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  • Debbie Thrower

Wisdom of Samuel Pepys and others on 'retirement'

Updated: Aug 12



What admirable lessons may we learn from others who have faced retirement over preceding centuries?


With his love of books and notorious indulgence in life's more sensual pleasures, Samuel Pepys has long entertained historians and general readers thanks to the diaries he kept during much of his adult years.


Reading Claire Tomalin's masterly biography, Samuel Pepys: The unequalled self (Viking, 2002), it's intriguing to see how he regarded life once his career as a senior naval administrator, MP and denizen of the court was over.


Receiving a letter from an old friend expecting nothing more from his old age than, as he put it (in original spelling), 'the old soldier's request, a little space between busines and the grave', Pepys 'replied robustly, telling him to cheer up', as his biographer puts it. Given that Pepys had faced court cases and imprisonment several times, not to mention what seems almost intolerable pain from kidney stones, his reply to his friend is one of 'a man of this world':

The worse the world uses me the better I think I am bound to use myself; nor shall any solicitousness after the felicities of the next world (which yet I bless God I am not without care for)… ever stifle the satisfactions arising from a just confidence of receiving… the reparations due to such unaccountable usage as I have sustained in this (life). p.353

The conclusion Tomalin draws is that 'righteous indignation buoyed him up and he was not going to turn his face to the wall. He continued to attend meetings of the Royal Society, to entertain, buy books for his library, to work on his catalogue and make plans for the future'.


Of course, Pepys was fortunate to be more than solvent; he had amassed a private fortune which saw him comfortably through his later years. One summer he disappeared from view, telling friends he was 'in the country', actually he is supposed to have spent those months closeted with his books, rereading the many volumes of his handwritten (and in shorthand) diaries, that he was deciding whether to keep or destroy and if kept, how best to catalogue and preserve his legacy for posterity.


There are lessons for us, surely, in his example of a man who 'kept in touch with the most advanced scholars and scientists, refusing to allow age or illness to close his mind or dull his curiosity' (p.363).

More wise words appear in a Church Times back page regular column 'Poet's Corner' by Malcolm Guite this week, who is embarking on his retirement, to Norfolk. Though he points out that 'no one ever completely retires, of course, clergy least of all' and he will be engaged, as ever, 'in writing and speaking'. He quotes from another seventeenth century figure, the English poet Abraham Cowley, who, in the preface to his poem 'The Garden' wrote:

I never had any other desire so strong, and so like to covetousness, as that one which I have had always, that I might be master at last of a small house and large garden, with very moderate conveniences joined to them, and there dedicate the remainder of my life only to the culture of them and the study of nature. And there (with no design beyond my wall) whole and entire to lie, in no unactive ease, and no unglorious poverty.

We wish Malcolm Guite very well in his retirement, in which he says he will, indeed, be the master of a small house with 'not quite the "large garden" that Cowley coveted! Mine will be', he writes, 'like many retirements, fairly active - or, in Cowley's immortal words, "No unactive ease and no unglorious poverty".'

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