It is, for the most part, a really humble and beautiful poem about getting old. The chapter divisions are rather clumsy here… The poem started half way though chapter 11 with the verse about the light of the sun being sweet, which I quoted yesterday.
There is a delicacy in his description of being old, and his advice to young people.
The advice is to balance the sensual joy of being in your prime with a sense of God – of being created (coming from God) and eternity (going to God).
You can be young in an arrogant and ignorant way, thinking that you have solved the trick of being beautiful and strong, and you are the first person who ever discovered the exciting things the world has to offer.
But he says it’s better to be young in context. To know it is your prime, to enjoy it while remembering your creator, and realising that you have an identity that is larger than the beguiling pleasures of youth. What we call ‘grounded’ is an aspect of that, I suppose.
The teacher makes aging and death very vivid with metaphors which are a first person narrative of everything failing and then breaking down all together.
But I don’t find it depressing. I was moved by a beauty in this passage I can’t quite describe. It has an elegiac acceptance. It recalls that sense of accepting the seasons of life and time from chapter 3.
He uses objective images to describe the subjective affects of aging on different parts of your body:
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
Ie: when your hands shake, you stoop, your teeth fall out and your eyesight fails. I guess the unusual point of view is a way of emphasising that it happens to everyone.
Here’s his metaphors for dying:
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Everything on earth, the good times, the bad times, is still insubstantial smoke (“meaningless”). But we’ve gone on a journey from holding eternity and the seeming contradiction of the ephemeral world at odds and being filled with despair, to them enhancing and informing each other.
Youth is still smoke, age and death are still smoke, but knowing it is doesn’t stop its vibrancy being beautiful, or doesn’t mean its sadness makes a mockery of being alive. If it doesn’t define us, we can appreciate it.
Thinking back on my youth, the memories are predominantly happy, but they are also random – sort of messy. I regret a certain lack of boldness to make the most of my opportunities, but I still have that, so its just me.
Indeed I feel a strong sense of consistency. I feel at my core I’ve always been the same person. My mum used to call me a dreamer, and I think that’s probably right. I live a lot in my own head. I’m hoping that will make for a relatively satisfactory dotage. My wife says I find my own thoughts the most entertaining thing in the world… That’s kind of true too! The playlist of my own thoughts will no doubt get a lot shorter, but it will probably still be my favourite music!
I liked studying post modern theory at uni because I related to the idea that almost nothing is absolute. Beyond cores of belief in God and eternity, I do see so much as insubstantial, up for grabs.
I’m sort of more ‘woke’ these days, I think my religion was more cultural when I was young. It still expresses itself in habit and the comfort of personal relationship with God, but I feel my responsibility in the world, to be God’s presence, for justice, love and truth, more than I used to.
I don’t want the book to end, its a lovely place to be. Perhaps that’s why the narrator – who returns in the dying verses – warns against writing many books and studying too much.
“Now get on with it!” he seems to say. You can’t spend your whole life in reflection. Fear God and keep his commandments: “Next!”