Friday, June 07, 2013


An Echo of Existence

James Payn (1830-1898), "On Old Age," The Backwater of Life; or, Essays of a Literary Veteran (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1899), pp. 17-38 (at 17-19):
To the majority of us old age is merely the gradual attenuation of life; a thing 'like copper wire, which grows the narrower by going further'; the same dish, save that it has become insipid: an echo of existence, which in prolongation sounds fainter and fainter. Unless disease accompanies it, there is nothing to distinguish it, in a very marked manner, from the rest of adult experience. Of course there is the physical change, but this does not set in to any serious extent till very late. The years are not yet come of which we are compelled to say, 'We have no pleasure in them,' and when 'the clouds return after the rain.' The almond-tree may flourish and the daughters of music may be brought low (so far, at all events, that their high notes are thrown away upon us), but we have still what are cheerfully described as 'all our faculties.' We transact all our business, often, indeed, sticking to it closer than ever. We say 'What?' a good deal oftener than we did, and some of us 'No.' (If there is to be but one word left to us, that seems to paterfamilias to be the best.) We like it to be thoroughly understood that we are not going to divest ourselves of our garments before going to bed. We even still take our pleasures, though more sadly; they may have lost their zest, but something remains; there is the feast, though it is the second day's feast; the joints have already become hashes, but the day of cold mutton is still afar off.

Moralists and philosophers have done their best, when they have themselves reached that time of life, to eulogise 'old age'; but they do not deceive even the young. ('These old gentlemen,' says Youth, with its callow cynicism, 'are Foxes who have lost their tails.') They have done the same thing with poverty, and with the same ill-success. It has had no exhilarating effect upon poor people. The reasons why old men have written in praise of old age are not far to seek: they say with Johnson,'Do not let us discourage one another.' They are in for it, and they make the best of it; it is not well to cry stinking fish.

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