The carpe diem topos and the ‘geriatric gaze’ in early modern verse

Ceri Sullivan
University of Bangor

Ceri Sullivan. "The carpe diem topos and the ‘geriatric gaze’ in early modern verse". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.3 (January, 2009) 8.1-21 <URL:>.

  1. It is surprising how rarely literary critics comment on representations of age in early modern literature, given our deep interest in other sets for identity (principally gender, ethnicity, faith, desire, and class). What comment there is tends to fade into how the old disengage with life, and is, moreover, rarely historically contextualized. Literature of the early modern period sees age as a period of some opportunity. As Mike Hepworth points out, ‘images of old age are essentially moral categories of the body created within specific historical contexts to enable societies and individuals to make sense of the biological changes that are taking place in and on their bodies’.1 Literary critics appear to have developed a ‘geriatric gaze’ (Hepworth’s phrase) which produces an object of study which is some way away from the early modern period’s own depictions. If we are properly wary of the sonneteer’s gaze, which dominates and dismembers his mistress, the sovereign’s gaze, which creates the value of the masque he views, and the colonial gaze, which others its counterpart; we should be equally suspicious of our own view of the elderly..

  2. The following argument will demonstrate the gap between the stance taken on age by today’s literary critics and that of theologians, doctors, and commentators in the period, and suggest why it has developed. It will then exemplify how taking up the latter changes the sense of a topos which deals specifically with age (carpe diem or ‘seize the day’) when it deals with a man who is getting older. While the carpe diem is always also a memento mori for the woman, writing a poem about male aging should demonstrate that the faculties for which he is valued are still there – or that’s the theory, anyway.

  3. Many of today’s readers view the aged in early modern literature in a persistently unbalanced fashion. For instance, for every ballad, of the ‘old man and his wife, who in their great want and misery sought to children for succour, by whom they were disdained’ there are two celebrating men such as the ‘twelve morris-dancers in Herefordshire, of twelve hundred years old’, with ‘hearts of Oake at forrescore yeares: [and] backes of steele at fourescore and ten’, or cheering on ‘The old, old, very old man’, a ‘merry’ adulterer at 105.2 Yet Alice Tobriner, the primary commentator on age in popular literature, recognizes only tales of rejection, impotent lust, and decay in these ballads. Similarly, Steven Marx focuses only on the limited desires, humble circumstances, and laborious life of the old shepherds of Renaissance pastoral.3 When dealing with age in Shakespeare, the figures of Lear and Prospero in particular cast a long shadow because they conform to the current cultural expectation of disempowerment. Conversely, Antony and Cleopatra are seen as lovers, Henry IV as a politician, Falstaff as a jovial leader. All these talk openly about their age, but, because they are engaged with action, we pass over it. Not so with Lear and Propsero, who are ‘retired’ under the present day model. Francelia Butler considers that a lack of physical strength in the old in Shakespeare’s histories means that their moral convictions cannot be carried into action. They lack the forceful ‘vir’ of ‘virtue’.4 Herbert Covey also sees the old in Shakespeare as irrelevant at best.5 Hallett Smith, spends treble the time on Shakespeare’s aged fools and second childhoods as he does on ripe plants and wise leaders.6 Indeed, the few readers who deal optimistically with the subject of age stand out. Laurel Porter argues Lear is not inherently weak but made to seem so by his daughters’ insistence that he is impotent (a tactic to avoid open disobedience).7 William Kerrigan celebrates the creative potential of anger and obstinacy associated with Lear and Prospero’s old age, and Sara M. Deats argues that both men learn the wisdom to disengage from social roles. Yet given Lear succumbs to his daughters’ view, he is weak, Kerrigan’s reading- original and welcome though it is - stereotypes age even as it makes the two rulers heroes again, and Deats’s essay is shadowed by the gloomy aside that such disengagement comes too late to change the heroes’ characters really.8

  4. Representations of age are peculiarly likely to depend more on hopes and anxieties than on experience. Age, in a sense, is more of a fiction than youth - and it is not generally written up today as a glamorous one. Retired from economic productivity, coping with a failing body, living in retrospective narration... these subjects have little to do with the socially mobile, highly polished selves that are the admiration of post-modern literature.9 Hepworth locates this view of age in late capitalism’s emphasis on productivity, and in post-modernism’s engagement with body and image management, combined with latter’s scepticism about the possibility of ever speaking about a coherent self. From the 1960s onwards, gerontologists studied the psychological consequences of demanding that both society and the old person mutually disengage, being irrelevant to each other’s concerns. Retiring from a job means losing external circumstances that have hitherto supported how a worker structures her inner life, and how she is viewed by others. Sociologists of age, following Erik Erikson, drew up a series of ‘lifetasks’ for age, where the former worker accepted the course his life had taken, moved from self-centred action to a transcendent interest in humanity, and prepared for the final disengagement of death.10 This current, decremental fear reverberates in comments today of literature of the past.

