The gerontological theory of gerotranscendence developed by Lars Tornstam has untapped potential as a tool of literary analysis and as a means of countering negative stereotypes of aging. In the reading that follows, I argue that Tornstam’s articulation of gerotranscendence is deeply ethical for its emphasis on the subjectivity of the older person in present time. My chapter reviews Tornstam’s theory in detail, as its nuances are not well known in humanities research. I then examine two poetry collections by poets of different genders and time periods to assess differences that emerge when one reads for gerotranscendence in the writing of older authors. Canadian poet Margaret Avison (1918–2007) published the collection Momentary Dark (2006) when she was 88. The poetry of W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) has already been discussed extensively in the context of older age, yet reading some of his final poems in terms of gerotranscendence may offer a new configuration of aging in his work. Though one may examine works by both authors through the lens of gerotranscendence, the patterns revealed are quite different, demonstrating the versatility of this approach.

Gerotranscendence is a term coined by Lars Tornstam in 1989 (“Reformulation”) and elaborated in Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging (2005) and other work (“Quo Vadis,” 1992; “Theoretical,” 1994; “Caring,” 1996; “Functions,” 1999; Hyse and Tornstam, 2009). Tornstam defines gerotranscendence as involving a shift in metaperspective or the perception of reality in older age, evident in the discourse or behaviors of older adults (“Functions” 157). Without using ideologically freighted words like wisdom,Footnote 1 Tornstam in effect asks what changes for an older adult in their interactions with others and in their sense of self. The theory attempts to define a cluster of characteristics that may be evident in later life in which older adults express a more present awareness of earlier life experiences, a new sense of connection to past generations or human life, an increased acceptance of the life cycle, including death, and less emphasis on the individual person in contrast to the life of a community (Developmental 3). In various works, Tornstam characterizes gerotranscendence as involving “redefinition of the self and relationships to others,” including being “more selective in the choice of social and other activities” and experiencing a “decrease in interest in material things and a greater need for solitary ‘meditation’” (3). My chapter extends this argument by claiming that gerotranscendence focuses attention on subjectivity in older age and the framing of reality as it exists in the present, not tied to prospective death or to the temporal chain of past experience, but instead asking how the past may come to exist in or inform the present.

The theory of gerotranscendence has important ethical outcomes, including avoiding what Tornstam terms the “misery” perspective on older age, which is often predicated on the views of relatively younger people that emphasize the finality of time and impending death. Instead, the theory of gerotranscendence reframes the understandings of the individual in older age by shifting the focus to the older person in the present. For instance, more frequent discussions of the past can be seen as an aspect of a change in perceptions of time, rather than as a sign of impending dementia or some other pathology (Developmental 158–59). The characteristic of living in the present or finding joy in small things can be viewed not as expressing resignation to death and aging, but rather as a redefinition of reality in gerotranscendence (160–61; “Functions” 12). Further, educating caregivers and others on the features of gerotranscendence can alter their perceptions of and interactions with older adults (Developmental 170). In the field of gerontology, Tornstam and others claim that older individuals who learn about gerotranscendence frequently recognize in it their own experiences (Hyse and Tornstam; Wadensten). For literary scholars, reading works by older writers for characteristics of gerotranscendence opens a space for a discovery process permitting new configurations of older age. It circumvents looking for monolithic markers of the ‘older’ in texts and asks instead what clusters of characteristics are present in a work by an older writer at a particular temporal moment. Presenting gerotranscendence as part of a developmental continuum that includes multiple characteristics brings complexity to readings of older age, in which each literary work will offer its own entrances and exits across the gerotranscendent field. In this respect, further work on gerotranscendence might be linked to Deleuze and Guattari’s nonhierarchical notion of the rhizome. The perspective also has some affinity with the notion of reading older age in phenomenological terms, but with underlying patterns that are more specific in nature.

