Of Old Age Poem by John Denham

Of Old Age


Though all the actions of your life are crown'd
With wisdom, nothing makes them more renown'd,
Than that those years, which others think extreme,
Nor to yourself nor us uneasy seem;
Under which weight most, like th'old giants, groan.
When Aetna on their backs by Jove was thrown.

CATO. What you urge, Scipio, from right reason flows:
All parts of age seem burthensome to those
Who virtue's and true wisdom's happiness
Cannot discern; but they who those possess,
In what's impos'd by Nature find no grief,
Of which our age is (next our death) the chief,
Which though all equally desire t'obtain,
Yet when they have obtain'd it, they complain;
Such our inconstancies and follies are,
We say it steals upon us unaware:
Our want of reas'ning these false measures makes,
Youth runs to age, as childhood youth o'ertakes.
How much more grievous would our lives appear,
To reach th'eighth hundred, than the eightieth year?
Of what in that long space of time hath pass'd,
To foolish age will no remembrance last.
My age's conduct when you seem t'admire
(Which that it may deserve, I much desire),
'Tis my first rule, on Nature, as my guide
Appointed by the gods, I have relied;
And Nature (which all acts of life designs),
Not, like ill poets, in the last declines:
But some one part must be the last of all,
Which like ripe fruits, must either rot or fall.
And this from Nature must be gently borne,
Else her (as giants did the gods) we scorn.

LAELIUS. But, Sir, 'tis Scipio's and my desire,
Since to long life we gladly would aspire,
That from your grave instructions we might hear,
How we, like you, may this great burthen bear.

CAT. This I resolved before, but now shall do
With great delight, since 'tis required by you.

LAEL. If to yourself it will not tedious prove,
Nothing in us a greater joy can move,
That as old travellers the young instruct,
Your long, our short experience may conduct.

CAT. 'Tis true (as the old proverb doth relate),
Equals with equals often congregate.
Two consuls (who in years my equals were)
When senators, lamenting I did hear
That age from them had all their pleasures torn,
And them their former suppliants now scorn:
They what is not to be accused accuse,
Not others, but themselves their age abuse;
Else this might me concern, and all my friends,
Whose cheerful age with honour youth attends,
Joy'd that from pleasure's slav'ry they are free,
And all respects due to their age they see.
In its true colours, this complaint appears
The ill effect of manners, not of years;
For on their life no grievous burthen lies,
Who are well natured, temperate, and wise;
But an inhuman and ill-temper'd mind,
Not any easy part in life can find.

LAEL. This I believe; yet others may dispute,
Their age (as yours) can never bear such fruit
Of honour, wealth, and power to make them sweet;
Not every one such happiness can meet.

CAT. Some weight your argument, my Laelius, bears,
But not so much as at first sight appears.
This answer by Themistocles was made,
(When a Seriphian thus did him upbraid,
'You those great honours to your country owe,
Not to yourself')-'Had I at Seripho
Been born, such honour I had never seen,
Nor you, if an Athenian you had been;'
So age, clothed in indecent poverty,
To the most prudent cannot easy be;
But to a fool, the greater his estate,
The more uneasy is his age's weight.
Age's chief arts and arms are to grow wise,
Virtue to know, and known, to exercise;
All just returns to age then virtue makes,
Nor her in her extremity forsakes;
The sweetest cordial we receive at last,
Is conscience of our virtuous actions past.
I (when a youth) with reverence did look
On Quintus Fabius, who Tarentum took;
Yet in his age such cheerfulness was seen,
As if his years and mine had equal been;
His gravity was mix'd with gentleness,
Nor had his age made his good humour less;
Then was he well in years (the same that he
Was Consul that of my nativity),
(A stripling then), in his fourth consulate
On him at Capua I in arms did wait.
I five years after at Tarentum wan
The quaestorship, and then our love began;
And four years after, when I praetor was,
He pleaded, and the Cincian law did pass.
With useful diligence he used t'engage,
Yet with the temperate arts of patient age
He breaks fierce Hannibal's insulting heats;
Of which exploit thus our friend Ennius treats:
He by delay restored the commonwealth,
Nor preferr'd rumour before public health.


When I reflect on age, I find there are
Four causes, which its misery declare.
1. Because our body's strength it much impairs:
2. That it takes off our minds from great affairs:
3. Next, that our sense of pleasure it deprives:
4. Last, that approaching death attends our lives.

Of all these sev'ral causes I'll discourse,
And then of each, in order, weigh the force.


