Intimations of Mortality

Wordsworth’s attribution of a luminous perception of an earlier life to a child, the best philosopher, has been received with mixed reviews: some in glowing agreement; some with substantial reservations. My own childhood lacked the quality that Wordsworth’s reminiscence of his own childhood suggests. The notion of an immortal soul may not be totally foreign to a child although I believe it is quite a stretch to presume that such thinking is typical even in Wordsworth’s day and it is certainly less likely today. A more accurate scenario might describe a personal reflection triggered my a childhood memory which attempts to capture one’s lived experiences, their ramifications, and potential consequences. I agree with Coleridge’s characterization that there is no more reason to assign such power to a child than to a dog or a tree or any other existing life form; the insight is provided by the older, mature poet pondering the transitoriness of life and weighing this against the hope that there something of an eternal character that persists.

There is no doubt that as adults we tend to associate innocence more with childhood than at any other stage of life; however, innocence is not synonymous with profound introspection or sublime insight. More often than not our experience underscores the notion that innocence is lost as we become more exposed to the complexity of society and the mounting demands and responsibilities involved in providing for ourselves. Obligations that accrue to us create pressures which never seem to diminish as we age. It is no surprise then that we look upon our childhood with a certain nostalgia even if we must alter, embellish, or fabricate elements of our earlier experience in order to preserve a kind of purity that aging may deny us.

As adults, it is also true that our introspection tends to deepen as we age, especially if we are honest with ourselves in moments of solitude and surrender to the logic of perception that Robert Herrick so aptly recognized in his poem, To the Virgins, to make much of Time:

Gather ye rosebuds while you may,
Old Time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

While Herrick’s verse appears to suggest a certain playfulness; nonetheless, the opening and succeeding quatrains caution against inaction and wasting opportunity. A corollary to Herrick’s warning applies to those of us who have lived sufficiently long to have traversed most of the time allotted to us. If I thumb through the actuarial data that most insurance companies compile to set their rates, I’ll find that time, for me, has nearly flown. In fact, it would not be statistically inaccurate of me to state that the years left to me are roughly equivalent to the number of digits on my hands and feet. Some people find my accounting of finitude in poor taste, some think it appalling, others think that they detect a morbid resignation of a life cut short, a premature surrender to the chilling darkness of the unknown. If I know my own mind as well as I think I do then I can categorically state that I have no death wish; rather, I am attempting to make the most of the time I have left, unencumbered with the white noise of unexamined living.