Curiously Auden was just thirty-two when he wrote the words. What does a young man know of failure, of its suffocating grip on our life and dreams? How could he discern its acrid taste for an older man, who has no more the time to try again? Little can compare with the sense of desolation of one who has struggled at something all his life, only to find at the end the effort wasn’t worth anything.
People have feared aging because it brings increasing weakness and decreasing resistance to diseases. As better medicine and nutrition have countered these, other threats have gained ground. As you get older, relatives and friends die, people you know move elsewhere, children grow up and become strangers, and the world around you changes so much that you turn a stranger.
You walk, teetering, on the narrow ledge of your ostensible achievements most of the day. But, as you sit alone in the darkening shadows, a thought gnaws at your heels like a tenacious Rottweiler: you have seen little, done little, meant little. While huge tides of events and movements have tossed round you, you have spent your days earning your bread, saving some money, buying a house and just watching others living or dying meaningfully, doing interesting or heroic things, leaving a footprint small or large on the wet sands of the beach. The waves will wipe them out, we know, but for a while it is something to exult over.
Isn’t that the great unsuccess that most of us live with? If you identify with that, then – welcome! – you belong to the Grand Army. You are one whom nobody will remember after a few years, just as nobody remembers after you have left a room after a few minutes. Nobody will write a book, or even a song or a blog, about you, because nobody will know what to put into it that will faintly interest others. Your friends will occasionally mention you, but they too will soon pass away or start losing their memories. Your neighbors have all moved to a larger house, a finer district. Your children? They have their lives to live, their problems to solve, their careers to pursue and their own children to nurture and send out into a hostile world.
So here is a thought. Stop ferreting crumbs of meaning from the rest of your life by going back to your old office and doing petty stints that drench you with a reassuring spray of usefulness. Stop turning to a remote Almighty you have largely avoided as a pathetic crutch and find utility in a comfortable suspension of disbelief. Stop clutching at straws in a sad, strenuous effort to avert the reality of your undistinguished, unaccomplished life.
Instead, suggests Auden, you do what Yeats did:
Sing of human unsuccess
in a rapture of distress.
Sing of your sorrow, write of your misery, but do it with verve and spirit, without shame and apology, knowing it to be a shared story of the human lot.
And may the others join in.