Week 511: Sad Steps, by Philip Larkin

A lot of people seem to be celebrating the centenary of the birth of Philip Larkin, so I thought this week I’d add my twopenceworth.

Some of the celebration, it must be admitted, is a little guarded. When Andre Gide was asked who he thought was the greatest French writer of the nineteenth century, he is said to have answered ‘Victor Hugo, hélas’ (Victor Hugo, alas). In the same spirit, some people asked to name the best English poet of the second half of the twentieth century wish to add a ‘hélas’ to the name of Larkin. I suppose one can see why – as a role model for poetic skill and integrity he is superb, as a role model for social attitudes less so ­– but I can’t be bothered with such niggardliness: let’s just give the man his due. My choice this week is perhaps not one of Larkin’s very best poems, but it’s a very characteristic one that unites a skilful and pleasure-giving verbal surface with a moving and memorable insight into the human condition.

True, I find the register of the opening line a little jarring, but then I feel a bit prissy for feeling that. After all, one does grope back to a bed after a piss, and there should be nothing wrong with saying so in a poem, except that Larkin takes perhaps slightly too mischievous a delight in occasionally subverting his readers’ more genteel expectations.

Moving on from that minor cognitive dissonance on my part, one is soon on surer ground with eight lines that capture beautifully the kind of nocturnal scene that must be familiar to all of us, or at least to all of us who bother to look out of the window at night. I love that ‘loosely as cannon-smoke’, that ‘stone-coloured light’. The fourth stanza then strikes a slightly odd and discordant note, but I take Larkin to be sending up the kind of pretentious apostrophe to the moon that might be indulged in by more affected poets – an indulgence that he then rejects with a firm ‘No’, confronting us with the chilling recognition of an inhuman reality that cares nothing for us, yet has power to evoke in us our own all too human feelings of loss and regret. It’s a characteristically bleak ending, yet there is a kind of exhilaration here too, as if the poet were in some way relishing that inhumanness, that otherness of the scene, for the way it absorbs him, temporarily unburdening him of his own identity. As he remarks in another poem, ‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’.

In one way, Larkin’s poems don’t need a lot of working at, since what he says is usually perfectly clear to any competent reader, one of the things that no doubt contributes to his popularity with the general reading public. But at the same time it is possible to go back to his poems and appreciate them a little more each time for the pleasure of their art and the quality of their insight. Clarity of thought, accuracy of observation, felicity of expression: these are what make poetry, and these at his best is what Larkin gives you.

The title, incidentally, is taken from one of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets in the sequence ‘Astrophel and Stella’: ‘With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!’

Sad Steps

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by 
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate— 
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

Philip Larkin

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