Sunday, May 22, 2011

"The Poetry Of Almost Infinitely-Qualified States Of Mind": Philip Larkin And Edward Thomas

As I have noted before, I believe that Philip Larkin was very astute in his assessments of other poets.  An excellent instance of this occurs in a letter that Larkin wrote to the poet Andrew Motion after being asked by him to review a typescript of his study of Edward Thomas.  (The study was eventually published in 1980 as The Poetry of Edward Thomas.)

Larkin admired Thomas's poetry, and on at least two occasions he stated that a volume of Thomas's poems was one of the dozen or so books that he kept close at hand near his desk.  In his letter to Motion, after making some critical comments about Motion's typescript, Larkin turns to Thomas himself:

"What a strange talent his was:  the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind, so well paralleled by his verse."

Philip Larkin, Letter to Andrew Motion (May 16, 1979), Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1992).

This is, I think, an extremely perceptive observation about a key feature of Thomas's personality and of his poetry.  After making his comment, Larkin does not refer to any particular poems by Thomas.  However, I will offer the following poem as one example of what Larkin may have been getting at (please note the final stanza):

                              For These

An acre of land between the shore and the hills,
Upon a ledge that shows my kingdoms three,
The lovely visible earth and sky and sea,
Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:

A house that shall love me as I love it,
Well-hedged, and honoured by a few ash-trees
That linnets, greenfinches, and goldfinches
Shall often visit and make love in and flit:

A garden I need never go beyond,
Broken but neat, whose sunflowers every one
Are fit to be the sign of the Rising Sun:
A spring, a brook's bend, or at least a pond:

For these I ask not, but, neither too late
Nor yet too early, for what men call content,
And also that something may be sent
To be contented with, I ask of fate.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (2008).

Of course, Larkin could be said to have himself written "the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  Consider (one among many possible examples) the closing stanzas of "Mr Bleaney":

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber 1964).

             Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)


Mary F. C. Pratt said...

Somehow I'm reminded of the "Lake Isle of Innisfree."

William A. Sigler said...

I must admit I have no idea what "almost infinitely qualified states of mind" are, but I love the Thomas poem, the way the detail becomes the scope and through the magic of poetry just keeps widening, and also how the Larkin poem in a real way seems to commune with it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary F.C. Pratt: thank you for dropping by again. Yes, I can see what you mean -- although Thomas's poem, unlike Yeats's, contains that interesting twist at the end.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: as always, thank you for your thoughts. As for Thomas's "almost infinitely-qualified states of mind," it is said that Frost wrote "The Road Not Taken" as a gentle, humorous comment on his friend Thomas's habit of second-guessing the route that Thomas chose when he and Frost went for walks together in England.

Thanks again.

PAL said...

Mr Pentz: Thanks for another interesting thought-provoker.

I think you're right. The kind of thinking going on in the last stanza of the ET poem, the pernicketiness about getting it just right puts me also much in mind of PL - and also of his pal K Amis, whose prose was once compared - I can't remember by whom - to backing an articulated truck into a narrow opening.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you, PAL -- it is always a pleasure to hear your thoughts. Here is another example from ET (at the end of the poem to his wife Helen about what he would give her, if he could):

And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.

It sounds like something that Larkin could have written, doesn't it? Just as the final lines of Larkin's "Talking in Bed" sound (I think) like they could have been written by ET:

Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

I like the comment about Amis -- I hadn't heard it before.

Thanks again.