Critical Contexts

Tornstam’s research was initially premised on the need for new theories in social gerontology, exploring shifts in attitudes toward time, memory, activity, and the self that are experienced among older adults. Tornstam differentiates his approach from other models for understanding aging. He identifies these as including the pathological (disease) perspective, which looks for biological explanations and processes; the activity perspective, which values remaining active; disengagement theory, which sees disengagement from social roles and relationships as a pattern in aging; the continuity perspective, emphasizing the maintenance of identity over time; Erik Erikson’s developmental perspective, positing growth through different life stages; a “Mask of Aging” approach, implying a disconnect between a core self and the “betraying aging body”; the masquerade perspective, a coping strategy emphasizing hiding aging; and the SOC (Selection, Optimization, and Compensation) perspective, also a coping strategy (Developmental 8–9).

Gerotranscendence, then, according to Tornstam, is “a positive developmental possibility with individual variations” (193). Insofar as it represents a developmental theory of aging along the lines of Erik Erikson’s work (Childhood; Life Cycle; Vital), it does not face backward toward earlier moments in the life course, but rather “implies more of a forward or outward direction, including a redefinition of reality” (Developmental 194). The simultaneity of present and past time through memory as well as the dissolution of ego boundaries or separation of the self from the environment are features of gerotranscendence that are reflected in Tornstam’s qualitative work interviewing older adults.

Work on gerotranscendence is also closely tied to the idea of the life review or later life narratives of the individual life course, as Tornstam’s theory emerged from interviews with older adults. The life-review process was first articulated by Robert N. Butler in 1963, who noted the increased “return to consciousness” of earlier life events that is often evident in adults in older age (66). Butler postulated that the life review was a ‘universal’ experience in older age and that it could serve as a developmental task, either leading to a resolution of past experiences or, conversely, eliciting distress at difficult memories. Tornstam’s work also suggests that reminiscence may contribute toward “a process of reorganization and reconstruction” but contends that the process leads to a redefinition of reality and altering of social and temporal reference points in the present (Developmental 143). The presence of gerotranscendent traits in later life is not about reconciling with past experience but rather about a break leading toward perceptual change and a re-ordering of frames of reference (143–44; “Functions”).

Undertaking a discourse analysis of interviews in a Swedish cross-sectional study (Developmental 145), Tornstam identifies three functions for reminiscence, related respectively to identity, a sense of the “unity of existence,” and to connection with others (147). Conversations that involve reminiscence may therefore serve to articulate a particular view of self or the identity function. They may also be marked by a sense of simultaneity between present and past, self and other, even extending to “statements that unite the dead with the living, the past with the present, and present life with approaching death,” which is the unity-of-existence function (147). Finally, reminiscence may serve a primarily conversational function as a means of establishing connections with others (152). Tornstam argues that the ‘identity’ and ‘conversation’ functions of reminiscence are not necessarily age specific and may be precipitated by crises or turning points in the life course. The cosmic or ‘unity-of-existence’ function, he argues, bears some correlation with aging and may be tied to the concept of gerotranscendence, contributing to a change in how reality as a whole is understood (143). Tornstam also describes the characteristics of gerotranscendence as existing on an age-based continuum, capable of being blocked or furthered (69).

Given this complexity, it is difficult to support positions that see gerotranscendence in essence as a form of re-inscribing the concept of wisdom in older age, rather than marking difference in terms of behavior and perspective. Canton et al. draw on features of gerotranscendent thought in their analysis of later-life creativity but contend that gerotranscendence may “resurrect” stereotypes about “sage” figures (213). Jönson and Magnusson maintain that gerotranscendence represents an attempt to ‘re-enchant’ older age, claiming roots in New Age thinking, utopianism, and Romantic Orientalism. Gerotranscendence, they argue, does not sufficiently acknowledge diversity in experiences and needs (329). Yet as Jeffers et al. note in their work on structured life-review exercises with older adults, incorporating gerotranscendent themes into life-review storytelling addresses depression among older adults and helps destigmatize aspects of aging. Teaching about gerotranscendence as a component in the structured life review allows for “themes of generative commitment and redemption” to be folded into the narrative identity of the participants (81).