  5. In fact, aging looks very different from the perspective of a faith-based society. The ‘Protestant’ work ethic - now lauded as the impetus for the development of a capitalist society – was then dedicated to producing a godly self (not an economic surplus) by the correct employment of time.11 Consequently, the very paradigm that now sees the elderly as redundant saw them four hundred years ago as having holy leisure to reflect on God and their end, where ‘end’ was seen purposefully, as a climax. Indeed, the ars moriendi of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries address all ages, not primarily because the chances of dying at a younger age were higher, but because living in the shadow of the cross was the duty of every Christian.12 The selves so produced could be examined in the century’s new genres of self-reflection, such as diaries, autobiographies, and conversion narratives. That left-over item, the body, was recalcitrant material to be chipped into a godly shape by proper discipline.

  6. Moreover, the pattern of working life under late capitalism is not characteristic of the early modern period. Recent historians have found it difficult to discern specific age-related social impediments in the period. Keith Thomas’s study of old people in the period concluded that their ‘greatest advantage… was that, unlike today, they were not compelled to disengage themselves from active life, merely because they had reached some fixed numerical age’.13 Lloyd Bonfield points out that earlier assumptions that the aged were over-represented among the poor (perhaps by two-fold) missed the fact that the indigent poor measured by the city censuses of Elizabeth and James’s reigns were at most 3% of the total population.14 Most of the aged population were therefore not among this cohort. As the most recent and trenchant historian of age, Pat Thane, says, we should not believe unreservedly in the miserable pictures given by some prescriptive literature of the period, nor confuse ‘green’ old age with ‘decrepit’ old age.15 Turning to prosopography, a glance at most Tudor and Stuart statesmen and high ranking clergy, such as William Cecil and Hugh Latimer, shows a gerontocracy. The average age at death of the archbishops of Canterbury across the century was 73, most judges were in their 50s when appointed, and the median age of privy councillors was between 51 and 61.16 Nor were the old exceptional figures in the community. Demographers have concluded that at least 7-10% of the population was over the age of 60 between 1580 and 1686, and nearly a third of people over the age of 15 could expect to live to over 60.17 Thomas cites numerous cases where men ‘ripe in judgement’ were preferred, concluding that ‘the preference for age and seniority was shared by all those corporate institutions which set a value on hierarchy, stability, and continuity’, such as the church, the university and the law. ‘Only at times of radical upheaval did the younger men move in’.18 If the elderly are seen as a vital social resource, not a cost, it is clear that the geriatric gaze of today is unbalanced in a properly historicized context.

  7. This impression is borne out by the period’s own commentary on the topic. In devotional terms, it takes two lines. A few texts make the traditional ‘complaint’ of how society ignores the decrepit, whose poverty and neglect can only be cured by death.19 This applies commonplaces about all the needy to medieval pictures of the stoic endurance of the old.20 A more voluminous and cheerful strand, however, says that while age’s enriched judgement and strong will give it a duty to govern public and family affairs, age is also particularly able at thinking about the world to come. As one commentator says, ‘let the western wind blow, let old age (declining now to the west and her last sitting) shew herselfe as troublesome as she can, yet… so long as she can launce forth into the depth of meditation… it is altogether unprobable that she should be drowned’.21 Another points out that, crowned with glory, the old can already ‘look into the holy Land, and see the Lord ready to receive their souls, as soon as their bodies (which are ripe for dissolution) drop to the earth’.22 John Reading counts six ‘reall benefits’ of old age: the ‘beauty and vigor of the mind’ increase, noisome passions are lost, and one is willing to die, being and nearer to heaven and to eternal life (with the side benefit of increasing one’s status in life). The difficulty only comes if old age is looked at from an earthly perspective, since ‘if we define old age [as] a certaine ripenesse of life, and length of time to a blessed translation, then age is naturall; but if we describe it according to our present being, it is a continuall disease’ – and who, the author muses, would be stupid enough to do that?23 Prefacing Thomas Sheafe’s similar work on the subject, William Gouge points proudly to his own age (63), Sheafe’s (80), and that of the book’s dedicatee, Laurence Chaderton (nearly 100). Gouge says Sheafe’s extensive reading, strong memory, profound judgement, and long experience make him fit to comment on how the mind gets better with age. Sheafe himself dwells on elderly scriptural and classical leaders and writers, concluding that ‘elder yeares are best fitted for the greatest and most important employments’ (Moses at 120, for instance, was ‘extraordinarily strong, active, and every way able for that great service’). Age is, moreover, notable for its ‘privileges’ and ‘dignity’, when time can be taken for private devotion and further acts of virtue. This is the point when elderly ministers come into their own, for in every church the minsters are ‘the worke-men, the men of ACTION’. Above all, ‘is not hee happy that is neare the thing he advisedly much desires?’24 These are robust and optimistic assertions, so it is wilful of Tobriner to say of Reading and Sheafe that they show age as ‘ugly, fragile, even reprehensible since it must be considered as a penalty for a previous youth of debauchery’.25