The old from such affairs is only freed,
Which vig'rous youth and strength of body need;
But to more high affairs our age is lent,
Most properly when heats of youth are spent.
Did Fabius and your father Scipio
(Whose daughter my son married) nothing do?
Fabricii, Coruncani, Curii;
Whose courage, counsel, and authority,
The Roman commonwealth restored did boast,
Nor Appius, with whose strength his sight was lost,
Who when the Senate was to peace inclined
With Pyrrhus, shew'd his reason was not blind,
Whither's our courage and our wisdom come
When Rome itself conspires the fate of Rome?
The rest with ancient gravity and skill
He spake (for his oration's extant still).
'Tis seventeen years since he had Consul been
The second time, and there were ten between;
Therefore their argument's of little force,
Who age from great employments would divorce.
As in a ship some climb the shrouds, t'unfold
The sail, some sweep the deck, some pump the hold;
Whilst he that guides the helm employs his skill,
And gives the law to them by sitting still.
Great actions less from courage, strength, and speed,
Than from wise counsels and commands proceed;
Those arts age wants not, which to age belong,
Not heat but cold experience make us strong.
A Consul, Tribune, General, I have been,
All sorts of war I have pass'd through and seen;
And now grown old, I seem t'abandon it,
Yet to the Senate I prescribe what's fit.
I every day 'gainst Carthage war proclaim,
(For Rome's destruction hath been long her aim)
Nor shall I cease till I her ruin see,
Which triumph may the gods design for thee;
That Scipio may revenge his grandsire's ghost,
Whose life at Cannae with great honour lost
Is on record; nor had he wearied been
With age, if he an hundred years had seen;
He had not used excursions, spears, or darts,
But counsel, order, and such aged arts,
Which, if our ancestors had not retain'd,
The Senate's name our council had not gain'd.
The Spartans to their highest magistrate
The name of Elder did appropriate:
Therefore his fame for ever shall remain,
How gallantly Tarentum he did gain,
With vig'lant conduct; when that sharp reply
He gave to Salinator, I stood by,
Who to the castle fled, the town being lost,
Yet he to Maximus did vainly boast,
'Twas by my means Tarentum you obtain'd;--
'Tis true, had you not lost, I had not gain'd.
And as much honour on his gown did wait,
As on his arms, in his fifth consulate.
When his colleague Carvilius stepp'd aside,
The Tribune of the people would divide
To them the Gallic and the Picene field;
Against the Senate's will he will not yield;
When, being angry, boldly he declares
Those things were acted under happy stars,
From which the commonwealth found good effects,
But otherwise they came from bad aspects.
Many great things of Fabius I could tell,
But his son's death did all the rest excel;
(His gallant son, though young, had Consul been)
His funeral oration I have seen
Often; and when on that I turn my eyes,
I all the old philosophers despise.
Though he in all the people's eyes seem'd great,
Yet greater he appear'd in his retreat;
When feasting with his private friends at home,
Such counsel, such discourse from him did come,
Such science in his art of augury,
No Roman ever was more learn'd than he;
Knowledge of all things present and to come,
Rememb'ring all the wars of ancient Rome,
Nor only there, but all the world's beside;
Dying in extreme age, I prophesied
That which is come to pass, and did discern
From his survivors I could nothing learn.
