This week’s poem is “Young and Old” by Charles Kingsley, which reminds us to seize our opportunities while we have them.
Young blood must have its course, lad,Charles Kingsley (1819—1875)
And every dog his day.
Poem 276. Young and Old
When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away!
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.
When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among;
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.
This poem is a “carpe diem” poem—seize the day—rather like Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” which I covered in April 2020 (Poet’s Day 2, if you can believe it).
An older person—perhaps a parent or grandparent—is telling their young offspring to make the most of their feelings of immortality and strength when “all the trees are green” and “every goose a swan” and “every lass a queen”. The young are urged to use their energy and power: “hey for boot and horse, lad,/And round the world away!” for every dog must have its day. I wondered if this poem was the first example of this phrase but it turns out to have an ancient lineage, being recorded in the writings of the Greek biographer Plutarch: “Even a dog gets his revenge” and appearing in John Ray’s Collection of English Proverbs (1670) as “Every dog hath his day.” Queen Elizabeth I is credited with coining the phrase by some writers, while it also appears in Hamlet: “The cat will mew and dog will have his day”. Andy Warhol suggested a more modern turn of phrase when he famously stated, “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”
The second stanza forms a kind of counterpoint, emphasising the message of the first by describing the world seen through a darker and more cynical lens “When all the world is old, lad” at a time of life when everything seems to be decaying and decrepit—“all the sport is stale, lad/And all the wheels run down”. Life, it seems to say, will beat you down and force you to retreat to some familiar place where everyone is sapped of energy or physical capability. The last lines suggest however that by fully exercising one’s freedoms in youth, there may be some compensation for the progressive deterioration of the world: “God grant you find one face there/You loved when all was young.”
I like this poem because it presents some memorable images—“every goose a swan” suggests that even the dowdiest individual can shine to the eye of youth; “every lass a queen” makes the same point. The second stanza is also a fertile source: “all the sport is stale, lad/And all the wheels run down”.