On the subject of growing old–Oscar Wilde and Andrew Marvell

As we know from two very different perspectives, there is always a penalty to be paid when one ages:  either one becomes older and wickeder and uglier, or one (in sadness) acquires the ability to be more mature and more knowledgeable and more composed about one’s appearance (a moralist’s view of older and wickeder and uglier.  As a non-professional moralist and a person of 55, sometimes I feel I belong to one camp, sometimes to the other).  Both Oscar Wilde and Andrew Marvell have written on the topic of youth and age in well-known works, Wilde in his novella “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Marvell in his poem “To His Coy Mistress.”  As well, the two authors are interested in what can constitute the golden mean of outwitting a loathesome age or the just punishment for evading the maturity that should come naturally to a naturally composed person.

In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Dorian is at first merely a somewhat flighty, attractive, shallow young man who is beloved by the painter Basil Hayward, a man painting his portrait.  But along comes Sir Henry Wotton (Harry to his intimates) who derives a certain amusement from dragging Dorian into haunts of bad repute and amongst evil characters.  Dorian makes a wish that his portrait, a triumph of the painterly art when Hayward finishes it, might take on the characteristics of his appearance as he ages, and leave him free to appear always young and handsome (and as the Arabic saying goes “Be careful what you wish for, because you will surely receive it”).  This is in fact what happens.  By the end of the novel, Dorian has murdered the author of his artistic being, Hayward, and outdone Wotton in the degree of his depravity.  When he tries to destroy the by-now-unsightly picture, however, catastrophe strikes, reminding us that “The truth will out” or “What’s bred in the bone will not out of the flesh,” or a hundred other aphorisms.  I say aphorisms are in a sense the point here, because Wilde was in some works especially a moralist, and the notions of morality were never far from even his lightest touch with the pen.

With Marvell’s poem, the point is a little otherwise, and it’s really a triumph to both authors that this should be so.  What I mean by this is that Wilde wrote his story and ended it as he did and published it when he was only thirty-five; his story is about how much more graceful and mature and moral it is to accept age as it comes.  By contrast, Marvell wrote his frolicky poem “To His Coy Mistress” by the time he was about 60, a poem in which apparently the lady being addressed is a young virgin and the male voice speaking has much of the urgency of an equally young swain courting her.  But then, who better to be an expert on the carpe diem theme, perhaps, than a man a great deal older than a woman he is courting, so that possibly my point is not well-made?  At any rate, his reminder that “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace” is definitely a pointed reminder to the lady.  As he also informs her, it may be that “worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity,/And your quaint honor turn to dust,/And into ashes all my lust.”  (Note for my readers:  at the time Marvell was writing, “mistress” may or may not have meant “mistress” as we use it today.  It also meant “girlfriend,” “lady of the house,” “one whom I admire,” and sometimes simply “Mrs.”  As well, in a context like this, the word “quaint” was a pun on the “c” word, which is used rudely these days as a word for a woman one disrespects.  The disrespect was not current in Marvell’s poem.)

The end of the poem, however, is where Marvell’s “fable” diverges from Wilde’s.  Wilde’s fable has a serious and a tragic ending; Marvell’s fabulous poem surpasses the flourish of imagery at its beginning with a truly cosmic witty imagination at its end:  “Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball,/And tear our pleasures with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life:/Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.”  Or, do the two fables (and I am using the word “fable” imprecisely in this paragraph) really diverge?  Wilde’s novella shows one failure to stay young at heart and hope at least, a failure which is particularly desperate.  Whatever age Marvell’s speaker and his mistress may be imagined to have, they have come up with yet another solution:  to “seize the day” and make the most of the time they have together.  Yet to some readers, this solution seems a little hasty, as does Robert Herrick’s poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” on a similar theme, beginning “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  In all cases, the devastating abilities of time and old age are acknowledged; the main divergence of the fables is in which choice they choose to portray.  Wilde’s tale is cautionary though witty, Marvell’s is witty, though with an underlying morality of seriousness.  Both authors are indicating the need for a golden mean, though one shows a character notably failing of it and another is trying to persuade a woman to disregard her doubts, her doubts holding her back because of a kind of “coyness”; there is, after all, no indication in the poem that she is unwilling to listen.

And so, readers, just as an afterthought, what were you planning to get around to soon?  What had you determined to carpe diem, or “seize the day” about?  Perhaps you were planning to wash the car, or read a particular book, or pay a peculiar relative a visit, or write a post:  as Wilde would have it, do so with loving-kindness and an awareness of your privilege of being still among the living, and as Marvell would have it, don’t forget why you’re doing it today (because you’re still vital enough).

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “On the subject of growing old–Oscar Wilde and Andrew Marvell

  1. The one joy of aging, as my Dad used to mention when the siblings and I did something particularly silly, is that ‘wisdom is wasted on the young’.

    Even when an elder tells a younger what will happen, the latter don’t believe it until they experience it themselves.

    The wisdom that one does not know everything, and probably never will, but teenagers think the theory is exactly what the real world will present.
    For long-term learning purposes, personal experience trumps teachings 99.98% of the time.

    In terms of ‘seizing the day’, I work on my story at every opportunity. In between applying for jobs.

  2. Well, it sounds like I’ve struck a chord with someone else who has some experience and opinions of how it’s different to be young and how it’s different to be old. And it also sounds as if you have your plate full with your story and job searches–good luck with that. By the way, are you related to the author of your same last name who wrote something called “The Book of the Damned” or “The Book of the Dead,” or something like that? I’ve not had a chance to read it, but I believe I picked it up as a curiosity at a sale some time ago, and haven’t had time yet to investigate my purchase. Just letting you know it’s out there, in case you don’t.

    • I did not know of this author. I am likely going to use a pen name. It will be a bit like my writing; close to its real world situation, but skewed just enough to be (hopefully) original.

      Do you need to copyright pen names?

  3. It may be different in the U. S. and where you are. On the copyright online format for the U. S., it asks you if you are using a pen name or not, and what it is. I don’t know if this can be construed as copyrighting it (so that someone else can’t use it) or not. I suspect, though, that it’s still possible for multiple people to use the same name, whether it’s their real name or their pen name. Actors in the U. S. have something (or used to, anyway) called “Actors’ Equity” and it was so strict that if someone had already laid claim to your identical name (even if it was your real name and only their acting name) you had to choose a pseudonym or acting name other than that one.

  4. Willis Seguin

    we cannot prevent ourselves from growing old, it is just the way of life.,

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