  8. There are spiritual problems also in age, but they are not of the die-away disengaged variety. The potential for developing spiritual hardness is acknowledged by devotional writers. George Herbert’s ‘the growth of flesh is but a blister/ Childhood is health’ is voiced even more emphatically by Henry Vaughan: ‘my soul with too much stay / Is drunk, and staggers in the way’.26 Nonetheless, neither poet finds a special moment when age is closer to death than youth. The process of physical decay is with us throughout in Herbert’s ‘Mortification’, where the opening exclamation ‘How soon doth man decay’ starts it from the moment the infant is swaddled, whose ‘clouts are little winding sheets’, and follows it through the boy’s early bedtime (a grave), to youth’s mirthful music (a knell), to manhood’s homemaking (a coffin), to age’s chair (a bier) .27 In mental terms too, Herbert can view the beginning of forgetfulness and a loss of creative power with equanimity. When the ‘harbingers’ or white hairs of Herbert’s ‘The Forerunners’ appear, he affectionately but calmly waves off ‘sparkling notions’, ‘sweet phrases, lovely metaphors’, and ‘enchanting language’. When the poet faces the loss of creative power in age, he has the same solution as he has to over-creative youth: ‘Thou art still my God, is all that ye/ Perhaps with more embellishment can say’, the conclusion of ‘The Forerunners’ is also the conclusion of the two ‘Jordan’ poems and ‘The Poesie’.28

  9. Moses, Elizabeth I, and Chaderton notwithstanding, some earlier secular writers are more doubtful about whether the aged can operate in the public sphere. Following Aristotle’s Rhetoric, they develop a one-sided etiology from the fact of long years of life. Old men’s characters are formed by the multiple experiences of deceit and mistakes they have encountered (presumably the multiple experiences of honesty and efficiency are less telling). Thus, Aristotle continues, they cannot be certain about matters of fact or opinion, they look on the worst side of every affair, and they are nervous about surviving these errors so are little-minded. Additionally, since their bodies are fading they live in memory not hope, and their desires are either weak or cannot be acted on.29 This thumbnail sketch (which is not supported by the Parva naturalia) was designed to aid rhetors in speaking according to the audience’s attitudes. It is repeated in some character books, including Thomas Overbury’s, and reappears in humanist writing. Castiglione’s youthful interlocutors, for instance, snort that the old cannot be outstanding as courtiers in dancing and singing (not with those voices and figures), so sideline them into giving advice to youth in the latter’s (obviously more significant) affairs.30 Georges Minois, pondering on why such earlier humanists and courtiers condemned age (including, in one case, considering suicide for the over 50s) thinks that the reality of old age challenged their impossible fantasy of creating a superman who combined beauty, strength, decisiveness, and intelligence.31

  10. Generally, though, pragmatic English writers later in the century think problems in public life come not from a decrease of mental ability but an increase in character defects in age. Like Montaigne, who appeals to his own experience of age, Francis Bacon thinks the old man more powerful in judgement than a youth, though admitting him susceptible to envy, callousness, avarice, and inconstancy through fear. Since judgement and understanding belong to age, but action and invention to youth, a mix of ages in every venture will help make it successful.32 Thomas Browne more sourly says that ‘age doth not rectifie, but incurvate our natures, turning bad dispositions into worser habits’, and thus, ‘though the radicall humour containe in it sufficient oyle for seventie, yet I perceive in some it gives no light past thirtie’.33 These comments are in the tradition of Cicero’s De senectute, where the octogenarian Cato argues that the defects associated with age are largely to do with character, and can be overcome. Cato praises age’s ability to filter out what is unnecessary to remember, to accept the lesser bodily strength as appropriate to a life of thought, not physical action, and to look forward with interest to death.34 Similarly vigorous and optimistic views are expressed by the old Cephalus, in the prelude to Plato’s Republic, and in letters 12 and 26 by Seneca. In old age the mind blossoms. Moreover, ‘when a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus’.35 So, for instance, Simon Goulart thinks it mostly the case that age ‘hath no whit diminished [men’s] strength of minde or sharpeness of wit, but that they are still to this day, by their grave counsels, godly communications, and learned writings, very helpefull to their friends, and doe good service to the Church, to their Prince and Common weal’. It is up to each to keep their minds active and characters honourable. ‘Old men are no gybing and jesting Buffones, who with their arms across take pleasure to trifle out the time, and to idle it at home in their houses... but they meditate, imagine, and construe, and are always doing one good deed or another’.36 Far from disengaging with society, Sheafe agrees, age is the very period when one has the wealth, time, and wisdom to aid others.37

