A poignant meditation on life’s true satisfactions.
Though F. Scott Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896–December 21, 1940) was a man of ample theoretical wisdom on literature and life — from his ideas about what makes good writing to his feisty literary idealism to his heart-warming fatherly advice to a young daughter — he was also one of great sensitivity to the gritty, living experience of language. Here is his exquisite reading of John Masefield’s 1919 poem “On Growing Old” — a sublime meditation on the mortality paradox, found in the altogether breathtaking anthology Sea Fever: Selected Poems of John Masefield (public library):
Be with me, Beauty, for the fire is dying;
My dog and I are old, too old for roving.
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying,
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.
I take the book and gather to the fire,
Turning old yellow leaves; minute by minute
The clock ticks to my heart. A withered wire,
Moves a thin ghost of music in the spinet.
I cannot sail your seas, I cannot wander
Your cornland, nor your hill-land, nor your valleys
Ever again, nor share the battle yonder
Where the young knight the broken squadron rallies.
Only stay quiet while my mind remembers
The beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.
Beauty, have pity! for the strong have power,
The rich their wealth, the beautiful their grace,
Summer of man its sunlight and its flower.
Spring-time of man, all April in a face.
Only, as in the jostling in the Strand,
Where the mob thrusts, or loiters, or is loud,
The beggar with the saucer in his hand
Asks only a penny from the passing crowd,
So, from this glittering world with all its fashion,
Its fire, and play of men, its stir, its march,
Let me have wisdom, Beauty, wisdom and passion,
Bread to the soul, rain when the summers parch.
Give me but these, and though the darkness close
Even the night will blossom as the rose.
The poem rings with particular poignancy in the context of a 1940 letter Fitzgerald sent shortly before his death to his 18-year-old daughter Scottie — whom seven years earlier he had advised not to worry about growing up — in which the author reflects:
Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat [and] the redeeming things are not “happiness and pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.
Complement with Fitzgerald reading Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”