The Diary of a Man of Fifty

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by Henry James

Florence, April 5th, 1874.—They told me I should find Italy greatly changed; and in seven-and-twenty years there is room for changes.  But to me everything is so perfectly the same that I seem to be living my youth over again; all the forgotten impressions of that enchanting time come back to me.  At the moment they were powerful enough; but they afterwards faded away.  What in the world became of them?  Whatever becomes of such things, in the long intervals of consciousness?  Where do they hide themselves away? in what unvisited cupboards and crannies of our being do they preserve themselves?  They are like the lines of a letter written in sympathetic ink; hold the letter to the fire for a while and the grateful warmth brings out the invisible words.  It is the warmth of this yellow sun of Florence that has been restoring the text of my own young romance; the thing has been lying before me today as a clear, fresh page.  There have been moments during the last ten years when I have fell so portentously old, so fagged and finished, that I should have taken as a very bad joke any intimation that this present sense of juvenility was still in store for me.  It won’t last, at any rate; so I had better make the best of it.  But I confess it surprises me.  I have led too serious a life; but that perhaps, after all, preserves one’s youth.  At all events, I have travelled too far, I have worked too hard, I have lived in brutal climates and associated with tiresome people.  When a man has reached his fifty-second year without being, materially, the worse for wear—when he has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives—I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.  But I confess I shirk this obligation.  I have not been miserable; I won’t go so far as to say that—or at least as to write it.  But happiness—positive happiness—would have been something different.  I don’t know that it would have been better, by all measurements—that it would have left me better off at the present time.  But it certainly would have made this difference—that I should not have been reduced, in pursuit of pleasant images, to disinter a buried episode of more than a quarter of a century ago.  I should have found entertainment more—what shall I call it?—more contemporaneous.  I should have had a wife and children, and I should not be in the way of making, as the French say, infidelities to the present.  Of course it’s a great gain to have had an escape, not to have committed an act of thumping folly; and I suppose that, whatever serious step one might have taken at twenty-five, after a struggle, and with a violent effort, and however one’s conduct might appear to be justified by events, there would always remain a certain element of regret; a certain sense of loss lurking in the sense of gain; a tendency to wonder, rather wishfully, what might have been.  What might have been, in this case, would, without doubt, have been very sad, and what has been has been very cheerful and comfortable; but there are nevertheless two or three questions I might ask myself.  Why, for instance, have I never married—why have I never been able to care for any woman as I cared for that one?  Ah, why are the mountains blue and why is the sunshine warm?  Happiness mitigated by impertinent conjectures—that’s about my ticket....