Monday, July 26, 2010

Life Explained, Part Three: "On That Green Evening When Our Death Begins"

It may not come as a surprise that Philip Larkin has provided us with a mordant explanation of What Life Is Like.  But an admirer of Larkin (me, for instance) might add:  "Yes, mordant and witty and  laceratingly honest and -- perhaps -- an explanation which may be absolutely true (at least for 'one man once')."

                    Continuing to Live

Continuing to live -- that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries --
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
     It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise --
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
     But it's chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
     To exist.

And what's the profit?  Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
     But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
     And that one dying.

Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber/The Marvell Press 1988).
                                     William Baziotes, "Scepter" (1960)  

10 comments:

PAL said...

SP: Don't you sometimes find that the littleness, solipsism, threadbareness of Larkin's view of life gets you down, however exquisitely expressed? Surely the idea presented here is pathological - simply not characteristic of most people except depressives?

Alan Bennett writes somewhere that Larkin wants to drag the reader down to his own miserable level, and that one should resist. I agree. As the man said - I think it was Matisse but I can't find the quote - life is hard and one of the functions of art is to help us through it.

I know the opposing arguments: that the subject- matter is irrelevant, that the creation of a successful poem is in itself a life-enhancing act, that the only really depressing thing in poetry is a bad poem, that we've all, at 3am, thought the thoughts in this poem. I just feel that many Larkin poems exemplify some kind of spiritual sickness, and it gets me down, in a way that the Henley and Norris pieces don't. By the way, I posted a comment on the Henley but it must have disappeared into electronic oblivion.

Perhaps the solution is not to read too many Larkin poems at one sitting. Notwithstanding this rant, I can't wait to read the correspondence with Monica Jones when it's published later this year.

Stephen Pentz said...

PAL: I understand what you are saying -- take "Wants", for example! But, on the other hand, I always return to Larkin. Just as I always return to Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy, who aren't exactly glass-half-full fellows. As you suggest, the solution is to read Larkin in small doses, or, to read "The Trees" after you read "Wants" and "Water" after you read "Continuing to Live."

Bennett is, of course, echoing Donald Davie's famous pronouncement about Larkin (which I know you know): that Larkin's poetry is "a poetry of lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations."

I find Seamus Heaney's response to Davie's charge a good one: "[Larkin's poetry] has occasionally drawn forth protests that he narrowed the possibilites of life so much that the whole earth became a hospital. I want to suggest that Larkin also had it in him to write his own version of the Paradiso. It might well have amounted to no more than an acknowledgement of the need to imagine 'such attics cleared of me, such absences'; nevertheless, in the poems he has written there is enough reach and longing to show that he did not completely settle for that well-known bargain offer, 'a poetry of lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations.'"

Heaney's comment does not end the discussion, of course. (And it may sound like faint praise.) As for Davie's comment: I have always viewed it with suspicion, given Davie's sometime enthusiasm for the modernist project. (And I realize that I am over-simplifying Davie, who I admire.) After all, Davie might prefer Pound to Larkin!

Yes, I am looking forward to the Monica Jones letters as well. Did you see the article about the correspondence in The Guardian on June 27: "In Search of the Real Philip Larkin"?

Finally: I did not receive your comment on Henley -- which I regret. Blogger/Blogspot has been behaving a bit strangely recently, so I don't know where it went.

And as always: thank you very much for taking the time to comment. I enjoy our discussions!

PAL said...

Thanks for the steer to the Guardian article. The Larkin Trail – priceless, isn’t it? I hadn't come across the Heaney- he puts the other side well, and of course he's right. I think his reference to “hospital” must be a reference to Sir Thomas Browne: “For the world, I count it not an inn but an hospital”. Can’t argue with that, can you?

My post on the Henley pointed to the off-the-wall nature of the poem’s central conceit. It strikes me as something you'd associate with the Jacobean and the modernist rather than the Victorians. But I was also interested in your mentioning your increasing taste for brevity as you grow older. I think we’re of a similar age, and I’ve experienced the same thing, in musical as much as in literary preference. I have the impression that it’s common, and have often wondered about the reasons. Is it simply that the neurones are starting to pack up?

But then I think of the exceptions. Updike goes on and on, and I can’t get enough of it.

Stephen Pentz said...

PAL: Yes, who knows what else we will learn about Larkin? I love the reference in the Guardian article to "the 25 volumes of his diaries -- destroyed after his death by his secretary and former lover Betty Mackereth, on the instruction of Monica Jones." (!?!)

Thank you for the reference to Browne. I also thought that Heaney could have been referring to the fact that Larkin wrote a fair number of poems about hospitals (and health care): e.g., "The Building," "Heads in the Women's Ward," "Ambulances," "Hospital Visits." But I like the Browne.

As for "Madam Life": I agree with you -- I was shocked when I first came upon it, and couldn't believe that it was written when it was. It must have raised a few eyebrows at the time!

Finally, as to a taste for brevity: I think that it is a (good) phenomenon of age. (Although I'm sure that you have noticed the recent spate of articles and books about how the Internet is shortening our attention spans -- I thought about mentioning that possibility in my post.) Perhaps it is a realization that it is time to get down to business before it is too late!