Kirsten Thorsen has critiqued gerotranscendence from the position of cultural gerontology, noting the problems inherent in taking gerotranscendence as a universal life stage rather than as a culturally specific model. Thorsen argues that gerotranscendence should be considered metaphysical in nature that it has more in common with ideas of spirituality, which in turn are culturally specific (167). The theory as a whole, she claims, relies on a “debodification” of aging, which minimizes the physical effects of older age. However, this view misses gerotranscendence’s emphasis on subjectivity and orientations to reality and assumes that gerotranscendence is a defining feature in older age (168; 171). Albert Jewell finds the term gerotranscendence is too broad and asserts that the concept is not differentiated from Erikson’s eighth life stage and that the theory does not sufficiently consider personality differences in the accounts of older adults (Jewell 119; Erikson and Erikson). Joan Erikson quotes Tornstam in her brief essay arguing that gerotranscendence itself is a ninth life stage (Erikson and Erikson). Yet as we have seen, a closer examination of Tornstam’s work makes the point that gerotranscendence is a cluster of orientations in later life development, not a singular concept to be equated with wisdom, and that features may be present in earlier experience, particularly through life crises. The model may be culturally specific, but further investigation is needed in both sociological and literary terms, and extended literary analyses of gerotranscendence have not yet been undertaken.

As Canton et al. note, the “narrativization” of the life course “risks overdetermining interpretations of aging persons and of aging more generally. We expect life to have, like any narrative, a climax, an apex of vitality, creativity, strength and success, followed by a denouement that trickles toward death” (212). Gerotranscendence resists such linking of aging and dying by emphasizing a reorientation and restructuring of identity in older age, inviting observers or readers to focus on the older adult’s frames of reference. Multiple studies on gerotranscendence cited by Albert Jewell do suggest there is qualitative evidence among older adults for a shift in perceptions of time and attitudes toward living in the present that in turn supports many of Tornstam’s presuppositions (see Jeffers et al. 81). We will see in literary analysis of Avison and Yeats that gerotranscendent themes can be identified within the works of older adults while encompassing quite different emotional registers and relationships with the outer world. Swinnen, Hartung, and others have pointed to the pitfalls of attempting to establish a ‘late style’ in the writing or artistic production of older adults, rightly noting the risk of essentializing older age. Again, keeping ethics in mind is important to avoid stereotyping, and one can instead see the features of gerotranscendence as marking a reorientation and reframing of existence in the present moment. Reading for the traces of gerotranscendent perspectives means attending to the individual’s framing of the world as it exists at the time of writing.

Avison: Quotidian Discoveries

Gerotranscendence has not regularly been applied to literary analysis, nor in extended analysis of individual works. As I argued earlier, this gerontological theory offers a productive and open-ended conceptual framework with which to examine works by older writers. The later publications of Canadian poet Margaret Avison (1918–2007) provide a rich corpus for exploring gerotranscendence in literary texts. Avison produced four volumes of poetry after the age of 80. The examples I will focus on here, the poems of Momentary Dark (2006), were published when Avison was 88. They deal with daily life in a city that resembles Avison’s hometown of Toronto, exploring concepts of shelter, home, and the everyday. While each poem stands on its own, the collection as a whole contains autobiographical references to Avison’s family and elegies to lost friends. Reading these poems through the lens of gerotranscendence reveals a sense of connection with small details in nature and with other lives, an interest in present moments, and ideas about the shape of the life course. If, as Tornstam suggests, gerotranscendence “implies more of a forward or outward direction, including a redefinition of reality,” then in Momentary Dark Avison looks outward through the speaker’s reflections on identity, which indeed appear embedded in the larger world about her (Developmental 194).

