The Mole begged as a favour to be allowed to unpack it all by himself (Arthur Rackham for ‘The Wind in the Willows’)

The Sixth Age of Man

The Sixth Age shifts into the lean and slippered pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side. His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide for his shrunk shank…

For the mediaeval world, the number seven had been highly significant. God had taken seven days to make the world (including one for a well-earned rest), there were seven planets with the world at the centre of the cosmos, seven days in the week, with each planet linked to its day.

Shakespeare’s audience would be familiar with this and the harmony it suggested. Seven ages also represented the harmony of a man’s life, ascending and declining – always allowing that he was lucky enough to have survived childbirth, illness and war.

In the sixth age, instead of the youthful hose being too wide for the “slippered pantaloon”, with today’s better food and supplements, it would be more likely the opposite.

We will again use poetic licence and imagine this sixth age as one of fulfilment for those who have led a busy life and, with the benefit of hobbies, can enjoy taking life more easily. It will show a different style of English poetry: witty, sarcastic, alliterative, with a strong metre and fantastic to be read aloud.

Above all, this age is one in which to celebrate memories; to recall them and savour them. For the main picture, I have chosen one of Arthur Rackham’s brilliant illustrations for ‘The Wind in the Willows’.

Kenneth Grahame was inspired to write this book, having been Secretary to the Bank of England; he based all the characters in the book upon his closest work colleagues.

At the outset, Mole, who has just awoken from winter hibernation, has met Ratty and been invited by him to go on a picnic. Ratty loves boating and is surprised that Mole has never been on a boat. Ratty comes out with the immortal line that nothing compares with the joy of “messing about in boats”. We will return to this theme later.

Ratty is stretched out on the turf, eyes sheltered from the sun, enjoying his new company and old memories.

Fernando Pessoa, writing as Alberto Caeiro, captured such rapture of pleasant memories in his poem “Sou um guardador de rebanhos” (I am a Keeper of Flocks). His flocks are his thoughts, and they have to be guarded. He imagines himself like Ratty, stretched out in the sun. “I view my entire body lying firmly on reality, I know the truth, and am content”.

Through the following poems, let us eavesdrop on some of the highlights of Ratty’s sixth age: boating (of course), sport, travel, and gardening. In so doing, we shall share some of the rhymes and beauty of the English language – lying safely on the warm turf of reality, savouring the subtleties of one’s mother tongue.

An example of this is John Betjeman’s poem ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’, in which Joan Hunter Dunn, burnished and furnished by Aldershot sun, was immortalised. As a portrait of middle England, at the height of the Blitz in 1941, it could not be bettered. We have cameos of carparks filled with Austins and Rovers, we drive “into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells and mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells”.

The couple, in fact, met when Betjeman was working on government propaganda, and she was working in the catering department. When he presented her with the poem, she was delighted “with such a marvellous break from the monotony of war”. As in many war stories, there is another worldly quality about their relationship which the war had shaped. A poetic Brief Encounter.

The wooden tennis racket is safe in its press; the six-o’clock Blitz news bulletin is accompanied by “lime-juice and gin”; we are there in the Doctor’s front hall, admiring his Egyptian water colours. Our own memories are stirred by a poem like this.

Poetry is such a versatile and powerful tool. It affords an invitation to revisit our own youth, through a part open door in our minds and enter again a world which is ours but had been put to one side.

Betjeman would also have been an enthusiast for the railway journey in ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ of R.L. Stevenson, which I have mentioned before, ‘From a railway carriage’. The metre of the poem imitates the carriage wheels “Faster than fairies, faster than witches”.

T.S. Eliot was also inspired in his ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ by “Shimbleshanks the Railway Cat”. “There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39, when the night mail’s ready to depart, saying ‘Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble? We must find him or the train can’t start’.” Released from the burden of carrying weighty thoughts, the poems achieve an internal energy of their own to amuse and entertain and be recited!

G.K. Chesterton took a journey on the ‘Rolling English Road’, “a reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire … the night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head”. This poem is a joy to recite out loud, choosing your company and “before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green”!

I looked hard to find a poem that explores the arcane mysteries of golf but to no avail. The best I could find was the following Haiku: “Dimpled white golf ball, settles on pond’s shallow reads, Alligator lurks.” Not sent in, happily, by an Algarve golfer.

In Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’, Ratty explains to Mole “there is nothing, absolutely nothing as special as messing about in boats.” Looking out over Alvor harbour, there seems very little “messing about in boats going on”, but I am assured that in the breast of every Sea Captain, there surges the ‘Sea Fever’ about which John Masefield writes so passionately. “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.” If not on his boat, then on the sea shore with Matthew Arnold: “the sea is calm tonight, the moon lies fair upon the straits”.

I have left till last my favoured hobby, which is gardening. Kipling again comes to the rescue as he loved gardening and used the money he won for his Nobel prize on building a rose garden at Batemans. “Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees, that half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees.”
Here, his verse is to the point and very down to earth. “And when your back stops aching, and your hands begin to harden, you will find yourself a partner in the glory of the Garden”.

I had wanted to use this sixth age to widen the scope of the verse I could choose and show the breadth of our national poetic legacy.

In the final essay, “sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything”, we move from major to minor and reflect on the human predicament. Our teachers will be Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Rembrandt and, for music, Arthur Rubinstein. Beyond the “three score years and ten”, we have so many other issues crowding in for humanity, climate change, gene sequencing, poverty… The challenge is to be positive, not defeatist. I leave you with a line of poetry quoted by Virginia Woolf in “To the Lighthouse” – “and all the lives we ever lived, and all the lives to be, are full of trees and changing leaves.” Let us see what the next weeks may bring.

A Subaltern’s Love Song
By Sir John Betjeman
Miss J.Hunter Dunn, Miss J.Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.

By roads “not adopted”, by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

I am a keeper of flocks
By Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa)
I am a keeper of flocks.
The flocks are my thoughts
and all my thoughts are sensations.
I think with my eyes and my ears,
with my hands and with my feet
and with my nose and my mouth.
For to consider a flower is to both see it and smell t
and to eat of fruit is to understand its meaning.

So when the sun is at its brightest
and I feel guilty for embracing it,
I stretch out, supine, on the grassy earth,
and close my sun drenched eyes.
I view my entire body lying firmly on reality,
I know the truth, and am content.

Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat
By T. S. Eliot
There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying “Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.”
All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster’s daughters
They are searching high and low,
Saying “Skimble where is Skimble for unless he’s very nimble
Then the Night Mail just can’t go.”
At 11.42 then the signal’s nearly due
And the passengers are frantic to a man–
Then Skimble will appear and he’ll saunter to the rear:
He’s been busy in the luggage van!

He gives one flash of his glass-green eyes
And the signal goes “All Clear!”
And we’re off at last for the northern part
Of the Northern Hemisphere!

You may say that by and large it is Skimble who’s in charge
Of the Sleeping Car Express.
From the driver and the guards to the bagmen playing cards
He will supervise them all, more or less.
Down the corridor he paces and examines all the faces
Of the travellers in the First and the Third;
He establishes control by a regular patrol
And he’d know at once if anything occurred.

From a Railway Carriage
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

The Rolling English Road
By G.K. Chesterton
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

By John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Dover Beach
By Matthew Arnold
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

By Anthony Slingsby