Published on Aug 3, 2012
It's true that mortality is a frequent topic among poets. While most people are looking outwards, poets are looking inwards. Some of them, like John Keats, are "half in love with easeful death". Philip Larkin considered death as "nothing more terrible, nothing more true" He said, "most things may never happen. This one will."
Fear of sudden death is more evident in younger poets. Older people are more concerned with the process of dying, the growing dependency on others, the pain and indignity, and the loss of faculties that is called "dwindling". They have already accepted the inevitability of death. What they are hoping for is an easy transit.
Near the end we try to influence the manner of our dying. When death becomes inevitable then being able to choose how we die is all that's left. Like Sir Walter Raleigh bantering with his executioner, "Let us dispatch, at this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." Then he asked to see the axe and said, "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries." When Sir Walt's head lay on the block his last words were, "Strike, man, strike!"
In Gulliver's Travels he encounters the Struldbrugs, a people who are physically normal yet immortal. They continue to get older and although they become ill and lose their senses they cannot die. When they reach the age of 80 they are declared legally dead and their property and possessions are taken away. They are forbidden from taking any part in government, because it is supposed that the judgement of the aged can't be trusted. The Struldbrugs prove that although death is terrible, immortality would be worse. It's a good argument and well made. Well worth reading.
Gulliver's Travels is a satire, a harsh criticism of humanity. Swift said he wrote it "to vex the world".
There's little basis for ageism. An old man can do most things better than a young man. An old man is much less likely to lose a fight or an argument, get robbed or be imprisoned. He can certainly do two important things better: one of them is drive a car. Statistics and insurance premiums can't be denied. The other thing I'll leave you to guess.
There are people who think that soon science will defeat death and we will be able to extend our lives indefinitely. Ray Kurzweil is an exponent - if you're interested see here:
The truth is that we are evolved beings and programmed by evolution to follow a path that ends in death. We inherit motivation in our genes - we don't choose it. Frederick Gowland Hopkins, the biochemist, gave the definition "Life is a dynamic equilibrium in a polyphasic system'.
A middle-aged man is motivated differently from a young man: he thinks differently and behaves differently. We can't influence motivation and we can only do what we are motivated to do. And in the end, our motivation and our membership of the human race expires. We never have "free will", we're only free to follow evolutionary directives. T S Eliot summed up life as "birth, copulation and death". The best we can expect from science is for our bodies to live long enough and retain the ability to complete all the tasks that we are motivated to do. In the Bible, Ecclesiastes tells us to enjoy our youth and live in the present, "while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them".
The first picture is the medieval jewish cemetery at "Worms" - which is a town on the river Rhine in Germany.
The font is called GraveDigger - it's a free download.
The last picture is Street Art in San Francisco.
It had better been hidden
But the Poets inform:
We are chattel and liege
Of an undying Worm.
Were you, Will, disheartened,
When all Stratford's gentry
Left their Queen and took service
In his low-lying country?
How many white cities
And grey fleets on the storm
Have proud-builded, hard-battled,
For this undying Worm?
Was a sweet chaste lady
Would none of her lover.
Nay, here comes the Lewd One,
Creeps under her cover!
Have ye said there's no deathless
Of face, fashion, form,
Forgetting to honor
The extent of the Worm?
O ye laughers and light-lipped,
Ye faithless, infirm,
I can tell you who's constant,
'Tis the Eminent Worm.
Ye shall trip on no limits,
Neither time ye your term,
In the realms of His Absolute
Highness the Worm.