This long discourse was but to let you see
That his long life could not uneasy be.
Few like the Fabii or the Scipios are
Takers of cities, conquerors in war.
Yet others to like happy age arrive,
Who modest, quiet, and with virtue live:
Thus Plato writing his philosophy,
With honour after ninety years did die.
Th' Athenian story writ at ninety-four
By Isocrates, who yet lived five years more;
His master Gorgias at the hundredth year
And seventh, not his studies did forbear:
And, ask'd why he no sooner left the stage?
Said he saw nothing to accuse old age.
None but the foolish, who their lives abuse,
Age of their own mistakes and crimes accuse.
All commonwealths (as by records is seen)
As by age preserved, by youth destroy'd have been.
When the tragedian Naevius did demand,
Why did your commonwealth no longer stand?
'Twas answer'd, that their senators were new,
Foolish, and young, and such as nothing knew;
Nature to youth hot rashness doth dispense,
But with cold prudence age doth recompense.
But age, 'tis said, will memory decay,
So (if it be not exercised) it may;
Or, if by nature it be dull and slow.
Themistocles (when aged) the names did know
Of all th'Athenians; and none grow so old,
Not to remember where they hid their gold.
From age such art of memory we learn,
To forget nothing which is our concern;
Their interest no priest nor sorcerer
Forgets, nor lawyer, nor philosopher;
No understanding memory can want,
Where wisdom studious industry doth plant.
Nor does it only in the active live,
But in the quiet and contemplative;
When Sophocles (who plays when aged wrote)
Was by his sons before the judges brought,
Because he paid the Muses such respect,
His fortune, wife, and children to neglect;
Almost condemn'd, he moved the judges thus,
'Hear, but instead of me, my Oedipus.'
The judges hearing with applause, at th'end
Freed him, and said, 'No fool such lines had penn'd'.
What poets and what orators can I
Recount, what princes in philosophy,
Whose constant studies with their age did strive?
Nor did they those, though those did them survive.
Old husbandmen I at Sabinum know,
Who for another year dig, plough, and sow.
For never any man was yet so old,
But hoped his life one winter more might hold.
Caecilius vainly said, 'Each day we spend
Discovers something, which must needs offend;'
But sometimes age may pleasant things behold,
And nothing that offends. He should have told
This not to age, but youth, who oft'ner see
What not alone offends, but hurts, than we.
That, I in him, which he in age condemn'd,
That us it renders odious, and contemn'd.
He knew not virtue, if he thought this truth;
For youth delights in age, and age in youth.
What to the old can greater pleasure be,
Than hopeful and ingenious youth to see,
When they with rev'rence follow where we lead,
And in straight paths by our directions tread?
And e'en my conversation here I see,
As well received by you, as yours by me.
'Tis disingenuous to accuse our age
Of idleness, who all our powers engage
In the same studies, the same course to hold;
Nor think our reason for new arts too old.
Solon the sage his progress never ceased,
But still his learning with his days increased;
And I with the same greediness did seek,
As water when I thirst, to swallow Greek;
Which I did only learn, that I might know
Those great examples which I follow now:
And I have heard that Socrates the wise,
Learn'd on the lute for his last exercise.
Though many of the ancients did the same,
To improve knowledge was my only aim.


