Tuesday, 29 September 2020

'All are limitory...'

 On this day in 1973, W.H. Auden died in a hotel room in Vienna, at the age of 66 – not a great age, but with his prodigious intake of alcohol and amphetamines, he was perhaps lucky to live as long as he did. By dying before decrepitude set in, Auden avoided ending his days in an old people's home, like the one he describes in this clear-eyed, touching poem, which I only came across today:

Old People's Home

All are limitory, but each has her own
nuance of damage.  The elite can dress and decent themselves,
    are ambulant with a single stick, adroit
to read a book all through, or play the slow movements of
    easy sonatas. (Yet, perhaps their very
carnal freedom is their spirit's bane: intelligent
    of what has happened and why, they are obnoxious
to a glum beyond tears.)  Then come those on wheels, the average
    majority, who endure TV and, led by
lenient therapists, do community-singing, then
    the loners, muttering in Limbo, and last
the terminally incompetent, as improvident,
    unspeakable, impeccable as the plants
they parody. (Plants may sweat profusely but never
    sully themselves.)  One tie, though, unites them: all
appeared when the world, though much was awry there, was more
    spacious, more comely to look at, its Old Ones
with an audience and secular station.  Then a child,
    in dismay with Mamma, could refuge with Gran
to be revalued and told a story.  As of now,
    we all know what to expect, but their generation
is the first to fade like this, not at home but assigned
    to a numbered frequent ward, stowed out of conscience
as unpopular luggage.
                                       As I ride the subway
    to spend half-an-hour with one, I revisage
who she was in the pomp and sumpture of her heyday,
    when weekend visits were a presumptive joy,
not a good work.  Am I cold to wish for a speedy
    painless dormition, pray, as I know she prays,
that God or Nature will abrupt her earthly function?

It's interesting to compare this with Larkin's 'The Old Fools', a poem on essentially the same theme, but so much harsher and bleaker, suffused by that crippling terror of extinction that the Christian Auden was armed against. I don't recommend reading it on top of the Auden, but here's a link...

4 comments:

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