With Aging, Abundant Recompense


Peter Paul Rubens, Old Man

Peter Paul Rubens, Old Man

In a follow-up to yesterday’s post where I talked about my cancer-ridden friend Alan, I examine another passage from The Brothers Karamazov. This one is focused on aging generally, not just death. If you ever find yourself getting depressed about getting old, check it out.


And check out as well William Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality from Early Childhood. I have a strong feeling that Dostoevsky is responding to Wordsworth’s magnificent ode, and the two authors working together can put a new spring in your step.

The Dostoevsky passage is, like others I have been quoting recently, from Father Zossima’s lengthy deathbed talk. At one point, musing about humans’ ability to move past even the most heartrending of griefs, the Russian Orthodox elder says,

It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet tender joy. The mild serenity of age takes the place of the riotous blood of youth. I bless the rising sun each day, and, as before, my heart sings to meet it, but now I love even more its setting, its long slanting rays and the soft tender gentle memories that come with them, the dear images from the whole of my long happy life—and over all the Divine Truth, softening, reconciling, forgiving. My life is ending, I know that well, but every day that is left me I feel how my earthly life is in touch with a new infinite, unknown, but approaching life, the nearness of which sets my soul quivering with rapture, my mind glowing and my heart weeping with joy.

Sun imagery is also to be found throughout Intimations of Immortality. This is the poem that begins with Wordsworth’s laments over the passing of his youthful intensity. There once was a time, he says,

when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

With advancing age, however, things have changed:

It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

And the next stanza:

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

After striving fruitlessly to cheer himself up, Wordsworth gives us his theory about why we suffer this diminution. He tells us that, prior to birth, we are part of one cosmic soul and that we enter life “trailing clouds of glory.” As we grow up, however, we begin to lose touch with this soul. “Shades of the prison house,” he says ominously, “begin to close/Upon the growing Boy.”

Each stage of life takes him further from the sun of his youth. As a boy, one at least can still behold the light and “whence it flows,” while the youth, travelling yet “farther from the east,” is still “nature’s priest.” But then, just as a maturing sun loses its glory, the vision of the cosmic soul fades:

At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

So far, Wordsworth makes growing old sound like a grim business. But then the poet, like Zossima, says that he gets something in return. (In “Tintern Abbey” he asserts that, although he loses youth’s “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures,” he receives “abundant recompense.”) The fire may be burning low but it still has glowing embers:

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction

Wordsworth says that he has “intimations” that there is something beyond “sense and outward things.” He speaks of “shadowy recollections” that function as “the fountain light of all our day” and “a master light of all our seeing.” These intimations pierce our “noisy years” when we are caught up in the cares of the world and show us our connection with the “eternal Silence.”

To get at this (necessarily) elusive connection, Wordsworth shifts his metaphors. Where in the earlier stanzas he talked about the aging individual traveling away from the glorious dawn into “the light of common day,” now he talks about traveling away from the sea from which we emerged. But though “inland far we be,” he assures us that we haven’t touch:

Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Notice the turnaround. Suddenly he realizes that time and distance are not an issue. The soul’s “primal sympathy” can return him to the ocean, return him to the playfulness of his childhood, return him to the dawn.

Sounding like Zossima—or maybe it is Zossima sounding like Wordsworth—the poet assures us that the connection with the divine is stronger than it ever was.  Now he loves life “even more” than he did when he was young:

And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.

In his grand finale, he finds himself utterly and wonderfully vulnerable:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

He pursues a similar idea in Tintern Abbey. Here is his version of the connection in that poem:

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth . . .

Do you agree about the resemblances I am picking up between the two authors? But as much as I love Wordworth, in some ways I feel that Dostoevsky is clearer about the abundant recompense that comes with aging. Maybe that’s because Wordsworth wrote Tintern Abbey when he was 28 and Intimations when he was 34 whereas Dostoevsky wrote Brothers Karamazov at the end of his life when he was my age (59).

Then again, I am heartened that Zossima and his creator sound like a youthful Wordsworth. We can handle this aging business.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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