  11. Nor do most medical writers of the period assume a decline. They warn against assuming that chronological age entails specific physiological and psychological features. ‘There are’, says a respected physician, Andreas du Laurens, ‘very many which become old men at fortie, and againe there are an infinit sort, which are young men at sixtie’. He prefaces his treatise with praise of his patron, who despite her advanced years cannot be old since she has wisdom, sound judgement, a fresh memory, a lusty heart, and senses so sharp she can read without spectacles and relish tastes. 38 The usual regime advised to drive away the dry and cold humour of melancholy, which was thought to advance in age (though, of course, was not specific to it), is to encourage radical heat. This Galenic approach, involving balancing the humours, increases the moist warmth associated with fertility and life. Given the regime involves ‘old, red, and good strong wine’ (with not too much water), pleasant walks, ‘fricasies’ or massages early morning, the company of beautiful women, listening to praise and to people speaking of what one is expert in, and maintaining a merry and tranquil heart, anyone might look forward to the state.39 Luigi Cornaro, in a 1558 treatise on old age which was repeatedly translated throughout the period (including by George Herbert), instances the effect of these actions on himself. A rigorous regime of health, plenty of exercise and moderate pleasure, and at 83 he is on horseback, patronizing the arts, governing his household, reading widely, and enjoying his grandchildren; ‘the life which I live at this age is not a dead, dumpish, and sower life; but cheerfull, lively, and pleasant’.40

  12. To sum up: despite historians having moved on, literary criticism still looks to find present ills in past literature. It assumes it is assessing representations of the sharp break between economic activity and retirement, the primacy of memory over action, and the decaying body. However, under a different paradigm of work, all but the last clause are at least arguable. It would not do to overstate the matter; Vaughan, for instance, translates a vicious passage in the tenth satire of Juvenal on the weakness, pettishness, and loneliness of old age. Yet the balance of voices is on the other side, and that balance is largely not being heard in literary criticism today.

  13. It seems particularly important to get the historical context right in the case of the subgenre which comes closest to modern understandings of age because it deals with desire and body, and which therefore calls for most care in interpretation: lyrics about the aging poet or beloved. Early modern love poetry usually expresses a man’s overwhelming desire, which he hopes will call out pity or gratitude from a hitherto unresponsive mistress. Critics argue about how this unmanly loss of power is recuperated in the lover’s gaze, which anatomises the woman and at the same time coheres the poet’s sense of self.41 The social effects of aging (unlike its biological effects) are usually gendered in these poems. Women are prized for their looks, which fade early, men for their abilities, which are held to continue into old age. So what happens when the most daring men try to blazon their own age, and imagine their lovers looking at them? Does Hepworth’s geriatric gaze come into play, requiring a decremental reading of the poems, or are other possibilities opened up by the praise for active age given in the social commentators of the period?

  14. Often, the carpe diem poem takes an oddly impersonal stance on the ‘now or never’ threat it poses. It focuses on the waste of beauty and time per se, rather than on the specific decline of either lover, who will no longer be desirable to the other. Andrew Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’, for instance, invites the woman to join in a joint project to evade ‘Time’s winged chariot’, but only after assuring her that waiting would be just as sweet. It is simply that neither has the time. Her youth and beauty are assets that must be profited from immediately; his desire is (ostensibly) irrelevant. Likewise, even when pleading the cause of some unknown woman, the arguments used in Shakespeare’s early sonnets are more on behalf of Nature than about the lover’s anxieties about what age does to desire, felt or incited. ‘Pity the world, or else this glutton be,/ To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee’, the young man is instructed in sonnets 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6... and ‘let not winter’s ragged hand deface/ In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled’.42 Nor do such poems characteristically conceive of an aging future, either apart or together, for the lovers. Most, like Marvell’s, work in a suicidal register, urging the woman to ‘at once our time devour,/ Than languish in his slow-chapped power’, and to ‘tear our pleasures with rough strife,/ Thorough the iron grates of life’.43 The topos generally works by economic calculation, done strictly in the present, whether it argues that making the most of the time will entail pleasure or heirs.

