Young women and old men – what the Earl Of Rochester knew we couldn’t know.

I found this poem yesterday in an anthology called “Poem A Day”, one of the books left on the shelves at a local cafe to help while away the time until our orders arrive.

I’m a fan of the Earl of Rochester’s writing. It can be a little opaque to our twenty-first-century eyes, but, with a little effort, I’ve always found that the underlying wit, self-knowledge and resilience of the man becomes clear.

I’d never read “A Song Of A Young Lady To Her Ancient Lover” before. My first read-through made me laugh because, to me, the poem seemed a piece of self-mockery. I handed it over to my wife, who read it as an old man trying to convince himself of what he wants to be true. I read it again and decided it could be both of those things and a few more. Which is why I like Rochester’s work so much.

There are lots of layers to “A Song Of A Young Lady To Her Ancient Lover” and we hit some of them before we get past the title. Firstly, it’s not written by a young woman but by a notoriously charismatic courtier, now grown older. Secondly, it’s labelled a song, which perhaps marks it as a performance rather than a pouring out of the heart. Then there’s that use of the word “Ancient”. Is it meant as affection? Humour? Playfulness? All three?. Is the man truly ancient or is he so, only to someone so young that anything but youth is age?

Here’s the text.

Ancient person, for whom I
All the flattering youth defy,
Long be it ere thou grow old,
Aching, shaking, crazy, cold;
But still continue as thou art,
Ancient person of my heart.

On thy withered lips and dry,
Which like barren furrows lie,
Brooding kisses I will pour
Shall thy youthful [heat] restore
(Such kind showers in autumn fall,
And a second spring recall);
Nor from thee will ever part,
Ancient person of my heart.

Thy nobler part, which but to name
In our sex would be counted shame,
By age’s frozen grasp possessed,
From [his] ice shall be released,
And soothed by my reviving hand,
In former warmth and vigor stand.
All a lover’s wish can reach
For thy joy my love shall teach,
And for they pleasure shall improve
All that art can add to love.
Yet still I love thee without art,
Ancient person of my heart.

If the man being sung to is the young woman’s lover, then I wonder what his reaction to this song is and what reaction the young woman wants him to have and what reaction Rochester meant his readers to have and how different the answers to those questions might be.

When the man hears this, does it speak to his anxieties about getting older? Does it stroke his ego? Or offer him affection? Or Remind him of his good fortune? I think it does all those things but if I were in his place, I would be asking myself which of those things the woman most meant.

I think the heart of this poem is that we can’t know the answer. It’s possible even the imaginary perceptive, articulate, playful and probably seductive young woman wouldn’t know the answer.

This a poem that offers the reader questions and possiblities and not answers. It makes the relationship between the Young Lady and her Ancient Lover problematic, something not to be taken a face value but worthy of analysis.

At sixty-two, I’m fairly ancient myself. I find it hard to imagine being or wanting to be a young woman’s lover but, if I found myself in that situation, what would appeal to me about this young lady’s song?

Firstly, I love the use of “Ancient Person” as the first words of the poem. It’s a title free of rank. It acknowledges age and human identify or personhood. When it’s followed by

“Long be it ere thou grow old”

two lines later, I’m reassured that I’m not YET old, although the details that follow of what being old will eventually be like:

“Aching, shaking, crazy, cold”

prevent me from being complacent in that.

But the last two lines, of the first verse are the ones that would feed my hope:

“But still continue as thou art,
Ancient person of my heart.”

It could be glibness, or affectation or seduction or it could be honest affection, but who would not want to be the “Ancient person” of a young woman’s heart?

The next verse promises to continue to spend youthful kisses on withered lips, like rain bringing a second Spring in Autumn. If they were not already lovers, this would be flirtatious, As they are lovers, what is it? A reminder? A promise? An attempt to recapture something already sinking towards Winter?

Again, it is the last two lines that seem to offer the most hope:

“Nor from thee will ever part,
Ancient person of my heart.”

Yet they can be read as much as a plea as a promise. An offer of fidelity or an attempt to retain a relationship reaching its end.

The start of the next verse is a playful, faux-coy offer of sexual skill or “arts” to lend a “reviving hand” to restore virility. The young woman promises to give her ancient lover

“All a lover’s wish can reach
For thy joy my love shall teach,
And for they pleasure shall improve
All that art can add to love.”

But the poem doesn’t end on this offer. Again, the last two lines are the real hook:

“Yet still I love thee without art,
Ancient person of my heart.”

Repeating “art” after having used it to promise all that sex “can add to love” is an offer of artless, honest, other-than-sexual love. Which is what she seems to mean by making him the “Ancient person of my heart”.

While I love the wit and the wordplay, what I love about this poem is its unresolvable uncertainty.

Does the young woman mean the last two lines of each verse? Are they her real message? Are they a performance, a hook? Are they a dignity-maintaining politeness?

Does the Ancient Lover believe her? Is it what he hopes for or is it what he fears? Is it an entanglement too far or a reassurance of being more than an old man being pandered?

And what are we, the readers to conclude?

It seems to me that Rochester knew that we cannot fully know the hearts of others or be sure that our own aren’t being lied to by lust or hope or fear.

In the end it would depend entirely on who was singing and who was being sung to.

3 thoughts on “Young women and old men – what the Earl Of Rochester knew we couldn’t know.

  1. I have read it before and I assumed that Rochester was lampooning the hopes of older men with younger lovers… but the poem is definitely ambivalent and you’re right that that is what gives it its power.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Also you have to remember that in the 17th and 18th centuries there were still people who were married off against their will for money. Most of Molière’s plays seem to have a young couple resisting an arranged marriage to someone else. There were also a lot of courtesans and ladies of the night, due to the lack of a social safety net. One might imagine it would be in their interest to find a nice older gentleman who wouldn’t be too demanding and would provide security and perhaps a nice legacy.


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