Avison’s observations of life move toward the level of abstraction and larger perspectives, experimenting with different metaphors for the life course in the poems, from the notion of “the rhythm of living” (“Rhythm”) to the river of time (“Bereavement and Postlude (Remembering Angela Bowering)”). The speaker in the poems is often focused on the present moment, paying particular attention to looking and listening as a means of shifting the individual perception of things. As Avison writes in “Prayer,” “Let inner hearing / create listening, so that / the presence not here / (not yet?) / may speak” (17–21; p. 15). Avison’s speaker reflects on the rhythm of life, as the poems register small moments in the everyday, such as the view through a window or a vista in a storm. Addressing this force directly, she calls on it to “es- / tablish your ways / under our nonlongsuffering / bewailing, sense of some- / thing lost, always” (“Rhythm,” 23–27; p. 20).

Questions about navigating a life or a path through time are frequently addressed in Momentary Dark in references to the life cycle. In “High Overhead,” again, written when Avison was in her late 80s, the speaker suggests that living has pathways and that one must “hold steady” (14; p. 18). Small moments, or the unexpected, seem to provide an impetus forward, for, as she says, beyond and “[f]ar out there, surely,” lies the potential for a new grounding in time:Verse

Verse the hotly earth-embracing swerve will happen, will steady the too- rambunctious heart. (13–20; p. 18)

Similarly, in the poem “Finished When Unfinished,” the speaker also waits for a glimpse of something that is absent, in this case, “a bird in transit” “or the breeze that sometimes stirs when a / motionless midday / passes,” but “no one is left” (8–13; p. 23). In a move one can associate with a gerotranscendent turn, like Avison’s “swerve” in time, the poem’s imagery strips away memories and expectations, leaving the speaker finally with a vision of small things, a few stones. Yet in a powerful manner, this ostensibly empty landscape brings her calm:Verse

Verse   Here is only peacefulness, and several sunny flat stones. (8–18; p. 23)

When even a bird or a breeze for which the speaker waits does not come, she can still find solace in sun-warmed stones.

“Beneficences” takes as its subject the ordinary moments that can propel the speaker unexpectedly into something she defines as “the person-freeing silences” (3; p. 12). In the context of Avison’s older age, this notion suggests a gerotranscendent interest in solitude and deeper meaning, a value that sustains the speaker. One path to such moments, she speculates, “calls for an interval in / solitude,” in which the sight of grass in sunlight or a song by Percy Grainger evoke “an unemphatic, unremarked / fugitive pang” (4–7; p. 12). She identifies the second pathway as “even … simpler,” though it is “unbiddable” (14–15; p. 12). Avison describes this other route to “the person-freeing silences” as evolving from a chance event that might happen in a gathering of familiar people, each one focused “outside ourselves” in conversation (20–21; p. 12). Unpredictably, “some / core validity rings out from one / pronouncement,” or the conversation starts to build a “cathedral of / words or music” reaching out into the silences (21–25; p. 12). Avison speculates:Verse

Verse Other ways there may be. Hoping so is what makes living go on, go on. (31–34; p. 13)

The compass of the everyday is suggested in these final lines, but also the nature of aging and the context of a long life that goes on, goes on. Avison suggests that it is the hope of such temporal shifts and openings in the commonplace that helps sustain existence in time in older age.

The place of nature in Momentary Dark, too, suggests gerotranscendence through the expression of connection to larger spaces and the presence of the earth. For instance, the poem “Not Words. Alone” introduces the notion of Earth’s unintelligible human sounds that cannot “travel on / beyond our little skyspace” (19–20; p. 5). The next two poems in the collection also meditate on sound. Both present a speaker who is located inside a dwelling, behind window glass, listening to the wind and rain. In “In the Earthen Kingdom,” the clatter of the rainfall through the window suggests a connection to the natural world and a kind of immanence in nature. The speaker writes that it is “like the / whole wide sky wanting to / tell me something” (4–6; p. 7). Small details in nature link the speaker to life that is interconnected on a cosmic scale.