  15. Some poems, however, do linger over the emotional effects that age will have on the lover and the beloved. Robert Herrick unequivocally regards the carpe diem threat as specifically female. He can conceive of aging himself, but it will have no effect on his desirability. In ‘Corinna’s going a Maying’ the heartening injunction to ‘come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene’ is underpinned with the mutual and traditional worry that ‘We shall grow old apace, and die,/ Before we know our liberty’. The poem is surrounded by other, more specific poems on women’s decay. ‘Loathed Furrowes’ will plough Corinna’s face, Silvia will feel the silent touch of wrinkles, and a lady who rejects him for his grey hair will turn to ‘frost and snow’ herself.44 The picture is very different when he considers his own decline. Herrick’s favourite erotic posture is the passive, and - despite declaring ‘Age unfit for love’ - he relishes the opportunity which growing old gives him to instruct Corinna, Silvia, Julia, Anthea, and the rest either in how to rouse him or (pushing the topic to its limit) how to lay him out. The women’s delicately precise action is key to these compensatory erotic fantasies. At the last, Perilla, gazing on his white hairs, must remember to salt the bubbles from a fresh spring to wash his corpse, wind it in her own used sheets, and strew his grave with tears and primroses (weekly). When ‘Old I am, and cannot do/ That I was accustom’d to’, he expects his ‘mistresses’ all together ‘to enflesh [his] thighs, and armes’ in order to (echoing Cornaro’s enjoyment of his massages and hot wine) beget his ‘former heat’. And then there is the delightful effect of mixing (his) grey and (her) black hair.45 In short, while age makes women undesirable, it increases a man’s erotic pleasures. Age reduces the effort a bouncing mistress might require from him, and increases the effort she must make to rouse his manhood. Even when he cannot ‘do’, Herrick can feel sure he will be an attraction.

  16. At least Thomas Carew and John Donne give the aging woman a choice. Carew sends ‘To A.L. Perswasions to love’ which admit of female desire (‘Were men so fam’d as they alone/ Reap’d all the pleasure, women none,/ Then had you reason to be scant’). Thus, in anticipation of when the lady’s hairs will grow ‘White, and cold as winters snow’, and ‘yellow spred, where red once shin’d’, he advises her to store up a lover now for the future (‘Wisely chuse one to your friend,/ Whose love may, when your beauties end,/ Remaine still firme’, for ‘Old folkes say there are no paynes/ Like itch of love in aged vaines./ Oh love me then, and now begin it’).46 The prudential calculations and present tense of the carpe diem topos are modified to allow a time when older lovers can enjoy themselves. There is a ‘then’ after the ‘now’. Donne’s elegy ‘The Autumnal’ credits older love with a temperate recognition of the individuals in the relationship. Resentful of ‘young beauties [who] force your love, and that’s a rape’ (the hussies who obsess the sonneteers), he exclaims with relief of the older woman’s beauty that ‘This does but counsel, yet you cannot scape’. Like Carew, Donne gives a promise of mutual lasting pleasure through age, when ‘Affection… takes reverence’s name’, in a ‘tolerable tropic clime’ outside the enraging, inflaming loss of self in young love. He then readmits the carpe diem strategy by contrasting autumnal looks to decrepit old age, with its slack skin, hollow eyes, and toothless ‘winter-faces’. Yet, pushed to choose between youth and age, he prefers, ‘Not panting after growing beauties’, to ‘ebb out with them, who homeward go’.47 While the rueful sexual pun hints that age can take away women’s looks and men’s erections, it provides in return an affection which adds to the lovers’ abilities and choices, adds to their selves.

  17. Jonson and Shakespeare make the most daring thought experiments on the topic of age, mindful of writing as action. Four of Jonson’s poems from Underwoods contra-blazon his age and condition in concrete, specific terms: he is 19 st 14 lbs, in one poem aged 47, in another 50, with grey hair and (to put it politely) a rugged complexion. Nonetheless, the poet argues that his youthful creativity will make up for all. In point of fact, during the year before Jonson turned 47, in 1618-19, he walked from London to Scotland and back, and had nearly two decades of creative work ahead of him. Jonson expects to be desired because of his abilities with verse (not, as with Herrick, simply because he is male). He implies that women (unlike sonneteers) love with their ears - and, daringly, he dramatises the woman’s response to this assumption.

