Understand? Neither did I. Numerology has never seriously tempted me. The writer is Sir Thomas Browne in Book IV, Chap. XII of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths (1646), commonly known as Vulgar Errors. The origin of the great or grand climacteric, lending significance to the years calculated in multiples of seven, goes back to the Greeks, as do most things. Browne explains:
“For the daies of men are usually cast up by Septenaries, and every seventh yeare conceived to carry some altering character with it, either in the temper of body, mind, or both. But among all other, three are most remarkable, that is 7 times 7 or forty nine, 9 times 9 or eighty one, and 7 times 9 or the year of Sixty three; which is conceived to carry with it the most considerable fatality, and consisting of both the other numbers was apprehended to comprise the vertue of either: is therefore expected and entertained with fear, and esteemed a favour of fate to pass it over. Which notwithstanding many suspect to be but a Panick terrour, and men to fear they justly know not what: and to speak indifferently, I find no satisfaction: nor any sufficiency in the received grounds to establish a rationall fear.”
In other words, the sixty-third year of one’s life may bring a “considerable fatality,” a “Panick terror” or no “rationall fear” – in other words, it may prove to be like any other year. The OED renders the idea in modern English: “Any of certain supposedly critical years of human life, when a person was considered to be particularly liable to change in health or fortune . . . a year of life, often reckoned as the 63rd, supposed to be especially critical.” Of course, though I turn sixty-three today, I am entering my sixty-fourth year, so maybe the worst has passed, as it had for John Dryden (1631-1700). In the dedication to his translations of Virgil’s pastorals (1697), Dryden writes of the Roman poet: “He died at the Age of fifty two, and I began this Work in my great Clymacterique. But having perhaps a better constitution than my Author, I have wrong’d him less, considering my Circumstances, than those who have attempted him before, either in our own, or any Modern Language.”
Surviving one’s climacteric may ameliorate the prickliness of one’s character, Dryden suggests, making one more understanding and empathetic (at least of great Roman poets). On Nov. 30, 1689, the year she turned sixty-three, Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696) wrote in a letter to her daughter, Madame de Grignan:
“It appears to me that in spite of myself I have been dragged to this inevitable point where old age must be undergone. I see it there before me; I have reached it; and I should at least like so to arrange matters that I do not move on, that I do not travel farther along this path of infirmities, pains, losses of memory and disfigurement. Their attack is at hand, and I hear a voice that says, `You must go along, whatever you may say; or if indeed you will not, then you must die,’ which is an extremity from which nature recoils. However, that is the fate of all who go on a little too far.”
The words of a realist. One is not exempt from the human lot. You don’t like getting old? There’s always the alternative.