In the poems of Momentary Dark, Avison’s contemplative stance is mirrored in the spatial distance adopted by the narrator in presenting what she sees. The sight of children, for instance, reminds her of her own position in time:Verse

Verse Yes, little one. You have to be ready to get along anywhere. But be on your guard! We cannot help following, from alas our widening distance. (“In September,” 31–35; p. 63)

In the final extended poem, “Shelters (for Mary),” the speaker surveys the city streets. A group of older women reminds her of a “spinney,” or thicket of trees (183; p. 86). This ‘forest’ of “old women” is in essence merged with nature, resilient, together with aVerse

Verse    … thin- branched valley of old men - all find the sunlight dim; suffering from weather, still they stoutly find the watery afternoon passable, even “good.” (183–88, p. 86)

The speaker’s point of view slips from the animated trees that open the poem, then morphs into the spinney/forest of older women, and finally to the trees in a cemetery, where they “gather, encircle / benches and grassy places,” as if offering comfort (232–33; p. 88).

In this space, the speaker’s gaze is drawn by chance to a single marker, which turns out to be related to her: “Wait. It’s my parents’ stone. It’s lonelier / here than even first grief was” (204–05; p. 87). At this critical moment, her position appears to shift from that of an omniscient narrator, floating above the city, to being “In here” (234; p. 88). From the space of the cemetery,Verse

Verse  looking up, the starry night is barely visible; yet its scent of far breathes gently. (234–37; p. 88)

The visual trajectory of the passage moves from the starry night over the cemetery to the noisy freeway to houses on the slope to a single lit window, as a “slow car” rolls into the driveway of the home, and all are “Safe for the night” (245; p. 88). In the spatial choreography of Avison’s work, death, loss, and a starry night co-exist with light, home, and safety, which become the final images in the poem.

Reading for gerotranscendence in Avison’s work in her 80s reveals patterns of connection to landscape and nature, a future-oriented focus on the potential for openings in time, and an underlying grounding in the “Rhythm of living,” rather than the end of life (“Rhythm” 23; p. 20). This presentation of experience by the poet in older age reflects gerotranscendent positioning but also a sense of living that is distinctively Avison’s.

Yeats: Alternating Moods

If gerotranscendence were a monolithic concept, one would expect to find similar patterns in poetry written by William Butler Yeats in his late 60s and 70s, yet this is not the case. Yeats and the idea of aging have been explored extensively by critics, who note that figures of older age appear even in Yeats’s earlier work as part of his historiographic and temporal theories (see Bornstein; Pruitt and Pruitt). Gerotranscendence asks, however, about patterns in the discourse and perceptions of older people, rather than focusing on non-temporally located representations of aging. Tornstam argues that gerotranscendence exists on a continuum, inflected by life experiences, thus opening the possibility of gerotranscendence in different life stages (Developmental 142). Reading for gerotranscendence focuses attention on the subjectivity of the older person or, by extension, the older writer. One can thus ask how Yeats responds to the body, to social bonds, to self-identity, and to time and materiality at a later life stage and whether some of the markers of gerotranscendence appear.

Yeats was fairly prolific in later life, and a comprehensive discussion of gerotranscendent features in his work would have to cover his plays as well as the poetry, also taking into account his complex cosmography and biographical and intertextual references. Critic Helen Vendler comes closest to identifying gerotranscendent attributes in Yeats’s later writing, remarking that a new mode appears, which she calls “the comprehensive one—a mode that attempts to survey an entire life from beginning to end” (82). Thus, like Margaret Avison, who admired Yeats’s work, Yeats appears to develop complex figures for the life course in later life, including, as Vendler notes, the idea that “the dancer inventing a dance to the music of time reconceives life as a fluid motion” (85). Vendler also describes the development of what she calls “death-poems in which the speaker hovers on the edge of the posthumous” (98). Yet even at the level of individual poems, as in the analysis that follows, asking about gerotranscendence yields distinctive patterns in Yeats’s orientation to the present and an emotional register linked to anger and urgency, together with the pressing need for speech.

