Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1709/The Ideal of Old Age

From The Spectator.


The complete intellectual strength and health retained to the last by Lady Smith, who died at Lowestoft this day fortnight, within three months of the great age of one hundred and four, opens out almost a new prospect for the aged. That a woman who was born while the United States were British colonies, whose girlhood passed away while Warren Hastings was on his trial, who was married before the battle of Arcola, — and might well have been married, had she married as early as many English girls do, before Napoleon's name had even been heard of, indeed, he was but four years her senior, — should have lived to read of the celebration of the centenary of American independence, of the proclamation of the empress of India at Delhi, and to survive the second French empire by nearly seven years, and should, moreover, have lived to such an age any loss of interest in public or private events, — with the hymns she learned as a girl still fresh in her memory, and with the most vivid interest in the latest despatches of statesmen who were not born till her married and middle life was almost over, — suggests at least the possibility of a very different termination to aged lives from that of which we have most frequent experience. Not that it can be said, in Lady Smith's case, that she lived, —

Till Old Experience doth attain
To something of prophetic strain.

She seems to have been a wise and thoughtful, but by no means exceptional, woman in anything but the unimpaired vigor of her faculties at an age when the nerves and the brain have usually gone before the body. But then that is precisely the interest of her case. Had she been a very remarkable woman in early years, everybody would have said that hers was a selected life, — a physique of exceptional force, — and that the unimpaired vigor of her faculties in age was due to the same exceptional causes which gave her her great brilliancy in youth. But as it is, excepting that the intellectual men of her youthful days found her a very fascinating woman, — a not uncommon experience with regard to women who, like Lady Smith, are at once beautiful and amiable, — there was no unusual power in her. And hence, of course, the vast age to which she retained her powers unimpaired, — unless the defect of vision which came upon her after her hundredth year be so accounted, — promises the more for the chance of other average men and women retaining their mental vivacity and interests to something like the same age. It is not much encouragement to ordinary men to know that a man like Lyndhurst retained the power to review the politics of the session with undiminished brilliance till after the age of eighty, for no man could have become what Lord Lyndhurst became, without possessing an exceptional amount of physical vigor from the first. But if Lady Smith were exceptional at all, it was not shown in any overflow of youthful or mature energy, but only in the peculiar durability of the energy she had; and if durability be due, as it may be due, to some special congenital quality, no one need despair of possessing that quality till the facts show that he is wrong; while if it be not due to any congenital quality, but only to the prudence with which life is regulated, there is still more reason to hope that others, may be able to follow Lady Smith's example.

But the interesting question, after all, is not so much what chance have we of living to anything like Lady Smith's age in the possession of equally unimpaired faculties, — for every one must feel that such a chance is very small, — but rather, what chance have we of retaining anything like Lady Smith's serenity and cheerfulness, if we do but live to her age; for that is a matter more likely to be within our own power, and very closely connected, too, with the other, for had Lady Smith been apt to fret and brood over the isolation of her position, she could hardly have retained her undiminished mental power to the age she did. For the full enjoyment of old age, there must evidently be a somewhat unique moral nature as well as a unique physique, and it is possible enough that it may be deficiencies of that nature, much more than any deficiency of physical energy, which so often cause old men and women to fret or brood themselves into premature apoplexy, or premature exhaustion. A nature evincing the highest degree of intensity and individuality of the affections is obviously not fitted to live on into extreme old age without suffering great wear and tear through very exhausting griefs. A nature that always craves the excitement of action, that is never happy except when wielding practical influence over others, is obviously unfitted to live on to such an age without suffering great wear and tear through impatience bred of enforced inaction. A nature, again, very conservative in its habits, one without high adaptability and elasticity in it, cannot change sufficiently with the times to conform to new modes of life and new modes of thought, without an amount of irritation which would hardly be consistent with unimpaired energy, and certainly not with unimpaired serenity. "To grow old in an age you condemn" is not a condition likely to fit you for a serene evening of life. Perhaps the best temperament for old age is that of such a poet as Sophocles, whom, —

From first youth tested up to extreme old age,
Business could not make dull nor passion wild,
Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole,
The mellow glory of the Attic stage,
Singer of sweet Colonus and his child.

or of such a poet as Goethe, —

Who took the suffering human race,
And read each wound, each weakness clear,
And struck his finger on the place,
And said, "Thou ailest here, and here;"
He looked on Europe's dying hour
Of fitful dream and feverish power,
And said, "The end is everywhere,
Art still has truth, — take refuge there."

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