A Prayer for Old Age


GOD guard me from those thoughts men think

In the mind alone;

He that sings a lasting song

Thinks in a marrow-bone;

From all that makes a wise old man
That can be praised of all;
0 what am I that I should not seem
For the song’s sake a fool?

I pray-for fashion’s word is out
And prayer comes round again
That I may seem, though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.
Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats

Here’s another Yeats’ poem that I didn’t really appreciate until recently, perhaps because old age didn’t seem too relevant until now. I suspect, though, that what Yeats seeks in all of his poems are eternal values that can guide our entire life.

Although it is common for Romantic poets to emphasize intuition over logic, to emphasize heart over mind, there does seem to be a certain irony in a man who has devoted his life to letters condemning men whose thoughts are ‘in the mind alone."

I suspect, though, that this is an ambivalence that haunts many of us who enjoy studying ideas and reading literature. Too often literature seems a form of escape rather than a solution to lifeâs problems. Itâs easier to read a romantic novel than it is to build real love in your life. Itâs certainly easier to analyze politics than it is to effect real change in our society. No matter how many environmental books you read, the environment continues to degrade.

As a literature teacher, I was often accused of promoting this. Many students found literature irrelevant, and it was extremely difficult to show them the relevance if they didn’t already see it. Despite my occasional sarcastic remarks that I would hate to marry a person who couldnât even understand the motivation for a character in a novel, too often I felt unable to show students how these ideas were relevant to their lives.

Nor am I denying that reading for escapism isn’t sometimes necessary. My best friend sent me a copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to read while I was stationed in Vietnam. Although this later became one of my favorite 20th century novels, I could barely get through two chapters. Instead, I repeatedly read passages from the Rubiat of Omar Khayyam, a work I haven’t read since.

Still, I would argue that the major goal of reading and thinking should be to empower your life, not avoid it. Reading and thinking should enrich your life, make you happier, and give you the understanding you need to cope with an increasingly complex world. They should unite you with your world, not alienate you from it.

Most of all, though, they should create a passion for life that, no matter how foolish it may appear to others, provides meaning to your life.