  18. The elegy which starts out boldly ‘Let me be what I am, as Virgil cold;/ As Horace fat; or as Anacreon old’ claims that ‘No poet’s verses yet did ever move, / Whose readers did not think he was in love’. Therefore, precisely because Jonson is acknowledged as a poet, he must also be recognised as young enough to love, for ‘Who shall forbid me then in rhythm to be/ As light and active as the youngest he’. Likewise, an ‘Epistle. To my Lady Covell’ can dismiss the fact that he is ‘a tardy, cold,/ Unprofitable chattel, fat and old’, a body without its radical heat and moisture, since ‘the muse is one, can tread the air,/ And stroke the water, nimble, chaste, and fair’. Thus, he concludes, ‘although you fancy not the man,/ Accept his muse’. A comparison with Shakespeare’s sonnets is interesting on this point. Ian MacInnes has argued of Shakespeare that the triangle of young man, mature woman, and older poet in the sonnets springs from Renaissance medical advice. Though strong passions and hard study are aging, vitality, radical moisture, and heat can be transferred by meeting with fertile women and young men. Physical contact (but not sex) with these is an antidote to the drying rigours of writing poetry.48 Jonson’s position is distinctive: vitality in and from writing is a quality, he claims, which will win him close contact - very definitely including sex.

  19. But will his talents hold out? A subsidiary point to the carpe diem topos is that since the youth of the beloved is preserved by the poet’s work the latter in some sense possesses the beloved. Thus, for instance, Shakespeare’s sonnets 15, 17, 18, 19, 54, 55, 60, 63, and 65 point out that, ‘all in war with time for love of you/ As he takes from you, I engraft you new’ (sonnet 15). However, early modern gerontologists do not agree on the value of this bargaining chip. Creative power in age is not taken for granted, so a beloved may be less well preserved by being written about by an older man. Some think, as Herbert’s ‘The Forerunners does’, that youth has the better invention and imagination. Gilbert Creighton’s seminal article, ‘When did a man in the Renaissance grow old?’, shows how in this earlier period Michelangelo and Aretino describe themselves as old from their mid-forties (Aretino complaining that the rate he could compose stanzas had declined from forty to one each morning).49 Yet others follow Cicero’s lead. Cato asserts that the best works are written in age, when judgement is ripe and memory better at filtering out irrelevancies, citing Sophocles, Plato, Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Isocrates, and Gorgias. Indeed, art historians of the period, debating the concept of the ‘late style’, praise figures such as Titian and Michelangelo for vanquishing the effects of age with beauty of spirit and keen judgement.50

  20. Moreover, a specifically geriatric gaze is explored in other poems by Jonson, where the lady overlooks his verse while she looks him over. ‘A celebration of Charis’ starts by lamenting Jonson’s ‘fifty years’ but recovers with the memory of poets who ‘have loved as old again’, for ‘the language, and the truth,/ With the ardour and the passion,/ Gives the lover weight and fashion’. In response, the lady’s description of the man who would please her pointedly covers his looks in detail over nearly forty lines (young, fair, and downy-chinned as a peach), devotes thirteen lines to his character, and nothing at all to abilities in verse. The same thing happens in ‘My picture left in Scotland’, where Jonson’s ‘language to her, was as sweet,/ And every close did meet/ In sentence, of as subtle feet,/ As hath the youngest he’. Alas! She ‘hath seen/ My hundreds of grey hairs…/ My mountain belly, and my rocky face’ - and ‘All these, through her eyes, have stopped her ears’. 51 In these two poems, Jonson’s frankness about his age defrosts the icy stasis of the Petrarchan situation to startling effect. Men’s ages matter, women do talk about them, and poetry is, frankly, not enough to get over the grey. When Jonson claims that his muse is as vigorous as before, he is aligning himself with the arguments that men do and women appear, and thus that he is outside age if he can ‘do’ poetry. The shock when the woman disagrees is, therefore, treble: his person is refused, the generic conventions of love poetry are rebutted, and the cultural expectation that males age well is rejected. Replacing a cultural context which does not consider that age automatically involves decline is needed for us to feel the shock of the poems too.

  21. Shakespeare too plays variations on the theme. The vandalism caused by time is contended with again and again throughout his sonnet sequence. If the addressee of the sonnets were a woman, the gendered quality of aging would be unproblematic. Given, however, the first 126 are to a young man, the poet’s command that Time ‘carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brown’ (sonnet 19) positions the beloved as passive and subject to the gaze of others. His value lies in appearance, not acts or speech, and aging will prove him as obsolete as an old woman. The conclusion of sonnet 19, ‘Yet do thy worse, old Time, despite thy wrong,/ My love shall in my verse ever live young’, casually disposes of the young man himself. Contrariwise, Shakespeare refers to himself as older than the young man in positive terms. It gives him the experience to write, ‘Against my love shall be as I am now,/ With time’s injurious hand crushed and o’erworn’, where the older man can cause ‘His beauty... in these black lines be seen’ (sonnet 63). Moreover, the short lease of life left him should make the young man more attached now, ‘To love that well, which thou must leave ere long’ (sonnet 73, putting the argument from absence generally used by sonneteers of their ladies). The memorial promised to the young man, against the forgetfulness of time, is even taken over by the poet himself; ‘if you read this line, remember not/ The hand that write it’ (sonnet 71) is an ars moriendi, not an ars oblivionalis. Only when the woman is addressed does a sour note enter about the poet’s age. From sonnet 127 onwards, there are neither carpe diem urgings nor promises to immortalise beauty. Instead comes distrust, as in sonnet 138 where the woman falsely swears fidelity to the older man, and he as falsely pretends to believe her, for ‘age in love loves not t’have years told’. It would seem that, as Jonson fears, the geriatric gaze is a gendered one, and where talents cannot be deployed then the decaying body is related to instead.


