In the 1997 Pulp song Help the Aged, Jarvis Cocker pleaded with his listeners to spare a thought for the elderly:
Give a hand, if you can,
try and help them to unwind.
Give them hope & give them comfort ‘cos they’re running out of time.
An uncommonly charitable song, you might think, but by the chorus, his true intentions became clear:
When did you first realise?
It’s time you took an older lover baby. Teach you stuff
although he’s looking rough.
By the ‘aged’, Cocker is referring to himself, not really very old at all, only slightly past it in youth culture terms: Cocker wrote the song at the grand old age of 33, and he’s after a very specific kind of help, not, say, tea and digestive biscuits and a bit of company while he’s watching Countdown. As a lyrical type exaggerating his age and its effects to elicit sympathy and affection from a younger lover, Cocker is in good company. Here is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, writing at the not immanently perilous age of 36:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
Shakespeare elicits sympathy from his young lover through his pathetic (in a poetic sense) references to his sorry aged state in the images of an almost bare tree, then the last glow of twilight before night, and finally the last embers of a fire. You will notice that the imagery is progressively more romantic, as if Shakespeare has taken his lover on a nice autumn stroll, before they gaze at the sunset together and then warm themselves by a fire. Clever boy – he knows which buttons to push, does the bard. The carpe diem flavour of the poem is made explicit in the final couplet – he has evoked sympathy and romance, and here is the final push: urgency. You had better love me well as I won’t be around forever.
Erotic and humorous poems abound in the poem. I must credit Schmoop for alerting me to the name-based saucy wordplay on Shakespeare’s own name. The ‘boughs’ which shake against the cold may initially make us think of an older man’s frame – and again it is an image that evokes both sympathy and romance – as well as the vehicle of the metaphor, that sorry autumnal tree; but a ‘shaking bough’ can also be read as a play on shakes spear, with notably phallic overtones – down wanton down! You may also have suspected Cocker of a play on words when he asks you to ‘give a hand’ – what is it with these tricenarians and their dirty jokes? How they have the youngsters blushing and cringing.
Perhaps Shakespeare felt a surge of romantic passion in his mid-thirties, hence the fire and sun imagery in the sonnet; or could it be that he is just eager to assure his lover of his virility, lest a younger rival to his affections be lurking… ‘In me thou seest the glowing of such fire’ – still got it, baby, don’t worry ’bout that! Wherever the source of this energy, its destination is not in doubt, as we can divine from the motifs of nights, beds and lying down in the latter half of the poem, even if it is death-beds he mentions – well, there’s nothing like a bit of memento mori to make one value the moment. How sincere is this carpe diem griping we wonder, and how much a strategy to get his lover between the sheets.
Putting all that filth aside a moment, the poem’s fourth line has been a source of fascination and debate in the last century or so for historians of the Reformation in England. W Empson was the first to point out that the imagery in the line ‘Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’ was based on what must have been a common sight at the time it was written – churches denuded of decoration, and without the Latin rites a music, according to rules laid down by the courts of Henry, Edward and Elizabeth Tudor. The historian Eamon Duffy (in Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition – the reading of which inspired this post) argues that the line shows Shakespeare’s sympathy with a distinct vein of nostalgia and regret current in late-Elizabethan England about the consequences of the Reformation, and even some sympathy for the Catholicism of the past, or at least a certain coolness towards protestant Anglicanism.
Whatever his attitude towards Catholicism, there is no arguing Shakespeare’s catholicism, going from bawdy jokes about his name to evocations of the recent past in the space of two lines… Then again, considering how the English Reformation started, perhaps it is entirely appropriate.