Thursday, August 18, 2011

How To Live, Part Ten: "A Life Reprehensibly Perfect"

The following poem by Philip Larkin provides a good companion piece to Frank Ormsby's "My Careful Life."  As one might expect, jolly old Philip suggests that a careless, ostensibly rebellious and romantic life may be every bit as hollow as a careful life.  This would seem to lead to what some might call a characteristic Larkinian conclusion:  we are doomed either way.

But might there be more going on here?  As is often the case (and, as I have noted before, he shares this quality with Robert Frost and Edward Thomas), Larkin gets cagey with us at the end of the poem.  Something is given; something is taken back.  Maybe, come to think of it, the choice is not between "careful" and "careless."  Perhaps, in the end, there is no choice at all.  One should remember what Larkin said about the poetry of Edward Thomas:  "The poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind, so well paralleled by his verse."

            Poetry of Departures

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (1955).

                                 William Ratcliffe, "Attic Room" (1918)


Mary F. C. Pratt said...

What a splendid companion to the Ormsby. And the painting is exactly right. Whatever would we do without poetry and art? Do you know the Stan Rogers song, "The Lock Keeper?" ( It's a folksier way of dealing with this endless human conundrum.

Fred said...

Yes, I agree. He appears to approve of something for the first three stanzas, but then seems to take it back in the fourth--very much like Frost.

"if/It weren't so artificial."

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary F. C. Pratt: as ever, thank you for your thoughts. I recently discovered William Ratcliffe's work, and I particularly liked this painting.

I hadn't heard of Stan Rogers until just a week or so ago, when he was mentioned in a post on The Dabbler. I've been meaning to listen to him, so I appreciate the link to his song. Thank you! (It is sad that he died at such a young age, isn't it?)

Stephen Pentz said...

Thanks for visiting again, Fred. Yes, "creat[ing] an object" is the nub. Larkin would often mention that his life unfolded as a sort of accident - becoming a librarian, moving to Hull, etc. And he related this as something that he didn't necessarily find sad or dreadful. If just happened. Moreover, whatever may be said about his supposed gloom and narrowness, he was not one to play a role (except when tweaking people by acting like a conservative Philistine). Hence, as you say, "if/It weren't so artificial."

Thanks again.

S R Plant said...

Despite being conservative by nature I am one of those that “just cleared off” and can confirm Larkin's suspicions.

All that swaggering down nut-strewn roads and crouching in the fo’c’sle put me in mind of Tom Paulin's 'Arthur'.

Enjoying your posts as always.


S R Plant said...

It occurs to me I should have provided a link to Paulin's poem. Unfortunately I don't know how to do links, but if you google “failed taxidermist paulin arthur” it's the first one up.

Stephen Pentz said...

S R Plant: it is good to hear from you again.

Yes, Larkin does seem to know what's what, doesn't he? More than a few of my experiences (on this point and on others) have proved him right as well. Whether this is worrisome or frightening or gratifying, I haven't decided.

Thank you very much for Paulin's 'Arthur' (and for your related thoughts on Humboldt and Flaubert)! I wasn't aware of the poem -- it is wonderful, and, as you say, exactly on point.

Please stop by again soon.