1‘Images of old age’, in Handbook of communication and aging research, eds. J. Coupland and J.F. Nussbaum (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Ass., 1995), pp. 7, 15.

2A most excellent ballad, of an old man (London, 1620); Old Meg of Hereford-shire (London, 1609), C2r; ‘The old, old, very old man… Thomas Parr… lived 152 yeares’, in John Taylor: the works (Manchester: Spenser Society, 1870; first collection). Alice Tobriner, ‘Old age in Tudor-Stuart broadside ballads’, Folklore 102 (1991), pp. 149-74.

3‘Fortunate senex: the pastoral of old age’, Studies in English Literature 25.1 (1985), pp. 21-44.

4‘The relationship between moral competence and old age in Richard II, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V’, Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (1965), pp. 236-8.

5‘Shakespeare on old age and disability’, International Journal of Aging and Human Development (50) 2000, pp. 169-85.

6‘”Bare ruined choirs”: Shakespearean variations on the theme of old age’, Huntingdon Library Quarterly 39 (1976), pp. 233-49.

7L. Porter, ‘King Lear and the crisis of retirement’, in L. Porter and L.M. Porter, eds., Aging in Literature (Troy, Mich.: International Book Publishers, 1984.

8 Kerrigan, ‘Life’s iamb: the scansion of late creativity in the culture of the Renaissance’, in Memory and desire: aging-literature-psychoanalysis, eds. K. Woodward and M.M. Schwartz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 168-91; Deats, ‘The dialectic of aging in Shakespeare’s King Lear and The Tempest’, in Aging and identity. A humanities perspective, eds. S.M. Deats and L.T. Lenker (Westport, C.T.: Praeger, 1999), ch. 1

9These images are examined in Perceptions of aging in literature, eds. P. von D. Bagnell and P.S. Soper (New York: Greenwood, 1989); Images of aging. Cultural representations of later life, eds. M. Featherstone and A. Wernick (London: Routledge, 1995).

10E. Erikson and J. Erikson, The life cycle completed (extended version) (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), chs. 3 and 5.

11In the original thesis put forward by Max Weber in The Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism (1905) individualism arises in both the economic and the religious spheres but it does not link them causally (though the experience of profitably using one’s time may have implied such a relationship).

12 C. Galley, The demography of early modern towns: York in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998), pp. 108 ff.

13 ‘Age and authority in early modern England’, Proceedings of the British Academy 62 (1976)’, p. 236.

14 L. Bonfield, ‘Was there a “third age” in the pre-industrial English past? Some evidence from the law’, in An aging world. Dilemmas and challenges for law and social policy, eds. J.M. Eekelaar and D. Pearl (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), pp. 44-45; Life, death and the elderly: historical perspectives, eds. M. Pelling and R.M. Smith (London: Routledge, 1991), chs. 1 and 3.

15Old age in English history. Past experiences, present issues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), chs 1, 4, 6, 7.

16History of old age, chs. 9 and 10; S.R. Smith, ‘Growing old in early Stuart England’, Albion 8 (1976), pp. 125-41; Thomas, ‘Age and authority’, pp. 211-4.

17E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, The population history of England 1541-1871 (London: Edward Arnold, 1981), table A3.1 p. 528; E.A. Wrigley, R.S. Davies, J.E. Oeppen, and R.S. Schofield, English population history from family reconstruction 1580-1837 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), table A9.1, pp. 614-5.

18‘Age and authority’, pp. 208, 212.

19For instance, William Hunnis’s Hunnies recreations: conteining foure godlie and compendious discourses (London, 1595), pp. 47-65, or John Smith’s The pourtract of old age. Wherein is contained a sacred anatomy both of soul and body, and a perfect account of the infirmities of age incident to them both (London, 1666), which includes an implacable Ramist diagram of the problems one could expect (p. 9).

20G. Minois, History of old age, from antiquity to the Renaissance, trans. S.H. Tenison (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, ch. 5.

