Larks are singing their way up airy ladders, peewits rapturously tumbling down them. The gorse is gay. Our rhubarb, lusty and rude, spreads great palms to grab the light. Young potato-shoots sketchily rule dotted lines across the beds. Your early peas are shoving their little green noses up through the earth; and in the frame your cabbage seedlings, in huddled queues, await their turn for ampler and more dangerous living. On the hawthorn's sheltered side a foam of blossom is spreading. In the field an immense concourse of oat-seedlings, a mighty youth-movement, uniformed in green, hales the sun with up- stretched arms.
Spring is painting the earth's old face young again, is actually rejuvenating her.
Even we, the ageing gardeners, are sun-warmed with an illusion of youthfulness. When the cuckoo calls, we pause for a moment in our weeding, our digging; to listen, and exchange smiles. But our backs are stiff with stooping, our muscles too quickly tire. Old eyes, unaided, can scarcely tell a chaffinch from a linnet.
We too, once upon a time, were part of the spring. But now our season is autumn. There will come an April when we shall be as out of place as a pile of last year's potato haulms that no one has had time to burn.
Growing old is of course tiresome,' yet in a way illuminating. Though the body's ecstasies begin to fade, yet somehow they have an added, a strange and solemn significance, like holy rites long practised yet ever fresh. The mind too is ageing. Already, though as yet almost imperceptibly, it begins to lose its grip. Memories will not promptly come when called. Or they crowd in unwanted, confusing thought. Exasperation is too easily roused. Danger, pain, and all harsh change of circumstance become more daunting, because the strength to cope with them is hard to summon. Youth's gift of sudden and reshaping insight comes no more. And the future, unless by accident or design my life is cut short, will bring sheer dotage. Strange, how little it disturbs me that I, who am interested most in man and the cosmos, shall fall away from the adult mentality and lapse into the second childhood! The high themes will be too much for me. I shall finger my memories in public and repeat my anecdotes. (And you, who are the younger, with what patience and gentleness you will correct me!) A little later my feeble craving will be only for warmth and sleep and such food as I can digest. And then I shall be a burden; to myself, to you, and to the young. It is no sunny prospect. Yet, seen in its whole setting, it becomes an acceptable though a sombre detail.
And short of dotage, life's autumn has its own glory, unconceived in youth. Young, I was a mere bubble of ego, and the universe was no more than a close filmy skin containing me; old, I am reduced almost to a point, but a sentient point, upon which a vast reality, depth beyond depth, is focussed. In a way I am at once dimensionless yet also infinite. I am almost nothing, yet I include a panoramic aspect of the infinity beyond me. The view is, of course, fragmentary, and must be largely false; but it presents itself to me as a subtle, a far-flung, a dread but lovely universe.
The dying fires of my body, and the cravings of this withering ego, seem now so unimportant, so dwarfed by the urgent needs of a whole tumultuous human world, and by the imagined potentiality of the myriad stars, and the unseen yet ever darkly . present majesty beyond the heavens. The failing body still clings to life, still clamours for such delights as it can still achieve. And all too often I still sucumb to its unruly greeds or fears, false to the outer reality and the central spirit that possesses me. The withering self still craves security, immortality, and even the trappings of dignity; but shamefacedly, with self-ridicule. Though all too often I conduct myself slavishly, I am no longer enslaved. Increasingly I identify myself not with those cravings but with the great outer reality and the central spirit. When the body dies, and I myself, may be, sink into eternal sleep, I shall have lost so little. For the cosmos will go on; and the spirit, in innumerable other centres, will go on. In losing this infinitesimal 'me', I lose, after all, nothing.
Further, in ageing, in this slow withering away of cherished delights and vaunted powers, there is a kind of purgation,. as .-though in readiness for some grave impending event. The victim is being shorn and cleansed in preparation for the altar. But the universal spirit that inwardly possessed him is now slowly discarding the idiosyncrasies of this outworn individual, is now stretching long-cramped wings, impatient for flight.
Those dear delights, those modest powers, all that is the cherished me, I willingly let go. Others will repeat them, and some more splendidly. For me, when this tiresome ageing is fulfilled, the welcome end is sleep.
But you? But we? The fair thing that has awakened in us, must that too sleep for ever? Or does it, since its essence is of the spirit, strike free?
Death Into Life Contents