Yeats operates within the broad temporal frame we also see in Avison and employs a range of devices in addressing aging and identity. Self-mocking humor and a darker perception of the contemporary world are part of the aesthetic valence of poems he composed in his 60s and 70s, before his death in 1939. The artists in “Lapis Lazuli (for Harry Clifton)” (from New Poems, composed 1936, age 71)Footnote 2 undertake their creative work in spite of the predominant tone of life, their “gaiety transfiguring all that dread” (17). Here it is not moments of stillness, or an underlying rhythm that tips the balance of living toward joy, but rather the perception of the human history of artists willing to turn to creativity, even in the knowledge that all things decline. If Avison finds a few sun-warmed stones in a setting emptied of people, Yeats’s speaker “delights” in a vision of artists who begin to play music despite “all the tragic scene” (52; p. 342), suggesting a trope of disruptive gaiety or joy. Aging is inevitable, though “In Tara’s Halls” (from Last Poems, composed 1938), it is something the 100-year-old speaker simply refuses to admit. The male speaker claims that throughout his life he has given women and dependents everything they need. Yet he holds himself outside of time, for should he ask anything in return for love, that is the moment at which age would begin. Rather than seeking reciprocal love from “God or woman,” he climbs into his coffin. In a fiction of masculinist control, challenged through Yeats’s humor, he promptly “stopped his breath and died” (16, 21; p. 384). To ask for love, something the speaker refuses, is to set the clock of time in motion.

Though at times finding refuge in the world of art or nature, as in earlier work, in Yeats’s older age, his speakers frequently adopt a stance of far-seeing and a turning back toward ‘the young,’ who cannot perceive what ‘the old’ know to be true. This is evident in “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?” (from On the Boiler, composed 1936), in which older people have a clear-eyed vision of injustices that remain invisible to younger people and which therefore feed a kind of righteous anger in the speaker. In Yeats, older people offer a clairvoyance that the contemporary world may not heed: “Observant old men know it well, / And when they know what old books tell / And that no better can be had, / Know why an old man should be mad” (17–20; p. 370). The poem “A Statesman’s Holiday” (from On the Boiler, composed 1938) touches on similar themes, as aging brings perspective on the scope of injustice, as well as the need to speak out:Verse

Verse Some knew what ailed the world. But never said a thing. So I have picked a better trade. And night and morning sing. (9–12; pp. 371–72)

Alexandra Poulain has written about the tone of anger in Yeats’s earlier and later plays, maintaining that in both periods “Yeats found in the ‘rage’ of the old heroes a radically subversive posture which allowed him to resist marginalization and absorption within the new order” (21). She also contends that in the plays, anger “frees” older characters “from the constraints of decorum and propriety, endowing them with an extraordinary power of subversion” (26). Thus Yeats’s older theatrical characters use rage to push back against stereotypes of wisdom as an inherently marginalizing, passive, and uninvolved state. By resisting stereotypes of wisdom, these speakers affirm the truth-value of their own perspective. Yeats’s older characters have something important to say, even if they may be less likely to be heard.

