Monday, February 20, 2012

Life Explained, Part Twenty-Four: "I Move Along Again, Towards The Exit"

We are often advised to take heed of the old saw "life is a journey, not a destination."  I can see that this homily perhaps has some merit.  Still, when I hear it repeated, I think:  "Well, yes, but a destination does in fact await us."  And what might that destination be?  Each of us ought to know the answer to that.

This is where Philip Larkin comes in handy.  Jolly old Philip is always more than happy to fill in these sorts of blanks, and I confess that I usually agree with his answers.

                . . . For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is.  This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground.

This bit of reality appears in the final stanza of "The Old Fools," one of Larkin's more scarifying efforts.  (Scarifying, but true, of course.)  Perhaps a gayer facade will make this particular piece of news more palatable. Norman MacCaig had, in general, a more sanguine view of things than Larkin did -- although, like Larkin, he never averted his eyes.  He just makes things sound better.

                             Mary Dawson Elwell, "The Front Door" (1940)

          Double Journey

Move along! the driver shouts.
Move along there!

All day I've been doing that.
All my life I've been doing that.

Somewhere about me I have
the traveller's permit
given to me by my mother.

The bus halts.  Some people get off.
I'll never see them again.

Some people get on.
I move along
to make room for them.

The place I know I'm going to
approaches.  I move along again,
towards the exit.

Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

That's much better:  a municipal bus ride (in lieu of "extinction's alp") sounds very pleasant indeed.  A. E. Housman's lines fit right in:  "Crossing alone the nighted ferry/With the one coin for fee."

                                              Mary Dawson Elwell
           "Bedroom, Bar House, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire" (1935)


SRPlant said...

“Double Journey” is a nice, modest piece; it's like the framework for a Larkin poem before Larkin has been applied.

I enjoyed your recent Charlotte Mew poems, she's an interesting discovery for me.

Stephen Pentz said...

SRPlant: that's an excellent way of describing "Double Journey." It is especially true of the final stanza, isn't it? "The place I know I'm going to/approaches. I move along again,/towards the exit" sounds exactly like late Larkin, now that you point it out.

I'm pleased that you like the poems by Mew -- she is worth looking into, I think.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

Shelley said...

"For them is rising ground"--that's just magnificent, both in profundity and expression.

The art from the thirties (the period of my writing) is so rich. It's as if it's almost imbued with a pre-knowledge of what's coming.

But that's impossible.

Stephen Pentz said...

Shelley: thank you for visiting again, and for your thoughts. Yes, phrases such as that are what help to make Larkin wonderful (in my opinion) -- that mixture of bleak truth and beautiful language is hard to beat, I think.

I'm glad that you like the paintings. I agree that we shouldn't read too much into them retrospectively. As far as I can tell, Mary Dawson Elwell simply liked to paint interiors, and did a fine job of it.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

This brings to mind the urchin street sweeper, Jo, in Dicken's novel, Bleak House, who is always "moving on". And we who have read the novel know that he is ultimately moving on towards his own death.


Stephen Pentz said...

Tim: thank you very much for visiting, and for the nice connection with Bleak House. I am ashamed to say that it has been decades since I have read it -- time for a return!

Thank you again.