The Old Man, Yeats, and the Power to Change a Life

Falling Down on the Slip-and-Slide

I had a friend, years ago, who changed his life in the time it took to read a line of Yeats.

He was in university, studying art. A Roman Bacchanalia shindig was a quaint get-together in comparison to his naked, loud, drunk, writhing, partying. He moved from an occasional beer to an occasional thirteen to lots of weed to amphétamines, and finally, to heroin. He started wearing long sleeves to cover needle marks and sat, dazed, in class, anxious for the next party. Years later, he relished the memory, describing the high to me as ‘having an orgasm from every pore of your body’. I see why it’s so popular. And I’m so glad my wife refuse oxycontin for me during my accident recovery.

He slipped further into his heroin-induced pleasurehouse, but felt an unease. He avoided visiting home to see his parents, sure he was naked in front of them. He started hanging with new people, people who wouldn’t judge him. People who were less concerned about his decisions. Probably people who used heroin.


He changed in a day. In one class. In one reading.

It was a lit class and the prof talked about Yeats. Who knows what he was yapping about or who was snapping their gum. All this guy remembers is that his life started to change when he read An old man is a paltry thing, and by the end of the next line, he saw the world and himself differently. A tattered coat, hanging on a stick.

An old man is a paltry thing.
A tattered coat hanging on a stick. Useless.

Sitting alone in class with twenty kids, he saw it. A vision. The path wasn’t clear but the destination was. For now, he was young and strong, charming and outgoing, and using heroin for fun. But, all at once, he saw himself as an old man. A paltry thing. A tattered coat draped over a stick in the back of the closet. Know one remembers why it’s there or who it belongs to.

He stopped his drugs, not immediately, but deliberately. He lost a little something of himself. It took time to shake free from the picture of a paltry old man. He avoided his crowd at school knowing that hanging with them was an open invitation to more of the same.

I’m time, he settled and made new friends. He found laughter again, and charm. Good gawd, that man was charming. He finished school hale and whole and farmed his parent’s land wondering all the time if he was free. His father would die of cancer a few years later and my friend finally learned, in the oddest of ways, that he was a free man. Cleaning up, he gathered his dad’s medicines – pain pills, uppers, downers, opiates – and held them over the kitchen sink. Grabbing the bottle’s cap, he twisted it and turned the small vial on its side until he heard the ping of a pill hit the sink. It sounded right, like he was done. He tilted the bottle a little more and another pill slid out making a noise when it hit. Scared or sure I don’t know, but he upended the bottle into the sink, turned the water on, and washed everything down. He was free.


An Old Man is a Paltry Thing

I think of this story sometimes, and the truth of it. How many people do you know, men and women, who had that spark when they were young? Using the words of John Mellencamp, they could stop a block? Could sell snow to Alaskans? Even this morning, reading about how no one sews new cloth onto old, I thought about it. This old man. Paltry like something hanging in the back of the closet. A hole in the chair. My favorite coffee cup, stained and chipped around the rim.

I wonder, too, if this is this how G sees mankind? Chipped with a broken handle? Hanging in the back of the closet, good only for cleaning up when the dog pees?


For you sobering joy, Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, from the Poetry Foundation:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

More by Yeats…