Now int' our second grievance I must break,
'That loss of strength makes understanding weak.'
I grieve no more my youthful strength to want,
Than, young, that of a bull, or elephant;
Then with that force content, which Nature gave,
Nor am I now displeased with what I have.
When the young wrestlers at their sport grew warm,
Old Milo wept, to see his naked arm;
And cried, 'twas dead. Trifler! thine heart and head,
And all that's in them (not thy arm) are dead;
This folly every looker on derides,
To glory only in thy arms and sides.
Our gallant ancestors let fall no tears,
Their strength decreasing by increasing years;
But they advanced in wisdom every hour,
And made the commonwealth advance in power.
But orators may grieve, for in their sides,
Rather than heads, their faculty abides;
Yet I have heard old voices loud and clear,
And still my own sometimes the Senate hear.
When th'old with smooth and gentle voices plead,
They by the ear their well-pleased audience lead:
Which, if I had not strength enough to do,
I could (my Laelius, and my Scipio)
What's to be done, or not be done, instruct,
And to the maxims of good life conduct.
Cneius and Publius Scipio, and (that man
Of men) your grandsire, the great African,
Were joyful when the flower of noble blood
Crowded their dwellings, and attending stood,
Like oracles their counsels to receive,
How in their progress they should act and live.
And they whose high examples youth obeys,
Are not despised, though their strength decays;
And those decays (to speak the naked truth,
Though the defects of age) were crimes of youth.
Intemp'rate youth (by sad experience found)
Ends in an age imperfect and unsound.
Cyrus, though aged (if Xenophon say true),
Lucius Metellus (whom when young I knew),
Who held (after his second consulate)
Twenty-two years the high pontificate;
Neither of these in body, or in mind,
Before their death the least decay did find.
I speak not of myself, though none deny
To age, to praise their youth the liberty:
Such an unwasted strength I cannot boast,
Yet now my years are eighty-four almost:
And though from what it was my strength is far,
Both in the first and second Punic war,
Nor at Thermopylae, under Glabrio,
Nor when I Consul into Spain did go;
But yet I feel no weakness, nor hath length
Of winters quite enervated my strength;
And I, my guest, my client, or my friend,
Still in the courts of justice can defend:
Neither must I that proverb's truth allow,
'Who would be ancient, must be early so.'
I would be youthful still, and find no need
To appear old, till I was so indeed.
And yet you see my hours not idle are,
Though with your strength I cannot mine compare;
Yet this centurion's doth your's surmount,
Not therefore him the better man I count.
Milo when ent'ring the Olympic game,
With a huge ox upon his shoulder came.
Would you the force of Milo's body find,
Rather than of Pythagoras's mind?
The force which Nature gives with care retain,
But when decay'd, 'tis folly to complain.
In age to wish for youth is full as vain,
As for a youth to turn a child again.
Simple and certain Nature's ways appear,
As she sets forth the seasons of the year.
So in all parts of life we find her truth,
Weakness to childhood, rashness to our youth;
To elder years to be discreet and grave,
Then to old age maturity she gave.
(Scipio) you know, how Massinissa bears
His kingly port at more than ninety years;
When marching with his foot, he walks till night;
When with his horse, he never will alight;
Though cold or wet, his head is always bare;
So hot, so dry, his aged members are.
You see how exercise and temperance
Even to old years a youthful strength advance.
Our law (because from age our strength retires)
No duty which belongs to strength requires.
But age doth many men so feeble make,
That they no great design can undertake;
Yet that to age not singly is applied,
But to all man's infirmities beside.
That Scipio, who adopted you, did fall
Into such pains, he had no health at all;
Who else had equall'd Africanus' parts,
Exceeding him in all the lib'ral arts:
Why should those errors then imputed be
To age alone, from which our youth's not free?
Every disease of age we may prevent,
Like those of youth, by being diligent.
When sick, such mod'rate exercise we use,
And diet, as our vital heat renews;
And if our body thence refreshment finds,
Then must we also exercise our minds.
If with continual oil we not supply
Our lamp, the light for want of it will die;
Though bodies may be tired with exercise,
No weariness the mind could e'er surprise.
Caecilius the comedian, when of age
He represents the follies on the stage,
They're credulous, forgetful, dissolute;
Neither those crimes to age he doth impute,
But to old men, to whom those crimes belong.
Lust, petulance, rashness, are in youth more strong
Than ago, and yet young men those vices hate,
Who virtuous are, discreet, and temperate:
And so, what we call dotage seldom breeds
In bodies, but where nature sow'd the seeds.
There are five daughters, and four gallant sons,
In whom the blood of noble Appius runs,
With a most num'rous family beside,
Whom he alone, though old and blind, did guide.
Yet his clear-sighted mind was still intent,
And to his business like a bow stood bent:
By children, servants, neighbours so esteem'd,
He not a master, but a monarch seem'd.
All his relations his admirers were,
His sons paid rev'rence, and his servants fear:
The order and the ancient discipline
Of Romans, did in all his actions shine.
Authority kept up old age secures,
Whose dignity as long as life endures.
Something of youth I in old age approve,
But more the marks of age in youth I love.
Who this observes may in his body find
Decrepit age, but never in his mind.
The seven volumes of my own reports,
Wherein are all the pleadings of our courts;
All noble monuments of Greece are come
Unto my hands, with those of ancient Rome.
The pontificial, and the civil law,
I study still, and thence orations draw;
And to confirm my memory, at night,
What I hear, see, or do, by day, recite.
These exercises for my thoughts I find;
These labours are the chariots of my mind.
To serve my friends, the Senate I frequent,
And there what I before digested vent;
Which only from my strength of mind proceeds,
Not any outward force of body needs;
Which, if I could not do, I should delight
On what I would to ruminate at night.
Who in such practices their minds engage,
Nor fear nor think of their approaching age,
Which by degrees invisibly doth creep:
Nor do we seem to die, but fall asleep.


