How to be old

Often, correspondents ask me what to read. I assume they mean, in addition to my own pellucid works. They leave me at a loss. If I knew them better — had met them personally, known them over time — I might have some suggestion. But one cannot seriously know an email correspondent, try as one will to read between lines, then read the lines again. Nor, unless one is saint or politician, can one hope to be on intimate terms with hundreds or thousands. I am happy with my small sprinkling of true friends; on whom I try to force books, constantly. In this anti-blogue I sometimes mention titles, and unless I have said specifically that they should be burnt by the public hangman, I am recommending them.

Here is an unlikely choice for the book club: The Diary of an Old Soul, by the Scotsman, George MacDonald (1824–1905). Today’s Christian reader has probably heard of him through C. S. Lewis, and he is also praised to the point of extravagance by Chesterton, Tolkien, Auden, de la Mare. Indeed, his first disciple was Charles Dodgson (“Lewis Carroll”), and I wonder if the conception of Alice would have been possible without MacDonald’s inspiration.

For he was a poet in a rather prophetic sense: a master of Myth. (Note the capital.) His sermons are hard-going (Lewis extracted many good aphorisms from them for a short anthology), but in the range of his prose fantasies and fairy tales there is a view of things behind conventional sight. Few, even among the poets, have this gift, which at its richest belonged to Dante. For much more than a century, imaginations have been shaped in childhood by The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, Sir Gibbie, Lilith, Phantastes — all of which repay later adult reading. MacDonald said he did not write for children, but for the child-like, which I think is true of all the classic “children’s writers,” without exception.

Children are, as they have often called themselves, “the people in the playground,” and must be addressed as people. From age seven, at latest, they are capable of reason and thus independent thought. They must not be treated as pets, or lied to.

This is a point worth dwelling upon, briefly. There is a vast and remunerative “child market” which the capitalists are exploiting. As I have discovered reading to children myself, these specialized, “niche” works are all nauseating; like the Harry Potter books they stink with some subliminal Gnostic agenda. Children are addressed not as child-like, but as permanent mental and moral defectives.

Lord, what I once had done with youthful might,
Had I been from the first true to the truth,
Grant me, now old, to do — with better sight,
And humbler heart, if not the brain of youth …

Now the book I am recommending may come as a surprise, to those already familiar with MacDonald. He described it as “a book of strife,” and conceals nothing of the debility, crankiness, discouragement, and disintegration of old age. Yet he does not complain. He wrote it in seven-line stanzas pulsating with rhyme, in twelve monthly sections. Like a child, he looks consistently forward, and presents the theological virtue of Hope in fresh and startling turns.

It will be hard to read for a person of contemporary miseducation, who is taught to flinch at a Thou, a Thee, a canst, or a dwellest. When I’ve had students I have told them to read more, until they get over it. Those raised on the Romantics will be mildly distressed by an unexpected distance from them. Often, for instance, MacDonald begins to bound in a Wordsworthian way, but without Wordsworth’s stamina. We mistake, in some late Victorians, what is drawing from a deeper historical past; they are actually avoiding what we take for clichés; instead making allusions, like Browning. The ghost of Edmund Waller is among those being quietly acknowledged, and set to rest:

The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decay’d,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become
As they draw nearer to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new.

Or as MacDonald, who can never lose that child-like wonder, shrives us:

Love will not backward sigh, but forward strain
On in the tale still telling, never told. …