Themes and Meanings
The poem’s primary level of meaning concerns the difficulties of growing older—the physical difficulties (failing senses), the mental difficulties (failing concentration and difficulties in making decisions), and the fact that one remembers one’s youth, when one was healthier and happier. Beyond these meanings, however, if one looks at Brecht’s life, one can also theorize that he may be brooding over particular memories, regrets, and dissatisfactions. As most people do, Brecht probably had regrets about the life he had led, goals he had not reached, and people he had hurt.
It is conceivable, for example, that Brecht suffered some remorse over his use of “collaborators” to compose the plays which brought him acclaim. Bruce Cook, in Brecht in Exile (1982), explains that Brecht rationalized this practice by stating that “the work profits if many take part in it.” (Brecht did credit those who worked with him, although credit was given in very small type on the reverse side of the title page, tucked into the copyright material.) John Fuegi, in Brecht & Company (1994), argues that great as he had been as a theatrical innovator and director, Brecht had not in fact been the playwright he had pretended to be. Those who had actually created the works never received the money nor the acclaim they deserved.
Perhaps more than personal concerns, political and social concerns could also have made Brecht’s last years “Difficult Times.” In all Brecht’s work the most consistently recognizable element is social content. All the plays (the genre for which he is best known) were meant to “teach” audiences, to make them aware of universal problems, particularly the absence of peace and the horrors of war. Now, back in his homeland in the 1950’s, after living many years abroad, he was undoubtedly disturbed by the fact of the Cold War.
After the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930’s, Brecht had become active in the fight against fascism, which in Europe at the time widely meant favoring communism. He fled Hitler’s Germany to live in various Scandinavian countries, including Finland (until that government formed an alliance with the Third Reich), finally settling in Santa Monica, California, in 1941. He left there in October, 1947, and ultimately accepted the invitation of the East German government to head a theater—the Berlin Ensemble—in the communist sector of Berlin. However, between the time of his leaving Europe and his return, a number of disquieting events had taken place.
Although before World War II Brecht has publicly affirmed that the Soviet Union represented the “most progressive social system of our age,” he had to admit after the purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and the subsequent revelations about life in the Soviet Union that there was not too much difference between various types of totalitarian regimes. Neither fascism nor communism had provided much benefit for the “folk,” and now the former allies against Hitler seemed determined to avoid permanent peace. All was not well in a world divided, a city divided, and people in conflict.
In his introduction to Klaus Volker’s book Brecht Chronicle (1975), Carl Weber writes that “the refugee and persecuted are becoming the archetypes of the century,” and assuredly Brecht fits this profile, notwithstanding the fact that much of that characterization was carefully created by the man himself. Although at the time this poem was written Brecht was no longer a persecuted refugee, the times remained difficult for him, probably largely because of his reflections. An aura of discontent permeates the poem. It suggests regret about the past and uneasiness about the present with no suggestion of future improvement, as after old age comes death.