Now must I draw my forces 'gainst that host
Of pleasures, which i' th'sea of age are lost.
O thou most high transcendant gift of age!
Youth from its folly thus to disengage.
And now receive from me that most divine
Oration of that noble Tarentine,
Which at Tarentum I long since did hear,
When I attended the great Fabius there.
Ye gods, was it man's nature, or his fate,
Betray'd him with sweet pleasure's poison'd bait?
Which he, with all designs of art or power,
Doth with unbridled appetite devour:
And as all poisons seek the noblest part,
Pleasure possesses first the head and heart;
Intoxicating both by them, she finds,
And burns the sacred temples of our minds.
Furies, which reason's divine chains had bound,
(That being broken) all the world confound.
Lust, murder, treason, avarice, and hell
Itself broke loose, in reason's palace dwell:
Truth, honour, justice, temperance, are fled,
All her attendants into darkness led.
But why all this discourse? when pleasure's rage
Hath conquer'd reason, we must treat with age.
Age undermines, and will in time surprise
Her strongest forts, and cut off all supplies;
And join'd in league with strong necessity,
Pleasure must fly, or else by famine die.
Flaminius, whom a consulship had graced,
(Then Censor) from the Senate I displaced;
When he in Gaul, a Consul, made a feast,
A beauteous courtesan did him request
To see the cutting off a pris'ner's head;
This crime I could not leave unpunished,
Since by a private villany he stain'd
That public honour which at Rome he gain'd.
Then to our age (when not to pleasures bent)
This seems an honour, not disparagement.
We not all pleasures like the Stoics hate,
But love and seek those which are moderate.
(Though divine Plato thus of pleasures thought,
They us, with hooks and baits, like fishes caught.)
When Questor, to the gods in public halls
I was the first who set up festivals.
Not with high tastes our appetites did force,
But fill'd with conversation and discourse;
Which feasts, Convivial Meetings we did name:
Not like the ancient Greeks, who to their shame,
Call'd it a Compotation, not a feast;
Declaring the worst part of it the best.
Those entertainments I did then frequent
Sometimes with youthful heat and merriment:
But now I thank my age, which gives me ease
From those excesses; yet myself I please
With cheerful talk to entertain my guests
(Discourses are to age continual feasts),
The love of meat and wine they recompense,
And cheer the mind, as much as those the sense.
I'm not more pleased with gravity among
The aged, than to be youthful with the young;
Nor 'gainst all pleasures proclaim open war,
To which, in age, some nat'ral motions are.
And still at my Sabinum I delight
To treat my neighbours till the depth of night.
But we the sense of gust and pleasure want,
Which youth at full possesses; this I grant;
But age seeks not the things which youth requires,
And no man needs that which he not desires.
When Sophocles was asked if he denied
Himself the use of pleasures, he replied,
'I humbly thank th'immortal gods, who me
From that fierce tyrant's insolence set free.'
But they whom pressing appetites constrain,
Grieve when they cannot their desires obtain.
Young men the use of pleasure understand,
As of an object new, and near at hand:
Though this stands more remote from age's sight,
Yet they behold it not without delight:
As ancient soldiers, from their duties eased,
With sense of honour and rewards are pleased;
So from ambitious hopes and lusts released,
Delighted with itself our age doth rest.
No part of life's more happy, when with bread
Of ancient knowledge and new learning fed;
All youthful pleasures by degrees must cease,
But those of age even with our years increase.
We love not loaded boards and goblets crown'd,
But free from surfeits our repose is sound.
When old Fabricius to the Samnites went
Ambassador, from Rome to Pyrrhus sent,
He heard a grave philosopher maintain,
That all the actions of our life were vain
Which with our sense of pleasure not conspired;
Fabricius the philosopher desired,
That he to Pyrrhus would that maxim teach,
And to the Samnites the same doctrine preach;
Then of their conquest he should doubt no more,
Whom their own pleasures overcame before.
Now into rustic matters I must fall,
Which pleasure seems to me the chief of all.
Age no impediment to those can give,
Who wisely by the rules of Nature live.
Earth (though our mother) cheerfully obeys
All the commands her race upon her lays.
For whatsoever from our hand she takes,
Greater or less, a vast return she makes.
Nor am I only pleased with that resource,
But with her ways, her method, and her force.
The seed her bosom (by the plough made fit)
Receives, where kindly she embraces it,
Which with her genuine warmth diffused and spread,
Sends forth betimes a green and tender head,
Then gives it motion, life, and nourishment,
Which from the root through nerves and veins are sent;
Straight in a hollow sheath upright it grows,
And, form receiving, doth itself disclose:
Drawn up in ranks and files, the bearded spikes
Guard it from birds as with a stand of pikes.
When of the vine I speak, I seem inspired,
And with delight, as with her juice, am fired;
At Nature's godlike power I stand amazed,
Which such vast bodies hath from atoms raised.
The kernel of a grape, the fig's small grain,
Can clothe a mountain and o'ershade a plain:
But thou, (dear Vine!) forbid'st me to be long;
Although thy trunk be neither large nor strong,
Nor can thy head (not help'd) itself sublime,
Yet, like a serpent, a tall tree can climb;
Whate'er thy many fingers can entwine,
Proves thy support, and all its strength is thine.
Though Nature gave not legs, it gave the hands,
