Youth And Age: by S. T. Coleridge - Summary Analysis

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      The first 38 lines of Youth and Age, has appeared in The Bijou and The Literary Souvenir in 1828. The remaining eleven lines (L. 39—49) has first appeared in 1832 in The old Man's Sigh in Blackwood's Magazine. The present version of the poem has appeared in 1834. As indicated by the title, the poem offers a contrast between old age and youth.


      Youth and Age expresses the poet's deep regret at the loss of youth. Coleridge recalls his young days when he freely enjoyed the pleasures of Nature, Hope and Poetry. Life in those days is like the month of May, full of joyful festivities. Now, in old age, a great change has come over him. His body is no longer as it was in his youth — light and frolicsome as a light steam boat moving about confidently without fear of danger. He is now fat and afflicted with illness.

      In his youth, the joys of friendship, love and liberty are showered upon him copiously, friendship is like a sheltering tree and love is like a lovely flower. It is hard for the poet to believe that his youth is gone; he has been long in the habit of identifying himself with youth. He thinks that youth is playing a trick upon him; perhaps it has not really gone from him, but only putting on a disguise of grey hair, drooping gait, and alters size to induce him to believe that it has really gone. But Life is what one thinks it to be. Liveliness still shines on his lips; and youthful lustre in the eyes; and since a man is what he thinks himself to be, the poet will think that youth has not yet gone from him.

      Life is the same in youth as it is in old age, with this difference that it is full of hope in youth, while in old age all hope is gone. The dew drops for instance are the same in the morning and evening, but in the evening they are the signs of the approaching night. This loss of hope warns us of approaching death and makes us grieve. The old man feels like a long-staying poor relation; and like jokes of a poor relation who has outstayed his welcome, the old man feels he is no longer required on earth.


Development of Thought

      In his youth the poets life seems to be a constant festivity and had been associated with nature, hope and poesy. He is then not fat, and could lightly skip over hill and sandy tract. He then enjoys the delights of friendship, love and liberty. But now it seems that youth has forsaken him, However, he persuades himself into the belief that he is still young, because the bloom on his lips has not yet quite faded and the brilliance of the eyes has not altogether disappeared. The truth is that the essential element of life is the same in youth and in old age. What makes the great difference between youth and old age is the disappearance of hope and the creeping in of the shadow of death. The old man, in the absence of hope, feels that his presence is no longer necessary on this earth.

Critical Analysis

      Autobiographical Reference. The sincerity of the lyrical utterance in the poem can be tested by referring them to some of the incidents in the life of the poet himself. First, there is the reference to his hope that in his youth he thought of building his fame upon poetry. As he grew older, he thought he has failed in building a poetic fame owing partly to his love of metaphysical speculations and partly to his habitual idleness and addiction to opium. Then, he pathetically refers to the loss of friendship, particularly of Wordsworth's, who treats him rather coldly. He also thinks of the estrangement from his wife in his later years. He also refers to his youthful scheme of establishing liberty in the country. Other minor details such as his excessive fatness, the glow of his lips and eyes, also find a place in the poem.

      Mood of Sentimental Regret. There is a wistful nostalgia for the lost pleasures of the youth in the poem. Coleridge's appeal to the reader in this poem is a sentimental one, though it is an appeal difficult to resist because of its plaintive charm. The grief of the lines is touching.

When I was young? Ah, woeful When
Ah I for the change 'twixt Now and Then

      We find it touching also that he tries to delude himself that youth has not really left him but is just putting on the disguise of an old man.

      Style. The nostalgic note of the poem is expressed beautifully, especially in lines such as:

Dew-drops are the gems of morning
But the tears of mournful eve

      Beauty clothing pathos is also evident in:

O, the joys, that came down shower-like
Of Friendship, Love, and' Liberty,
Ere I was old I

      Coleridge has used appropriate similes in the poem. He compares the lightness of a young man's body with a lightness of the sleek steam-boats that rode the waters without the help of sails or oars, not bothered by wind or tide. Then there is the comparison between the old man and a poor relation who has outstayed his welcome. The poor relation do not want to go, but go he must sometime. Similarly, the old man knows he is near death though he does not want to die.

      The sad burden of Coleridge's later poems from Dejection onwards, contrast with the earlier days when

hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.

      Youth and Age of Byron and Coleridge. The poem Youth and Age is written by Coleridge when he is actually approaching old age, and has reason to regret the loss of the joys and powers of youth, while Byron's poem is written when he is still a young man but was fast losing the capacity for enjoyment through mental disgust and physical lassitude, arising out of a life of dissipation. Coleridge's regret is only for the loss of buoyancy of youth:

This body does me grievous wrong...

      But Byron complains more bitterly of the loss of some power — the loss of the 'tender bloom of heart ere youth itself be past'. The thought launches Byron into despair, and the loss of youth brings to him 'mortal coldness of the soul', but to Coleridge, the loss of youth does not involve the loss of the feelings and emotions; he can think that youth and age are not different in the matter of thought and emotion; since life is but thought, he will think that youth and he are friends still. Another point of contrast is the melody of the two poems. The long iambic lines rhyming in pairs, as in Byron's poem, have a melodramatic ring; but Coleridge's lines are all music, a kind of elfin melody running through the lines and sustaining his thoughts; these thoughts are those of a metaphysical thinker in verse.


      L. 1-5. Verse, a breeze.....was young. In Youth and Age Coleridge recalls his youth when the pleasures of poetry and hope come easily to him. Poetry is like a breeze blowing gently over flowers, and hope, like a bee feed on the nectar of flowers, is fed by his poetic dreams. Life is like the festivities of May. Nature, Hope and Poetry are the blessings of his life in his youth.

      The lines ring with a beautiful nostalgia and their plaintive charm appeals to the reader.

      L. 39-43. Dew-drops.....are old. In this touching passage from Youth Age Coleridge compares youth and old age to dew-drops. In the morning dewdrops look like gems; they give us pleasure. In the evening the dew-drops look like tears of mourning because day is about to end. Similarly in youth, which is the morning of life, a man has hope to look forward to the future happily. 

      In old age, which is the evening of life, there is no hope. The old man has nothing to look forward to; he can only feel sad at life

      L. 46-49. Like some A striking simile is used by Coleridge to illustrate the feeling of futility in old age. An old man is compared to a poor relation who has outstayed his welcome at his host's place. The poor relation is treated hospitably at the beginning of his stay, but soon enough the host tires of him. He can be openly rude to his guest and asks him to go away but his behaviour towards the poor relation gets colder and colder. Even the jokes of the guest evoke no smile. Similarly, an old man feels sad at the nearness of death. He will not like to die, though die he must. He is aware that he is of little use and life has no welcoming pleasure for him. He has outstayed his welcome in this world.

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