Gerotranscendent readings of behavior in effect ask us to think about whether stereotypes about aging (and later-life creativity; see Hartung, this volume) might lie behind the interpretation of anger as an expression of helplessness or depression, when such emotions may be part of a new self-ordering. In more conventional views of aging, anger could be taken as a mode of despair. However, Poulain’s interpretation of anger as freeing aligns with characteristics of gerotranscendence, such as “self-confrontation” as an aspect of the self, and the desire to step outside social roles (Developmental 74). One of Tornstam’s counseling exercises in fact involves thinking about breaking “unnecessary social roles or norms” or personal “life rules” (Developmental 197–98). That aging, anger, and deep emotion are linked in Yeats also makes sense in the context of Yeats’s long experience of Irish political upheaval, through which he saw the direct impact and aftermath of violence. Recreating a visit to the Dublin municipal art gallery in “The Municipal Gallery Re-visited” (from New Poems, composed 1937), the older Yeats is overwhelmed as paintings evoke painful memories of people who have died. As “[h]eart smitten with emotion I sink down, / My heart recovering with covered eyes,” art and memory converge in these works, in “[m]y permanent or impermanent images” (III.1–4). In this poem, these “images of thirty years” haunt Yeats through portraits of Roger Casement, executed in Pentonville Prison after the Easter Uprising of 1916; Keven O’Higgins, murdered by the Irish Republican Army; and other lost friends (I.1). Yet Yeats also notes quizzically that, while it is emotion that leads him to sink down, his “mediaeval knees” also “lack health until they bend” (V.1).

Just as Avison imagines her parents’ tombstones in “Shelters,” Yeats visualizes his own grave in well-known lines in “Under Ben Bulben,” from Last Poems (composed 1938), which contains a stanza that was used as Yeats’s own epitaph. The poem is written in the imperative, beginning with the command to the reader to “[s]wear by what the Sages spoke” (I.1). The speaker directly addresses the Irish who have found clarity in responding, at whatever cost, to the call to arms and independence: “You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard, / ‘Send war in our time, O Lord!” (III.1–2). The language of command suggests a position of intensity, if not anger, in Yeats’s perceptions of the contemporary world and his present moment, and his poetic mode is one of exhortation. His words implore the future “poet and sculptor” to “do the work” and not let “modish painter / shirk” the task of the artist as it has been through history (IV.1–2). He calls directly on “Irish poets” to “learn your trade,” eschewing anything that seems “out of shape” and recalling the past so “that we in coming days may be / Still the indomitable Irishry” (V.10–15).

The emotional intensity in this poem and its appeal to future activists and artists suggest engagement with futurity, as well as a tight, masculinist control over death and mourning, which are subordinated to the call to action. This tone is present even in the final stanzas, in which Yeats imagines the site of his burial, when he will no longer be present in the world:Verse

Verse No marble, no conventional phrase, On limestone quarried near the spot By his command these words are cut:    Cast a cold eye    On life, on death.    Horseman, pass by! (VI.5–10)

In the context of the poem’s nationalism and its evocation of Irish struggles present and past, the words speak defiantly against oppression, forbid mourning, and address the living. Their driving rhythm echoes the steady beat throughout the poem, which anticipates the pounding of the stonemason’s chisel on the gravestone. Emphasizing “no” and “none,” and the assonance joining “command” and “cut,” the speaker directs the horseman not to linger (VI.6–8). The shift in rhythm in the last triplet, in which the stresses are reversed and rhythm broken in line 10, captures perhaps the interrupted rhythm of a gallop or the motion of a rider who has paused to look at the grave as the poet exhorts him to continue on his path. The speaker’s grave is not about commemorating the dead but about the command to move onward, bridging the gap between dead and living in the same quest for justice.

In the autobiographical “Man and the Echo” (from Last Poems, composed 1938), Yeats develops an extended trope for the writer in later life, representing himself as the speaker who shouts into a fissure beneath “broken stone” and “the bottom of a pit / That broad noon has never lit” (2–4). The “secret” the dramatized Yeats calls out into the abyss represents “All that I have said and done,” the entirety of his art (5–6). Yet because he is now “old and ill,” he questions the impact of his words on other lives. Did one of his own plays elicit violence, “send out / Certain men the English shot? / Did words of mine put too great strain / On that woman’s reeling brain?” (11–14). The poet’s speech materializes in sound, and the stone mechanically echoes his words back at him. Yet to “Lie down and die,” as the echoed refrain suggests, “were to shirk / The spiritual intellect’s great work” (19–21). The speaker concludes that as long as the body persists, the mind will remain drugged by the sensual. It is when the body is “gone” that the intellect assumes its clarity, “grows sure / That all’s arranged in some clear view”—indeed, “pursu[ing] the thoughts that I pursue” (31–33). At the end of the poem, the speaker grows confused, distracted by a bird and its prey. Yet the insight he achieves at the mid-point of the poem seems to affirm the life path and the tasks that he has chosen. The poem itself suggests the motif of clarity that is possible in confusion.