By which thy prop the proudest cedar stands:
As thou hast hands, so hath thy offspring wings,
And to the highest part of mortals springs.
But lest thou should'st consume thy wealth in vain,
And starve thyself to feed a num'rous train,
Or like the bee (sweet as thy blood) design'd
To be destroy'd to propagate his kind,
Lest thy redundant and superfluous juice,
Should fading leaves instead of fruits produce,
The pruner's hand, with letting blood, must quench
Thy heat, and thy exub'rant parts retrench:
Then from the joints of thy prolific stem
A swelling knot is raised (call'd a gem),
Whence, in short space, itself the cluster shows,
And from earth's moisture mixed with sunbeams grows.
I' th'spring, like youth, it yields an acid taste,
But summer doth, like age, the sourness waste;
Then clothed with leaves, from heat and cold secure,
Like virgins, sweet and beauteous, when mature.
On fruits, flowers, herbs, and plants, I long could dwell,
At once to please my eye, my taste, my smell;
My walks of trees, all planted by my hand,
Like children of my own begetting stand.
To tell the sev'ral natures of each earth,
What fruits from each most properly take birth:
And with what arts to enrich every mould,
The dry to moisten, and to warm the cold.
But when we graft, or buds inoculate,
Nature by art we nobly meliorate;
As Orpheus' music wildest beasts did tame,
From the sour crab the sweetest apple came:
The mother to the daughter goes to school,
The species changed, doth her law overrule;
Nature herself doth from herself depart,
(Strange transmigration!) by the power of art.
How little things give law to great! we see
The small bud captivates the greatest tree.
Here even the power divine we imitate,
And seem not to beget, but to create.
Much was I pleased with fowls and beasts, the tame
For food and profit, and the wild for game.
Excuse me when this pleasant string I touch
(For age, of what delights it, speaks too much).
Who twice victorious Pyrrhus conquered,
The Sabines and the Samnites captive led,
Great Curius, his remaining days did spend,
And in this happy life his triumphs end.
My farm stands near, and when I there retire,
His, and that age's temper I admire:
The Samnites' chief, as by his fire he sate,
With a vast sum of gold on him did wait;
'Return,' said he, 'your gold I nothing weigh,
When those who can command it me obey.'
This my assertion proves, he may be old,
And yet not sordid, who refuses gold.
In summer to sit still, or walk, I love,
Near a cool fountain, or a shady grove.
What can in winter render more delight,
Than the high sun at noon, and fire at night?
While our old friends and neighbours feast and play,
And with their harmless mirth turn night to day,
Unpurchased plenty our full tables loads,
And part of what they lent, return t'our gods.
That honour and authority which dwells
With age, all pleasures of our youth excels.
Observe, that I that age have only praised
Whose pillars were on youth's foundations raised,
And that (for which I great applause received)
As a true maxim hath been since believed.
That most unhappy age great pity needs,
Which to defend itself, new matter pleads;
Not from gray hairs authority doth flow,
Nor from bald heads, nor from a wrinkled brow,
But our past life, when virtuously spent,
Must to our age those happy fruits present.
Those things to age most honourable are,
Which easy, common, and but light appear,
Salutes, consulting, compliment, resort,
Crowding attendance to and from the court:
And not on Rome alone this honour waits,
But on all civil and well-govern'd states.
Lysander, pleading in his city's praise,
From thence his strongest argument did raise,
That Sparta did with honour age support,
Paying them just respect at stage and court.
But at proud Athens youth did age outface,
Nor at the plays would rise, or give them place.
When an Athenian stranger of great age
Arrived at Sparta, climbing up the stage,
To him the whole assembly rose, and ran
To place and ease this old and rev'rend man,
Who thus his thanks returns, 'Th' Athenians know
What's to be done, but what they know not do.'
Here our great Senate's orders I may quote,
The first in age is still the first in vote.
Nor honour, nor high birth, nor great command,
In competition with great years may stand.
Why should our youth's short, transient, pleasures dare
With age's lasting honours to compare?
On the world's stage, when our applause grows high,
For acting here life's tragic-comedy,
The lookers-on will say we act not well,
Unless the last the former scenes excel:
But age is froward, uneasy, scrutinous,
Hard to be pleased, and parsimonious;
But all those errors from our manners rise,
Not from our years; yet some morosities
We must expect, since jealousy belongs
To age, of scorn, and tender sense of wrongs:
Yet these are mollified, or not discern'd,
Where civil arts and manners have been learn'd:
So the Twins' humours, in our Terence, are
Unlike-this harsh and rude, that smooth and fair.
Our nature here is not unlike our wine,
Some sorts, when old, continue brisk and fine;
So age's gravity may seem severe,
But nothing harsh or bitter ought t'appear.
Of age's avarice I cannot see
What colour, ground, or reason there should be:
Is it not folly, when the way we ride
Is short, for a long voyage to provide?
To avarice some title youth may own,
To reap in autumn what the spring had sown;
And, with the providence of bees, or ants,
Prevent with summer's plenty winter's wants.
But age scarce sows till death stands by to reap,
And to a stranger's hand transfers the heap;
Afraid to be so once, she's always poor,
And to avoid a mischief makes it sure.
Such madness, as for fear of death to die,
Is to be poor for fear of poverty.


