Week 315: MCMXIV, by Philip Larkin

And to continue last week’s Remembrance theme, here is what I consider to be one of Philip Larkin’s best poems, and one that reminds us, if reminder is needed, that alongside the cantankerously solipsistic persona that he liked to affect, and that was sometimes allowed to make its way into his work, there existed a compassionate, evocative poet of immense skill.

MCMXIV

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Philip Larkin

Advertisements

Week 231: Aubade, by Philip Larkin

‘No longer in Lethean foliage caught
Begin the preparation for your death
And from the fortieth winter by that thought
Test every work of intellect or faith,
And everything that your own hands have wrought,
And call those works extravagance of breath
That are not suited for such men as come
Proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb’

So wrote W.B.Yeats in ‘Vacillation’. To judge by that standard I doubt if Yeats would have thought much of the following poem, at least so far as its spirit goes, and for that matter neither do I, and yet I admire it greatly, for honesty can be admirable even if what you are being honest about is not admirable. Yes, the poem’s message may seem profoundly nihilistic. ‘Death is no different whined at or withstood’ – to which one is tempted to reply, that may very well be so, but the person doing the whining or withstanding certainly is. Yet in other ways the poem is anything but nihilistic: it does after all affirm the preciousness of life, of what in another masterly poem, ‘The Old Fools’, Larkin calls the ‘million-petalled flower of being here’. And as always with Larkin we have such craftsmanship, such felicity, which is in itself an affirmation, and perhaps the truest one that a poet can make.

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel
, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Philip Larkin

Week 179: At Grass, by Philip Larkin

In the introduction to his 1962 anthology ‘The New Poetry’ the critic Al Alvarez called this poem ‘elegant and unpretentious and rather beautiful in its gentle way’ but saw it as too genteel and went on to compare it unfavourably with the Ted Hughes poem ‘A Dream of Horses’, which he praised for its greater urgency, its reaching back to ‘a nexus of fear and sensation’. Now, if we must turn poetry into some kind of slugfest there are indeed Hughes poems that can go toe to toe with good Larkin, but I really do not think ‘A Dream of Horses’ is one of them, and surely only a very blinkered adherence to an ideological preconception of poetry could have allowed Alvarez to think that it was. Yes, Larkin’s horses are, as Alvarez says, social creatures, seen through a prism of human association, but rightly or wrongly that is the way most of us, genteel or not, see horses, and I can only say that fifty years on, I can’t remember a line of the Hughes poem, but ‘At Grass’ is still there, elegant and elegiac, full of Larkin’s exquisitely precise verbal play – consider that ‘distresses’ – and moments of what Seamus Heaney called Larkin’s ‘Shakespearean felicity’.

At Grass

The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
Then one crops grass, and moves about —
The other seeming to look on —
And stands anonymous again.

Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them: faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes —

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.

Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer, all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowds and cries —
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they

Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.

Philip Larkin