Yeats chose to end Last Poems with “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (composed 1937–38), followed by “Politics” (composed 1938) with its final lines, “But O that I were young again / And held her in my arms” (12), also a moment of turning back in time. Both poems are orchestrated within literary traditions, including a sixteenth-century lyric and a dialogue with Archibald MacLeish (The Poems pp. 844–85). “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” is autobiographical in that it surveys Yeats’s personal literary career and a moment in which the dramatized Yeats cannot find a “theme” to write on, and thus “old age began” (I.1, I.5). He “must be satisfied with his heart,” and the source of poetry in the muck and complexity of life and emotion, that “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (I.4, III.8). If Avison finds moments of peace in the ordinary, for Yeats, this possibility emerges in some works as part of the dance with the abjection of the aging body. The speaker’s words in “The Apparitions” (from Last Poems, composed 1938) reflect that tension, in a statement that suggests gerotranscendence: “When a man grows old his joy / Grows more deep day after day, / His empty heart is full at length / But he has need of all that strength / Because of the increasing Night / That opens her mystery and fright” (17–22). Similarly, the refrain in “Long-Legged Fly” (from Last Poems, composed 1937–38) achieves its tone of peace in contrast with the repeated shift from tumult to quiet in the historical stanzas with which it is interposed: “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His mind moves upon silence” (29–30). And finally, it is a quasi-humorous self-referential figure on stilts who manages to lurch into the light of morning in “High Talk”: “I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on; / Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn” (from Last Poems, composed 1938; lines 14–15). Made grotesque in time, the poet is still able to move forward, in the company of mythical creatures who are perhaps his own creations. The aging body in Yeats is often read negatively as representing loss, particularly of virility, yet the carnivalesque quality in the image of the self here suggests a new aesthetic fusion in age. Other imagery exposes a range of humor, which bears further examination as a mode of self-questioning.


My analysis of literary texts by Avison and Yeats has emphasized gerotranscendent positioning and the presentation of experience in individual poems to test how reading for gerotranscendence may elicit different constellations of effects. We have seen indicators like these in the later-life poetic language of Avison and Yeats, whose respective work also contributes to understanding and theorizing their own aging. Avison describes moments of discovery in the everyday that lead her onward, while Yeats alternates moods, in anger, moments of doubt, humor, and self-mockery. Tropes such as disruptive gaiety, clarity in confusion, and engagement with futurity emerge in Yeats’s later work. In Avison’s, the concept of inner hearing, the “swerve” in time, “the person-freeing silences,” a speaking nature “wanting to / tell me something” suggest gerotranscendent points of reference. What the poems and both collections offer is an articulation of gerotranscendence as an individualized typology with intersecting features, together with a fuller realization of its tones and potential range.

I have argued that the theory of gerotranscendence has an important and under-examined ethical component, in that it focuses attention on the present subjectivity of the older person and their framing of present experience. Literary analysis demonstrates that works that contain features of gerotranscendence nonetheless draw out differences in perspectives on self and world. Further study of gerotranscendent features in the writing of older adults would yield new perspectives on the literary works and also on person-specific variations on gerotranscendent themes. The emphasis on presentness and the redefinition of frames of reference on the part of the older adult are defining features of a gerotranscendent approach to subjectivity in older age and the presentation of identity, time, and connection.