Now against (that which terrifies our age)
The last, and greatest grievance, we engage;
To her grim Death appears in all her shapes,
The hungry grave for her due tribute gapes.
Fond, foolish man! with fear of death surprised,
Which either should be wish'd for, or despised;
This, if our souls with bodies death destroy;
That, if our souls a second life enjoy.
What else is to be fear'd, when we shall gain
Eternal life, or have no sense of pain?
The youngest in the morning are not sure
That till the night their life they can secure;
Their age stands more exposed to accidents
Than ours, nor common care their fate prevents:
Death's force (with terror) against Nature strives,
Nor one of many to ripe age arrives.
From this ill fate the world's disorders rise,
For if all men were old, they would be wise;
Years and experience our forefathers taught,
Them under laws and into cities brought:
Why only should the fear of death belong
To age, which is as common to the young?
Your hopeful brothers, and my son, to you
(Scipio) and me, this maxim makes too true:
But vig'rous youth may his gay thoughts erect
To many years, which age must not expect.
But when he sees his airy hopes deceived,
With grief he says, Who this would have believed?
We happier are than they, who but desired
To possess that which we long since acquired.
What if our age to Nestor's could extend?
'Tis vain to think that lasting which must end;
And when 'tis past, not any part remains
Thereof, but the reward which virtue gains.
Days, months, and years, like running waters flow,
Nor what is past, nor what's to come, we know:
Our date, how short soe'er, must us content.
When a good actor doth his part present,
In every act he our attention draws,
That at the last he may find just applause;
So (though but short) yet we must learn the art
Of virtue, on the stage to act our part;
True wisdom must our actions so direct,
Not only the last plaudit to expect;
Yet grieve no more, though long that part should last,
Than husbandmen, because the spring is past.
The spring, like youth, fresh blossoms doth produce,
But autumn makes them ripe and fit for use:
So age a mature mellowness doth set
On the green promises of youthful heat.
All things which Nature did ordain, are good,
And so must be received and understood.
Age, like ripe apples, on earth's bosom drops,
While force our youth, like fruits untimely, crops;
The sparkling flame of our warm blood expires,
As when huge streams are pour'd on raging fires;
But age unforced falls by her own consent,
As coals to ashes, when the spirit's spent;
Therefore to death I with such joy resort,
As seamen from a tempest to their port.
Yet to that port ourselves we must not force,
Before our pilot, Nature, steers our course.
Let us the causes of our fear condemn,
Then Death at his approach we shall contemn.
Though to our heat of youth our age seems cold,
Yet when resolved, it is more brave and bold.
Thus Solon to Pisistratus replied,
Demanded, on what succour he relied,
When with so few he boldly did engage?
He said, he took his courage from his age.
Then death seems welcome, and our nature kind,
When, leaving us a perfect sense and mind,
She (like a workman in his science skill'd)
Pulls down with ease what her own hand did build.
That art which knew to join all parts in one,
Makes the least vi'lent separation.
Yet though our ligaments betimes grow weak,
We must not force them till themselves they break.
Pythagoras bids us in our station stand,
Till God, our general, shall us disband.
Wise Solon dying, wish'd his friends might grieve,
That in their memories he still might live.
Yet wiser Ennius gave command to all
His friends not to bewail his funeral;
Your tears for such a death in vain you spend,
Which straight in immortality shall end.
In death, if there be any sense of pain,
But a short space to age it will remain;
On which, without my fears, my wishes wait,
But tim'rous youth on this should meditate:
Who for light pleasure this advice rejects,
Finds little, when his thoughts he recollects.
Our death (though not its certain date) we know;
Nor whether it may be this night, or no:
How then can they contented live, who fear
A danger certain, and none knows how near?
They err, who for the fear of death dispute,
Our gallant actions this mistake confute.
Thee, Brutus! Rome's first martyr I must name;
The Curtii bravely dived the gulf of flame:
Attilius sacrificed himself, to save
That faith, which to his barb'rous foes he gave;
With the two Scipios did thy uncle fall,
Rather than fly from conqu'ring Hannibal.
The great Marcellus (who restored Rome)
His greatest foes with honour did entomb.
Their lives how many of our legions threw
Into the breach, whence no return they knew?
Must then the wise, the old, the learned fear,
What not the rude, the young, th'unlearn'd forbear?
Satiety from all things else doth come,
Then life must to itself grow wearisome.
Those trifles wherein children take delight,
Grow nauseous to the young man's appetite;
And from those gaieties our youth requires
To exercise their minds, our age retires.
And when the last delights of age shall die,
Life in itself will find satiety.
Now you (my friends) my sense of death shall hear,
Which I can well describe, for he stands near.
Your father, Laelius, and your's, Scipio,
My friends, and men of honour, I did know;
As certainly as we must die, they live
That life which justly may that name receive:
Till from these prisons of our flesh released,
Our souls with heavy burdens lie oppress'd;
Which part of man from heaven falling down,
Earth, in her low abyss, doth hide and drown,
A place so dark to the celestial light,
And pure, eternal fire's quite opposite,
The gods through human bodies did disperse
An heavenly soul, to guide this universe,