One example: I have been re-reading 'Four Quartets' recently and, although I still enjoy it, part of me has been thinking: 'O.K., I get it (I think), can we shorten things up a bit?' (Speaking solely of length and repetition, and not the thorny topic of Eliot on the whole.)

Thanks again, PAL - I am always pleased to hear from you.

PAL said...

At the risk of appearing to be one of those unhinged internet obsessives, I think your reference to the Quartets are a propos in more ways than one, and I hope you won't mind my continuing the conversation.

I share your enthusiasm but I know what you mean. I find it's the one poem that means more and more as I get older, and I don't necessarily mean "mean" in the sense of "understand" - whole passages still baffle me. It's about history and time and these are bound to figure more as one ages, and I keep finding more and more in it.

But I do think it's one of those you have to be absolutely in the mood for. It's a bizarre image, but the Quartets put me in mind of watching someone trying to back one of those huge articulated trucks (all that cultural freight - Dante etc) into a narrow opening. The tone is ruminative, meditative, incantatory, mystical, wouldn't you say? And how often does one feel like that in the course of the average week? Though us retirees are in with a better chance than the wage slaves, I suppose.

Another point: he says himself in the poem that he's straining towards the ineffable, some sort of meaning beyond meaning, and one wonders if, ultimately,you don't need to share his Christian belief to get the most out of it. Spender is interesting on this; did they publish his little opus on TSE over there? Other recent things that have helped me with Eliot have been the biography of TE Hulme and a published lecture by Roger Scruton. Do you know them?

Stephen Pentz said...

PAL: First, please do not hesitate (on this occasion or any other) to continue the conversation. As always, I enjoy our discussions.

Your comments about 'Four Quartets' hit home for me. In particular, your suggestion that one may 'need to share his Christian belief to get the most out of it' resonates with me: I had the same thought as I was reading it this time! I also agree that you have to be in a certain mood in order to dive into it. (I also, unaccountably, found myself in the mood to dive back into 'The Waste Land' earlier this year. But that is another can of worms.)

And thank you very much for the references. The Spender book is easily found over here, and I need to look at it. Which T. E. Hulme biography are you referring to? I find Hulme very interesting (including his little poems). I enjoy Roger Scruton's work, so I am chagrined to say that I wasn't aware of his lecture on Eliot. I will definitely track it down. Thanks again. (As if I needed more reading material!)

PAL said...

Hulme is an interesting character, isn't he? An intellectual hard nut with a wonderful brass-tacks prose style. The biog is FERGUSON, Robert: The Short Sharp Life of TE Hulme (2002). I think there’s only even been one other book on him, by the English poet Michael Roberts and it's more about his ideas than his life. If you don’t know FERGUSON I recommend it strongly. I have the collection of THE’s stuff entitled Speculations edited by Herbert Read; though there is a better edition by the estimable Sam Hynes.

Scruton’s piece is a 2000 lecture, Eliot and Conservatism. It’s in “A Political Policy “(2006) and is only 18pp but makes, I think, a powerful case for Eliot as a cultural as well as an artistic force.Over here Eliot’s ideas on culture when considered at all are regarded as a joke – elitist and with a tinge of anti-semitism to boot. It’s probably the same over your way. Scruton himself is also written off by UK academe on ideological grounds – political and cultural – but mostly, I think because he’s such a fierce critic of deconstruction and post-modernism.

Despite everything we've said, “Going” is surely one of Larkin’s very best.

Stephen Pentz said...

PAL: I will definitely get my hands on the Ferguson book. I am aware of one other book apart from the Roberts: 'The Life and Opinions of T. E. Hulme' by Alun Jones (1960). I am sure Ferguson's book is more detailed (and current) on the life of Hulme, but Jones does include an interesting selection of Hulme's writing. In particular, he includes all (to my recollection - I don't have my copy at hand) of Hulme's poetry, including variant readings. I agree that Hulme is a very interesting character - which is why I am looking forward to getting the Ferguson book. He certainly had a great impact on a number of his contemporaries, given the short amount of time that he was around. Thanks again for the tip.

As for Scruton: over here, as in the U.K., he is marginalized (if he is even known) as a 'conservative' - i.e., beyond the pale.

Yes, Eliot - like Larkin - has received the politically correct treatment over here. But I am certain that the poetry of both of them will be around long after the current generations of politicized 'critics' and 'theorists' are mouldering in their graves.

Oh, as to Samuel Hynes - I certainly agree with you as to his value. 'The Pattern of Hardy's Poetry' (now getting old, I know) is very good. (Not to mention his editing work on Hardy's poems.) Earlier this year, I finally got around to reading his 'Edwardian Occasions' (an era dear to my heart, as you've probably noticed), and enjoyed it a great deal.

As always, thank you, PAL.

John Townsend said...

It took me a while to appreciate this poem ... but its tone and tenor drew me in. Its ambiguity (all great poetry thrives on ambiguity) frustrated me at first until I finally resolved in my mind how the pivotal phrase “may trace it home” made sense, and just what “it" is or was. The poem for me is as good a poetic expression of what existentialism is all about, broaching it delicately, and in stark but kindly intimacy.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Townsend: Thank you very much for visiting and commenting. Your phrase "stark but kindly intimacy" is appropriate -- both for this poem and, I think, for much of Larkin's poetry. Thank you again.