As we know from two very different perspectives, there is always a penalty to be paid when one ages: either one becomes older and wickeder and uglier, or one (in sadness) acquires the ability to be more mature and more knowledgeable and more composed about one’s appearance (a moralist’s view of older and wickeder and uglier. As a non-professional moralist and a person of 55, sometimes I feel I belong to one camp, sometimes to the other). Both Oscar Wilde and Andrew Marvell have written on the topic of youth and age in well-known works, Wilde in his novella “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Marvell in his poem “To His Coy Mistress.” As well, the two authors are interested in what can constitute the golden mean of outwitting a loathesome age or the just punishment for evading the maturity that should come naturally to a naturally composed person.
In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Dorian is at first merely a somewhat flighty, attractive, shallow young man who is beloved by the painter Basil Hayward, a man painting his portrait. But along comes Sir Henry Wotton (Harry to his intimates) who derives a certain amusement from dragging Dorian into haunts of bad repute and amongst evil characters. Dorian makes a wish that his portrait, a triumph of the painterly art when Hayward finishes it, might take on the characteristics of his appearance as he ages, and leave him free to appear always young and handsome (and as the Arabic saying goes “Be careful what you wish for, because you will surely receive it”). This is in fact what happens. By the end of the novel, Dorian has murdered the author of his artistic being, Hayward, and outdone Wotton in the degree of his depravity. When he tries to destroy the by-now-unsightly picture, however, catastrophe strikes, reminding us that “The truth will out” or “What’s bred in the bone will not out of the flesh,” or a hundred other aphorisms. I say aphorisms are in a sense the point here, because Wilde was in some works especially a moralist, and the notions of morality were never far from even his lightest touch with the pen.
With Marvell’s poem, the point is a little otherwise, and it’s really a triumph to both authors that this should be so. What I mean by this is that Wilde wrote his story and ended it as he did and published it when he was only thirty-five; his story is about how much more graceful and mature and moral it is to accept age as it comes. By contrast, Marvell wrote his frolicky poem “To His Coy Mistress” by the time he was about 60, a poem in which apparently the lady being addressed is a young virgin and the male voice speaking has much of the urgency of an equally young swain courting her. But then, who better to be an expert on the carpe diem theme, perhaps, than a man a great deal older than a woman he is courting, so that possibly my point is not well-made? At any rate, his reminder that “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace” is definitely a pointed reminder to the lady. As he also informs her, it may be that “worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity,/And your quaint honor turn to dust,/And into ashes all my lust.” (Note for my readers: at the time Marvell was writing, “mistress” may or may not have meant “mistress” as we use it today. It also meant “girlfriend,” “lady of the house,” “one whom I admire,” and sometimes simply “Mrs.” As well, in a context like this, the word “quaint” was a pun on the “c” word, which is used rudely these days as a word for a woman one disrespects. The disrespect was not current in Marvell’s poem.)
The end of the poem, however, is where Marvell’s “fable” diverges from Wilde’s. Wilde’s fable has a serious and a tragic ending; Marvell’s fabulous poem surpasses the flourish of imagery at its beginning with a truly cosmic witty imagination at its end: “Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball,/And tear our pleasures with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life:/Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” Or, do the two fables (and I am using the word “fable” imprecisely in this paragraph) really diverge? Wilde’s novella shows one failure to stay young at heart and hope at least, a failure which is particularly desperate. Whatever age Marvell’s speaker and his mistress may be imagined to have, they have come up with yet another solution: to “seize the day” and make the most of the time they have together. Yet to some readers, this solution seems a little hasty, as does Robert Herrick’s poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” on a similar theme, beginning “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” In all cases, the devastating abilities of time and old age are acknowledged; the main divergence of the fables is in which choice they choose to portray. Wilde’s tale is cautionary though witty, Marvell’s is witty, though with an underlying morality of seriousness. Both authors are indicating the need for a golden mean, though one shows a character notably failing of it and another is trying to persuade a woman to disregard her doubts, her doubts holding her back because of a kind of “coyness”; there is, after all, no indication in the poem that she is unwilling to listen.
And so, readers, just as an afterthought, what were you planning to get around to soon? What had you determined to carpe diem, or “seize the day” about? Perhaps you were planning to wash the car, or read a particular book, or pay a peculiar relative a visit, or write a post: as Wilde would have it, do so with loving-kindness and an awareness of your privilege of being still among the living, and as Marvell would have it, don’t forget why you’re doing it today (because you’re still vital enough).