Sunday, 31 January 2010

Musings: Old Age or Early Death?

My father celebrated his 93rd birthday last October. In past centuries it was extremely rare for anyone to reach such an age. George II, who died in 1760, was the first Britsh monarch ever to pass the age of 70 (and only three have managed it since), which suggests that most ordinary people led even shorter lives.

Many famous people are seen so much as products of their time that it is difficult to imagine them living into a later era. For instance, if Mozart had lived as long as my father, he could have read the Communist Manifesto, and so could William Pitt the younger. And can we imagine William Shakespeare coming out of retirement at the age of 85 to comment on the execution of Charles I?

In some cases, it is an early death which paradoxically serves to immortalise someone's reputation. Nelson's legend climaxes with his death in the moment of victory at Trafalgar: his reputation would surely be different if he had survived the battle and lived as long as the Duke of Wellington. Max Beerbohm imagined Lord Byron living till the 1850s, and writing long letters to the "Times" about the repeal of the Corn Laws; Byron's image, like those of Keats and Shelley, is linked with early death, without which they might have ended up like Wordsworth or Coleridge. We could hardly envisage Oscar Wilde, aged 85, being evacuated back to England from Paris in 1940 ahead of the German invasion; and I fear Marcel Proust, aged 68, would have refused to leave, and would have perished in Teresinstadt concentration camp around 1943. The thought of Aubrey Beardsley (1873-98) as a war artist in either World War makes one shudder: equally, the mental stability of Van Gogh (1853-90) would not have been helped by witnessing the First World War, and Raphael (1483-1520) was spared the sack of Rome by the Imperial armies in 1527. One wonders what D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) would have made of Nazism, and Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) would surely have considered Mrs Thatcher and her supporters appallingly vulgar.

It is best for a romantic hero to die young, because:-

"Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man"
(A. E. Housman: "To an athlete dying young")

At the opposite extreme are those who achieved their finest successes late in life, or kept working well into old age: Gladstone and Churchill, Milton and Goethe and Tolkien, Titian and Michelangelo. The greatest of such people appear not as anachronisms left over from an earlier age, but as products less of a single period, but of all time.

1 comment:

  1. Had George Orwell lived to your father's age, he'd have witnessed the demise of the Soviet Union. I'd love to have read his thoughts on that.