Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669. 262cm × 205cm. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

“And then the justice, In fair round belly, with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut.”

Shakespeare’s fifth age

We left the journey through the Seven Ages of Man in July, anticipating the guns of August which heralded the start of the First World War. Dutifully the guns fired but in another theatre of war, Afghanistan. Now we pick up our knapsack, filled with poetry anthologies, planning to end our journey at the turn of the year.

We paused at the watershed between youth and middle age. We must always have in mind that life expectancy in 1600 would have been 43 years; role models for the over 40s would have been in short supply for Jaques, Shakespeare or his audiences. The last three ages would have relied, to a large extent, on supposition. Certainly, for 70 at that time read a young 85 now.

As a result of this, I am going to exercise my own poetic licence over the subjects chosen to illustrate the last three ages Jaques describes. In the fifth age, I shall look at the interaction between the “paterfamilias” and his family; in the sixth age, we shall visit poetry illustrating the free time now available to us as “reformados”. The seventh age, “sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything”, I shall leave much in the hands of T.S. Eliot and particularly his sustained metaphor of water in ‘The Waste Land’, which is unparalleled.

Another change, whilst in earlier articles the picture illustrated the themes of the poetry, this time I shall ask the poems to dance to the theme of the ‘Prodigal Son’ in the painting by Rembrandt. This hangs at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. It was painted in 1658, two years before Rembrandt’s death. Catherine the Great purchased it through her Ambassador in Paris in 1766.

I had the privilege of seeing the painting over 10 years ago in a private viewing and was so overwhelmed by the forces flowing from it, I nearly was locked in for the night! Many writers have been equally captivated by it; Kenneth Clark considered it one of the finest paintings ever painted.

In the portrait, which stands eight feet high, the Prodigal Son is placed before his father. He has made fast and loose in life, love, and war; he returns home destitute and penniless. The father with outstretched arms placed on his shoulders cradles his son. To his side, we have the obedient elder son who never left home, always worked dutifully and is infuriated by his father’s instant compassion for his brother.

There is also intense personal history built into this scene. Rembrandt had, since his early times, been fascinated by this parable. He had painted a self-portrait with his wealthy new wife on his lap in a bordello enjoying the good time as the Prodigal Son. Between the earlier boisterous picture and the present one, he had lost fame, lost money and was now bankrupt. This was his testament for life. Seldom does one find so much personal tragedy poured into a painting.

We must view the fifth age as a time of success and failure. A time where we see others succeed yet may fail ourselves. Through the magnifying glass of instant social media, these dramas can seem even more tragic. Christ chose this parable well. For all time, if one wanted a portrait to show God’s compassion, look into the face of the father and discover it.

In this picture, there are twin themes. First, the short distance between success and failure, and second the compassion to be given and received within the family or group of friends, when things go wrong.

Johannes Tauler, a 14th-century Dominican mystic, spoke of how “it is in the mysterious darkness that good, without limit, hides”. In the ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’, Rembrandt shows an arc of light, leading from the sinner to lighten the father’s face and then pass over to the elder son. Standing in front of this portrait, or even viewing it now whilst writing, this particular impression shines forth.

I have chosen four poems to illustrate this “intergenerational crossroads”. It is also, in fact, a societal crossroads. The first is Kipling’s ‘If’ which is about success and failure and picking oneself up after disaster. “If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same”, the final couplet “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

In second place, I have chosen a poem by Simon Armitage called ‘Give’. It is a scene we all too often see in the European capitals of people sleeping in doorways. It is easy to pass by, seemingly oblivious to a fellow human being’s plight. I will remember this poem next time I feign to look away.

On a broader social scale, there is the compassion we in society should feel to the poor and afflicted, in this grossly overburdened world. “The New Colossus” was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 to raise funds for the erection of the Statue of Liberty in New York. The words are now engraved on its base. From her pedestal she cries, with silent lips, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

Contrast these uplifting sentiments on the east coast of America with the sight of Haitian refugees living under the Del Rio bridge on the Mexican US border, beyond 10,000 at last count. One pauses to reflect wherein lies the solution; certainly not with a horsewhip shown worldwide in the inhumane photograph. It is little better in Europe, where immigrants struggle to find a welcome. In failing to resolve these problems now, we are piling up problems for future generations, and the phrase “free world” rings a little hollower.

The last poem, of which I extract the first two verses, is from Lord Byron’s ‘The Tear’, which I did not know. He narrates the ages we have studied and regards the genuine tear as the hallmark of true compassion.

I have strayed from Jaques’ description of the fifth age, “with eyes severe”, to place in them a tear, which I feel is justified. Shakespeare pleaded in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, through the oratory of Portia, for the quality of mercy, making the case for compassion. It was a convention of his time to place controversial issues on the stage in a location outside England. Hence the treatment of the Jews had to be played out in a courtroom in Venice, not the Strand.

His advocate, ahead of her times, was a lady barrister (albeit one played by a man)!

Next time to easier subjects. We shall see how poetry portrays the filling of free time, as a “Reformado”, in the sixth age of man.

By Anthony Slingsby

By Rudyard Kipling
(‘Brother Square-Toes’ – Rewards and Fairies)

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Source: A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1943)

By Simon Armitage

Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.

Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.
I’m on the street, under the stars.

For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.

It’s not as if I’m holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.

You give me tea. That’s big of you.
I’m on my knees. I beg of you.

The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Source: Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings (2002)

Lord Byron’s ‘The Tear’ – First 3 verses
When Friendship or Love our sympathies move,
When Truth, in a glance, should appear,
The lips may beguile with a dimple or smile,
But the test of affection’s a Tear:
Too oft is a smile but the hypocrite’s wile,
To mask detestation, or fear;
Give me the soft sigh, whilst the soultelling eye
Is dimm’d, for a time, with a Tear:
Mild Charity’s glow, to us mortals below,
Shows the soul from barbarity clear;
Compassion will melt, where this virtue is felt,
And its dew is diffused in a Tear: