New York, April 29th.–Last night I came upon this passage in my old author: “Friend, take it sadly home to thee–Age and Youthe are strangers still. Youthe, being ignorant of the wisdome of Age, which is Experience, but wise with its own wisdome, which is of the unshackeled Soule, or Intuition, is great in Enterprise, but slack in Achievement. Holding itself equal to all attempts and conditions, and to be heir, not of its own spanne of yeares and compasse of Faculties only, but of all time and all Human Nature–such, I saye, being its illusion (if, indeede, it be illusion, and not in some sorte a Truth), it still underrateth the value of Opportunitie, and, in the vain beleefe that the City of its Expectation is paved with Golde and walled with Precious Stones, letteth slip betwixt its fingers those diamondes and treasures which ironical Fate offereth it…. But see nowe what the case is when this youthe becometh in yeares. For nowe he can nowise understand what defecte of Judgmente (or effecte of insanitie rather) did leade him so to despise and, as it were, reject those Giftes and golden chaunces which come but once to mortal men. Experience (that saturnine Pedagogue) hath taught him what manner of man he is, and that, farre from enjoying that Deceptive Seeminge or mirage of Freedome which would persuade him that he may run hither and thither as the whim prompteth over the face of the Earthe–yea, take the wings of the morninge and winnowe his aerie way to the Pleiadies– he must e’en plod heavilie and with paine along that single and narrowe Path whereto the limitations of his personal nature and profession confine him–happy if he arrive with muche diligence and faire credit at the ende thereof, and falle not ignobly by the way. Neverthelesse– for so great is the infatuation of man, who, although he acquireth all other knowledge, yet arriveth not at the knowledge of Himself–if to the Sage of Experience he proffered once again the gauds and prizes of youthe, which he hath ever since regretted and longed for–what doeth he in his wisdome? Verilie, so longe as the matter remaineth in nubibis, as the Latins say, or in the Region of the Imagination, as oure speeche hath it, he will beleeve, yea, take his oathe, that he still is master of all those capacities and energies whiche, in his youthe, would have prompted and enabled him to profit by this desired occurrence. Yet shall it appeare (if the thinge be brought still further to the teste, and, from an Imagination or Dreame, become an actual Realitie), that he will shrinke from and decline that which he did erste so ardently sigh for and covet. And the reason of this is as follows, to-wit: That Habit or Custome hath brought him more to love and affect those very ways and conditions of life, yea, those inconveniences and deficiencies which he useth to deplore and abhorre, than that Crown of Golde or Jewel of Happiness whose withholding he hath all his life lamented. Hence we may learne, that what is past, is dead, and that though thoughts be free, nature is ever captive, and loveth her chaine.”
This is too lugubrious and cynical not to have some truth in it; but I am unwilling to believe that more than half of it is true. The author himself was evidently an old man, and therefore a prejudiced judge; and he did not make allowances for the range and variety of temperament. Age is not a matter of years, and scarcely of experience. The only really old persons are the selfish ones. The man whose thoughts, actions, and affections center upon himself, soon acquires a fixity and crustiness which (if to be old is to be “strange to youth”) is old as nothing else is. But the man who makes the welfare and happiness of others his happiness, is as young at threescore as he was at twenty, and perhaps even younger, for he has had no time to grow old.