Old Age in Middle English Literature: Chaucer Gower, Gower, Langland and the Gawain-Poet
According to Mehl, in most medieval poetry, old age is disturbing because “it makes you unfit for love” (29), and in this article he surveys some examples of the depiction of “elde.” Although there are important examples of feminine representations such as the “loathly lady” trope, or the Wife of Bath, or Morgan in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the majority of “Love’s ageing victims . . . are old men” (31). Mehl then considers the portrait of January in The Merchant’s Tale and then “the most thorough and disillusioning portrait of the frustrated or rather deceived old lover” (32) at the end of the Confessio Amantis. Mehl argues that when taken seriously, such as the Old Man in the Pardoner’s exemplum, these portraits of “senile infirmity” (35) serve a powerful homiletic function, the most striking example of which is Will’s encounter with Old Age in B.20. As early as passus 1 (B.1.141a) Will is reprimanded by Holy Church for a wasted youth, and his “apocalyptic struggle with Age” in passus 20, depicted with “the realism . . . of the popular preacher,” functions as a moving memento mori (36). This kind of serious poetry about ageing, as opposed to the comical conventions of the old lover or the hag, predates Chaucer by almost a century, and Mehl argues that, the distinctions of fabliau and homiletic poetry notwithstanding, poets like Chaucer and L are going beyond “conventional formulas … [and they] evidently know from experience some of the realities of ageing” (37).
Old Age and Ageing in British and American Culture and Literature. Studien zur englischen Literatur, vol. 16. Ed. Christa Jansohn. Münster, Germany: Lit Verlag, 2004. 29-38.