21A two-fold treatise, the one decyphering the worth of speculation, and of a retired life. The other containing a discoverie of youth and old age (Oxford, 1612), second page series, pp. 28 ff, 26.

22William Knapp, Abraham’s image in one of his sonnes: or, the picture of a good old man (London, 1658), p. 14.

23The old mans staffe, two sermons, shewing the onely way to a comfortable old age (London, 1621), pp. 11-16, 3.

24Vindiciae senectutis, or, a plea for old-age (London, 1639), pp. A5r-v, 12, 14, 33, 135.

25‘Honor for old age: sixteenth-century pious ideal or grim delusion’, Journal of Religion and Aging 1.3 (1985), p. 14.

26‘H. Baptisme (II)’, The English poems of George Herbert, ed. C.A. Patrides (London: J.M. Dent, 1974), pp. 64-5; ‘The Retreat’, Henry Vaughan: the complete poems, ed. A. Rudrum (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), pp. 172-3.

27 Poems, pp. 112-3.

28Poems, pp. 181-2.

29The ‘Art’ of Rhetoric, trans. J.H. Freese (1926; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 2.13. Similar defects appear in the character of ‘an olde man’ by Sir Thomas Overbury, Characters (a Jacobean miscellany) 1622, ed. D. Beecher (Ottawa: Dovehouse, 2003), pp. 211-2; Henry Cuff, The differences of the ages of mans life (London, 1607), pp. 131 ff.

30Baldassare Castiglione, The book of the courtier, trans. T. Hoby. 3 vols (London: J.M. Dent, 1928), vol 2, p. 102.

31History of old age, p. 287.

32Montaigne, Essays, Book 1, ch. 57; Bacon, ‘History of life and death’ (1638), in Translations of the philosophical works, trans. F. Headlam and J. Spedding, vol 5 in Francis Bacon: the works, ed. J. Spedding, R.L. Ellis, and D.D. Heath. 12 vols (London: Longmans et al, 1877), pp. 217 ff; The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, ed. M. Kiernan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), pp. 130-1.

33Religio medici (1636), vol 1 in Sir Thomas Browne: the works, ed. G. Keynes. 6 vols (London: Faber, 1964), pp. 52-3.

34De senectute, trans. W.A. Falconer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1923.

35Ad Lucilium epistulae morales, trans. R.M. Gummere (London W. Heinemann, 1953), vol. 1, p. 71.

36The wise-vieillard, or old man, trans. anon. (London, 1621), pp. 9, 50.

37Plea for old age, pp. 106-9.

38A discourse of the preservation of the sightand of old age, trans. R. Surphlet (London, 1599), pp. 177, A4r.

39Laurens, Discourse, pp. 187-192; also Thomas Newton, The old mans dietarie (London, 1586); Sanctorius, Medicina statica: or, Rules of Health, trans. J. Davies (London, 1676), pp. 31 ff.

40‘A treatise of temperance and sobrietie’, in George Herbert: works, ed. F.E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1941), p. 303. Herbert translates a Latin version of Cornaro in Lessius’s Hygiasticon (1613).

41 Nancy Vickers, 'Diana described: scattered women and scattered rhyme', Writing and sexual difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel, pp. 95-109.

42Shakespeare’s sonnets, ed. K. Duncan-Jones (London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997), sonnets 1 and 6.

43‘To his Coy Mistress’, Andrew Marvell: the complete poems, ed. E.S. Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 50-1.

44‘Corinna’s going a Maying’, ‘The changes to Corinna’, ‘Upon Silvia, a mistresse’, ‘To a gentlewoman objecting to him his gray haires’, Works, pp. 96, 21, 63.

45‘Age unfit for love’, ‘To Perilla’, ‘To his mistresses’, ‘Upon his gray haires’, The poetical works of Robert Herrick, ed. F.W. Moorman. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921), pp. 270, 9, 10, 192.

46The poems of Thomas Carew, ed. R. Dunlap (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), pp. 4-6.

47John Donne: the complete English poems, ed. A.J. Smith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp. 105-6.

48‘Cheerful girls and willing boys: old and young bodies in Shakespeare’s sonnets’, Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (2000), para. 1-26.

49Studies in the Renaissance 14 (1967), pp. 7-32.

50Erin Campbell, ‘The art of aging gracefully: the elderly artist as courtier in early modern art theory and criticism’, Sixteenth-century Journal 33 (2002), pp. 321-31.

51‘An Elegy’, ‘Epistle. To my Lady Covell’, ‘A Celebration of Charis: his Excuse for Loving’ and ‘Her Man Described by her Own Dictamen’, ‘My Picture left in Scotland’, Ben Jonson:, ed. G. Parfitt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), pp. 179-81, 201-2, 126-7, 133-5, 140.

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