Wednesday, January 22, 2014

THE LATE, LAST WISDOM OF THE AFTERNOON

Archibald MacLeish
1892 - 1982

Yesterday, my friend Friko, author of the wonderful blog, Friko's World, published a rather poignant story about the challenges facing an elderly couple who live in her village.  As I read the piece, I was taken back to a special evening in the early seventies when I spent an evening in the Library of Congress listening to Archibald MacLeish read some of his poetry.  At the close of the evening, MacLeish read a deeply touching poem in which an elderly couple explore the meaning of their relationship as their individual lives face the ravages of time.  The last line of the poem, spoken by MacLeish with heartfelt and autobiographical certainty, has been etched in my memory for more than forty years.  Perhaps it will be meaningful for others as well.  


THE OLD GRAY COUPLE
by Archibald MacLeish

They have only to look at each other to laugh —
no one knows why, not even they:
something back in the lives they've lived,
something they both remember but no words can say.

They go off at the evening's end to talk
but they don't, or to sleep but they lie awake —
hardly a word, just a touch, just near,
just listening but not to hear.

Everything they know they know together —
everything, that is, but one:
their lives they've learned like secrets from each other;
their deaths they think of in the nights alone.

She:  Love, says the poet, has no reasons.
He:  Not even after fifty years?
She:  Particularly after fifty years.
He:  What was it, then, that lured us, that still teases?
She:  You used to say my plaited hair!
He:  And then you'd laugh.
She:  Because it wasn't plaited.

Love had no reasons so you made one up to laugh at.  Look! The old gray couple!

He:  No, to prove the adage true:
Love has no reasons but old lovers do.
She:  And they can't tell.
He:  I can and so can you.
Fifty years ago we drew each other, magnetized needle toward the longing north.
It was your naked presence that so moved me.  It was your absolute presence that
was love.
She:  Ah, was!
He:  And now, years older, we begin to see absence not presence: what the world
would be without your footstep in the world — the garden empty of the radiance
where you are.
She:  And that's your reason? — that old lovers see their love because they know
now what its loss will be?
He:  Because, like Cleopatra in the play, they know there's nothing left once
love's away . . .
She:  Nothing remarkable beneath the visiting moon . . . 
He:  Ours is the late, last wisdom of the afternoon.  We know that love, like 
light, grows dearer toward the dark.


18 comments:

  1. What a poignant poem on ageing. Just think what it must be without love... nothing to lose, only life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Sandra. Like all good poetry, this poem captures one of the great truths of life. Though deeply poignant, the poem is refreshingly honest — something that always appeals to me.

      Delete
  2. No longer interested in being a lover and not being in love with a partner does not keep me from being able to relate to the last lines here. There is that love for the mystical in life that "grows dearer toward the dark." As I grow older, life becomes more meaningful for me and thus, dearer as death draws nearer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You make a good point here, Rubye, and I agree with you. While the poem focuses on personal love between two people, the principal that love grows dearer toward the dark obviously has much broader applications — as you say, for example, "love for the mystical in life."

      Delete
  3. This is so touching, so moving, George. I enjoyed it immensely. I love the detail of the (non) plaited hair. And, wow, that last line: 'We know that love, like light, grows dearer toward the dark.'

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you liked this poem, Robert. I, too, like the details that lead up to the poem's final, poignant line. There are also other lines that resonate with me, notably, "hardly a word, just a touch, just near, just listening but not to hear."

      Delete
  4. That last line - so poignant and so true.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Rowan. Yes, I think all of us recognize the central, undeniable truth of the poem.

      Delete
  5. That last line is so beautiful George - lovely poem.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Pat. Glad you liked the poem.

      Delete
  6. The soft burn of tears upon that last line. I feel why it has stayed with you, George. Thank you for sharing the connection you felt from Friko's story. We'll each of us carry the thread on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your description is so on point, Ruth. I think "the soft burn of tears" is precisely what I saw in MacLeish's eyes on the night that he recited this poem many years ago. He was in his early eighties at the time, and it was obviously a period in which he was coming to terms with the meaning of his own life and work.

      Delete
  7. George, I absolutely needed this just now.
    I am reading ‘Stoner’ and can hardly bear to read Williams’ account of a cold, hostile and destructive marriage; it’s making me feel so sad.
    Whereas the warmth and benevolence and mutual good-will emanating from ‘The Old Gray Couple’ warms my heart, taking away the bitterness and bleakness of the novel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great, Friko! So glad this poem resonated with you, as it does with me. Some may find any discussion of aging to be depressing, but I find this poem to be refreshingly honest, and it's nice to be reminded that things like love can grow richer, deeper, and more meaningful, even as people face the inevitable challenges that come with the years.

      Delete
  8. My husband and I have been married so long, he loses track of the years. (I don't!) He was recently telling our grandchildren the story about the first breakfast I made him - how the egg was fried so hard and rubbery because I didn't know how to cook even the simplest of meals. Our grandchildren love the retelling of these old stories, though it's hard for them to believe I was once that clueless girl. I remember bursting into tears that morning long ago and him rising to comfort me. I'm thinking that old love has much more nuance and depth than that fairy tale love when we were young. "Dearer toward the dark" describes it well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Barb. I love your observation that "old love has much more nuance and depth than that fairy tale love when we were young." So true, and it's sad to see people who fall into depression because they seem to have lost some of the fairy tale love of youth. A love that can evolve with time ends up being far richer and more satisfying.

      Delete
  9. Marvelous and very moving. I too enjoyed Frikos post regarding the aging couple.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Delighted you liked this post, Margaret.

    ReplyDelete