“When old age shall this generation waste”—seven old words from a poem that, despite their age and archaic phrasing, have never been any less true. Life is full of interpretation: it seems like each and every thing that happens is full of intellectual and emotional wiggle room, giving space for opinions and biases and good-natured shrugs.
In fact, it’s that room for interpretation that is often leads to our most heroic choices: the ability to forgive a slight, rise to the occasion, or turn the other cheek. It’s when we dig deep and find the ability to react in an unexpected way that our characters are defined—when we choose to reinterpret the world in a new, better way.
But then there’s the facts: the hard truth that Keats writes about, “when old age shall this generation waste”. The kind of inevitable detail of life that leaves no room for interpretation—it just is. One day, we become our parents, we take over their role in society, and we know that at some point in the future, we’ll call it quits for good. No matter how loud our protests, life keeps moving on along.
That singular fact has driven more heroes mad than perhaps any other, fuelling countless futile trips in search of the fountain of youth. And when it becomes the focus of our own lives, the only knowable thing, it can put even the bravest hero in the deepest funk. What’s the point of getting up and giving questing another go if, in the end, it’s inevitable that all the things we make will be taken apart?
Well, that’s a big question with many answers, and I’ll try to give the shortest one here—by finishing what Keats had to say about the subject. Old age will waste this generation, yes—things will fall apart, and the countless hours and repetitive rhythms of work and creation and taking out the trash will waste away into the forgotten streams of memory.
But something remains throughout it all—a thing Keats calls a ‘friend to man.” And when we feel the keen, uninterpretable knowledge that what we make is futile, we feel something even deeper, another immutable fact about the universe. The only one we know that makes enduring the first fact worthwhile.
So in the face of everything falling apart—either now or in the inevitable future—we can say, “beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”
May the Road Rise Up To Meet You!