Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Philippe Petain and Stanley Kunitz

I’ve been reading a biography of Philippe Petain, the French commander-in-chief in World War I and the chief-of-state of Vichy in World War II. He went from hero to traitor. But the most remarkable thing about him--his life really began at 60. He was born a peasant in 1856 but with the help of an uncle who was a priest, he was able join the army. He rose slowly. At the beginning of the first World War, he was still unmarried and about to retire. Then, with his background as a peasant raised in Northern France where the great battles raged, he was able to see what his aristocratic fellow officers failed to see, namely, that great offensive battles were suicide and the soldiery were about to mutiny. Then his life became glorious. Of course, Vichy and Hitler were his undoing, and he died in 1951 in prison. But it made me think of other long-lived people who flourish at an age when most of us flounder and retire. I thought in particular of the poet, Stanley Kunitz, flourishing in his nineties. All day yesterday I kept asking myself, what qualities make Petain and Kunitz different? How did Stanley do it? Today I read on the front page of Times: Stanley Kunitz, poet, dead at 100.


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