I am doing on these four things that, together, constitute the “what is left behind” that Wordsworth wants to find strength in. This time I’ll share.

Primal Sympathy
I am pretty sure that I am more sympathetic now than I used to be. I was impatient with people when I was younger, and I thought I dramatically overestimated my intellectual powers. I have now worn more shoes, and it is easier to put yourself in somebody’s shoes when you have worn those shoes yourslf.

But Wordsworth is talking about “primal sympathy,” which refers to a common store of emotions, values, and symbols that is part of the makeup of all humans—the big stuff, like love and loss and ambition and loneliness. Acquiring primal sympathy means accepting one’s own humanity and realizing that it is no different, no better, and no worse than anyone else’s humanity. This is also, it turns out, the core observation of most religions, many philosophies and ethical systems, and the fine art of not being a jerk.

How am I doing? Better, I think.Wordsworth’s primal sympathy comes close to describing how I define both spirituality and morality. I think I am a lot better at loving “humanity” than I was when I was young and certain that I was special. And I have gotten slightly better at loving actual people—or, at least, other people who are very different from me. One of the main reasons I value a religious community is that it throws me in contact with many people who are very different from me and expect me to love them.

Soothing thoughts/human suffering
So, I have to reframe this one to think about it. I do not believe that human suffering has any inherent meaning or purpose. I do not believe in a God who requires us to suffer pain and loss in order to learn lessons. I do not believe that “everything happens for a reason.”

That said, I do believe that human beings have the power to invest suffering and loss with meaning that they create themselves. Humans are marvelous storytellers. We are good at constructing narratives around facts, and we can do that with bad facts as well as good facts. Nobody can avoid pain because the state of affairs that we call “suffering” is simply a synonym for “being alive.” Yet we have the power to take the raw data of our pain and structure it into a narrative that invests it with significance.

Have I done this? Sort of. I haven’t really suffered much in my life, and investing suffering with meaning is something one can only do for oneself. It is not my job to explain why anybody else must suffer. But I think I have developed a pretty good framework for managing my own humanity—one based more on Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus than on Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelly. We’ll see how that works out when things get worse.

Faith
I can trace a pretty straight, ode-like movement of my faith in both God and religion since my childhood. It has moved from “In a Relationship” to “Single” to “It’s Complicated.” And the complications have become, for me, the most important thing.

It is only recently that I have become comfortable answering questions of faith with unequivocal equivocation. Do I believe in God? That depends on how you define “God.” Am I religious? In some ways but not others. Why are you still a Latter-day Saint? Because that is my spiritual language, and I can’t ask the questions I want to ask in a foreign tongue.

All of these answers would have seemed like vile heresy to my 17-year-old self and like confused rationalizing to my 30-year-old self. I have thought on both ends of the “black and white” dichotomy. I have been all in and all out, and I was miserable in both spaces.  But now I love the borderlands between faith and doubt. All the cool people are here, and all the fun and meaningful conversations happen on the border. Is this “the faith that looks through death”? Possibly. But I am certain that it is the only kind of faith that I can sustain until I die.

Philosophic Mind
I think I have always been more of a philosopher than a poet. This is not because I am particularly good at philosophy—I am just spectacularly bad at poetry. Even at 21, I never really saw much splendor in the grass. Mainly I just hated mowing it.

But getting older has changed the kind of philosophizing I like to do. As a younger person (and a person who had to go up for tenure and promotion), I mainly philosophized about things that didn’t matter very much to me: Was Robinson Crusoe the first English novel? Was Milton a religious or a political poet? Did Bunyan change his mind about pre-destination in the second half of Pilgrim’s Progress? Yeah, I thought long and hard about all those things.

Now I just can’t get worked up over those questions anymore, and I am much more interested in philosophizing about the kinds of questions that have animated religious discussions for most of human history: What does loving one’s neighbor look like in real life? What does it mean for a church, or a scripture, or a belief to be “true”? These are much more interesting questions to me now, and I have much less satisfying answers than I had to earlier questions.

But I have learned that it is our questions, and not the answers, that actually constitute our lives.   

That’s the report so far. Would I trade these things for the mind, body, and potential that I had at 21? Probably not. But that has never been the question, since nobody is offering to make the trade. Getting older is one of the many things that simply happen in the cold, hard world of fact. It has the meaning that we invest it with, and investing things with meaning is kind of what poems are for.  

Comments

  1. I love this, Michael. It says so much about you, but also so much about me and the ways we connect in this progress toward getting old.
    For myself, I would turn “the faith that looks through death” in a slightly different direction. My aging experience includes a look into the abyss and a sense of a final end (acknowledging that’s not standard theology in most Western traditions), and my faith—that looks through death—manifests as a decision or choice to make this life meaningful in this time and place, in company with people like you.

  2. A beautiful report, Michael.

    As a possible complement to Christian’s comment above, I would read “the faith that looks through death” as that faith–that sense of commitment, belief, or hope–that endures through a recognition of its own limitations, and its own death(s). Sometimes, if we live long enough, we all will face situations where we can’t manage to look with eyes of faith, hope, belief, etc., upon what we face. It’s just an enormity, and it blocks all sight. Yet life continues, and we still stumble on, and the moments of grace come again. Do we deny them, insist that they’re false and a delusion, because we’ve seen hope come to naught before? That’s an all-black-or-all-white situation, which you rightly call a miserable place to be. So sometimes we see God’s presence and love, and sometimes we don’t, and by the time we’ve experienced enough of life, we make no accounting of it; faith looks forward, regardless.

  3. I read your post and from my perspective, a wonderful meditation on getting older. I am approaching 70 and I can identify with your thoughts. I am with you there…

  4. I really like this. I started teaching survey courses about the Romantic poets in my late twenties–peak Romantic age (well, except for Keats; he was already dead). I had no patience for them then. They seemed so self-obsessed. Boys unduly impressed with their own talent.

    I am now in my fifth decade, and every year that passes, I appreciate their work more. I am not sure what happened. Some primal sympathy, maybe. I have also grown to admire their intellectual fearlessness. What seemed like so much posing to my twenty-something self looks like genuine courage from this side of forty.

    And this post and their writing makes me reflect on what a privilege it is to age. Thank you.

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