December 27th, 2013

The art of age

Leonard Cohen is a songwriter, and a very successful one at that.

But he was a poet first. He’s old, too—if 79 can be called “old” these days. Accordingly, the style and content of his songs have changed over the years, although he already sounded sort of old even when he was young.

Here’s a recent song of Cohen’s that probably could not have been written by a young man, even by Cohen as a young man:

The words of the song remind me of a poem by Robert Frost, although the similarities are deep rather than superficial. The work appeared in Frost’s last collection of poems, In the Clearing, published in 1962 when Frost was in his mid-80s.

I tried to find a video of Frost reading the poem. It’s one of the last ones he ever read in public, according to something I once read, but I could find nothing. Instead I discovered that someone had made a song out of it and posted it on YouTube. Unfortunately, embedding is disabled, but you can find it here.

Here is the text of the poem, which is titled “Away”:

Now I out walking
The world desert,
And my shoe and my stocking
Do me no hurt.

I leave behind
Good friends in town.
Let them get well-wined
And go lie down.

Don’t think I leave
For the outer dark
Like Adam and Eve
Put out of the Park

Forget the myth
There is no one I
Am put out with
Or put out by.

Unless I’m wrong
I but obey
The urge of a song:

And I may return
If dissatisfied
With what I learn
From having died.

And then, to switch mediums, there’s this painting by Edward Hopper, the last one he ever painted. Hopper was 83 at the time:

Hopper’s final oil painting, Two Comedians (1966), painted one year before his death, focuses on his love of the theater. Two French pantomime actors, one male and one female, both dressed in bright white costumes, take their bow in front of a darkened stage. Jo Hopper confirmed that her husband intended the figures to suggest their taking their life’s last bows together as husband and wife.


Hopper may have loved the theater, but I think this painting expresses the same idea as the two poems above, which is that in life our identities constitute a temporary role that we then surrender (or which changes) at the time of death.

11 Responses to “The art of age”

  1. buddhahat Says:

    Cohen was also a wonderful novelist — but both Beautiful Losers and The Favourite Game could only have been written by a young man. Here’s another of my favorite poems about watching the end of life approach.

    It’s called QUESTION.

    Body my house
    my horse my hound
    what will I do
    when you are fallen

    Where will I sleep
    How will I ride
    What will I hunt

    Where can I go
    without my mount
    all eager and quick
    How will I know
    in thicket ahead
    is danger or treasure
    when Body my good
    bright dog is dead

    How will it be
    to lie in the sky
    without roof or door
    and wind for an eye

    With cloud for shift
    how will I hide?

    – May Swenson

  2. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “in life our identities constitute a temporary role that we then surrender (or which changes) at the time of death.” neo

    To paraphrase William Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, my friends, Than are dreamt of in our imaginings.”

  3. vanderleun Says:

    “a temporary role that we then surrender (or which changes) at the time of death.”

    Well……. make up your mind. Don’t hide inside a parenthesis.

  4. J.J. Says:

    At my age I wish I had some answers, some wisdom to pass on to the young. My only insight – life is what happens when you had other plans. And, as this cartoon shows, maybe death:

  5. parker Says:


    Loved the comic and life is indeed something that often happens despite our plans and intentions. No regrets, so far its been a wonderful path.

    I’ve been a fan of Cohen since Suzanne; a beautiful, haunting song from his younger years. There have been many who have recorded Cohen songs, but IMO no one does Cohen better than Jennifer Warnes:

  6. neo-neocon Says:


    That’s a very funny cartoon.

  7. q Says:

    where are their apples…

  8. Doom Says:

    *blink, blink*


  9. Tonawanda Says:

    Lovely post. I would not surrender (or change) a word.

  10. Ymarsakar Says:

    What else do you want to call it, Neo? Ancient, mummified, or …?

  11. momo Says:

    Funny, was binge watching The Thick of It this holiday, when the following line struck me as funny:

    Malcolm Tucker: I’ve got a to-do list here that’s longer than a fucking Leonard Cohen song!

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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