That man, when he of heavenly bodies saw
The order, might from thence a pattern draw:
Nor this to me did my own dictates show,
But to the old philosophers I owe.
I heard Pythagoras, and those who came
With him, and from our country took their name;
Who never doubted but the beams divine,
Derived from gods, in mortal breasts did shine.
Nor from my knowledge did the ancients hide
What Socrates declared the hour he died;
He th'immortality of souls proclaim'd,
(Whom th'oracle of men the wisest named)
Why should we doubt of that whereof our sense
Finds demonstration from experience?
Our minds are here, and there, below, above;
Nothing that's mortal can so swiftly move.
Our thoughts to future things their flight direct,
And in an instant all that's past collect.
Reason, remembrance, wit, inventive art,
No nature, but immortal, can impart.
Man's soul in a perpetual motion flows,
And to no outward cause that motion owes;
And therefore that no end can overtake,
Because our minds cannot themselves forsake.
And since the matter of our soul is pure
And simple, which no mixture can endure
Of parts, which not among themselves agree;
Therefore it never can divided be.
And Nature shows (without philosophy)
What cannot be divided, cannot die.
We even in early infancy discern
Knowledge is born with babes before they learn;
Ere they can speak they find so many ways
To serve their turn, and see more arts than days:
Before their thoughts they plainly can express,
The words and things they know are numberless;
Which Nature only and no art could find,
But what she taught before, she call'd to mind,
These to his sons (as Xenophon records)
Of the great Cyrus were the dying words;
'Fear not when I depart (nor therefore mourn)
I shall be nowhere, or to nothing turn:
That soul which gave me life, was seen by none,
Yet by the actions it design'd was known;
And though its flight no mortal eye shall see,
Yet know, for ever it the same shall be.
That soul which can immortal glory give
To her own virtues must for ever live.
Can you believe that man's all-knowing mind
Can to a mortal body be confined?
Though a foul foolish prison her immure
On earth, she (when escaped) is wise and pure.
Man's body when dissolved is but the same
With beasts, and must return from whence it came;
But whence into our bodies reason flows,
None sees it when it comes, or where it goes.
Nothing resembles death so much as sleep,
Yet then our minds themselves from slumber keep.
When from their fleshly bondage they are free,
Then what divine and future things they see!
Which makes it most apparent whence they are,
And what they shall hereafter be, declare.'
This noble speech the dying Cyrus made.
Me (Scipio) shall no argument persuade,
Thy grandsire, and his brother, to whom Fame
Gave, from two conquer'd parts o' th'world, their name,
Nor thy great grandsire, nor thy father Paul,
Who fell at Cannae against Hannibal;
Nor I (for 'tis permitted to the aged
To boast their actions) had so oft engaged
In battles, and in pleadings, had we thought,
That only fame our virtuous actions bought;
'Twere better in soft pleasure and repose
Ingloriously our peaceful eyes to close:
Some high assurance hath possess'd my mind,
After my death an happier life to find.
Unless our souls from the immortals came,
What end have we to seek immortal fame?
All virtuous spirits some such hope attends,
Therefore the wise his days with pleasure ends.
The foolish and short-sighted die with fear,
That they go nowhere, or they know not where.
The wise and virtuous soul, with clearer eyes,
Before she parts, some happy port descries.
My friends, your fathers I shall surely see:
Nor only those I loved, or who loved me,
But such as before ours did end their days,
Of whom we hear, and read, and write their praise.
This I believe; for were I on my way,
None should persuade me to return, or stay:
Should some god tell me that I should be born
And cry again, his offer I would scorn;
Asham'd, when I have ended well my race,
To be led back to my first starting-place.
And since with life we are more grieved than joy'd,
We should be either satisfied or cloy'd:
Yet will I not my length of days deplore,
As many wise and learn'd have done before:
Nor can I think such life in vain is lent,
Which for our country and our friends is spent.
Hence from an inn, not from my home, I pass,
Since Nature meant us here no dwelling-place.
Happy when I, from this turmoil set free,
That peaceful and divine assembly see:
Not only those I named I there shall greet,
But my own gallant virtuous Cato meet.
Nor did I weep, when I to ashes turn'd
His belov'd body, who should mine have burn'd.
I in my thoughts beheld his soul ascend,
Where his fixed hopes our interview attend:
Then cease to wonder that I feel no grief
From age, which is of my delights the chief.
My hopes if this assurance hath deceived
(That I man's soul immortal have believed),
And if I err, no power shall dispossess
My thoughts of that expected happiness,
Though some minute philosophers pretend,
That with our days our pains and pleasures end.
If it be so, I hold the safer side,
For none of them my error shall deride.
And if hereafter no rewards appear,
Yet virtue hath itself rewarded here.
If those who this opinion have despised,
And their whole life to pleasure sacrificed,
Should feel their error, they, when undeceived,
Too late will wish that me they had believed.
If souls no immortality obtain,
'Tis fit our bodies should be out of pain.
The same uneasiness which everything
Gives to our nature, life must also bring.
Good acts, if long, seem tedious; so is age,
Acting too long upon this earth her stage.--
Thus much for age, to which when you arrive,
That joy to you, which it gives me, 'twill give.

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