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Sunday, January 08, 2017

Re-reading The Whitsun Weddings

Creative Commons, Wikipedia. Chichester Cathedral.
Monument to Richard Fitzalan III, 10th Earl of Arundel (c.1307-1376)
and Eleanor of Lancaster (d. 1372.) Unusual for the linked hands
and the wife's crossed legs and turn toward her husband.
By Nabokov at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
I do not love Philip Larkin; instead, I am fond of Charles Causley, the Cornish poet Larkin admired (as did Ted Hughes and Siegried Sassoon and many others, though he is still not as well known in the states as he ought to be.) Causley was a clerk, a playwright, a seasick sailor in war-time, an organist and all-round musician, a teacher of children, and more. I believe that I am fond of him as a person, not just a poet. They are related, Causley and Larkin, two sides of a coin, but I love Causley and am still trying to love Larkin.

Larkin, Larkin, what a trouble you are to me! I don't like the way you write about women, especially women "in specs," but I'll ignore all that for the sake of your lovely moments. But if I do, I still don't like the way you talk about the ordinary impulses toward more life--children and marriage, particularly, and the way you often see strangers in a rather loveless way. I am afraid that I picture you at dreary work with the in-box and "loaf-haired" secretary.

And yet, and yet... I see so many lines to admire, and it is no small thing to write a poem with a single moment worth remembering. I like "Sporting-house girls like circus tigers" and "spend all our life on imprecisions, / That when we start to die / Have no idea why" and "A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain." Listen to the sound of "dark-clothed children at play / Called after kings and queens" and "An immense slackening ache, / As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps, / Spreads slowly through them" and "dark towns heap up on the horizon." The "sudden scuttle on the drum" pleases me, and the billboard scene, where "A glass of milk stands in a meadow." Clive James describes the poet's "privileged duty" as "to be concerned with everything, in the hope of producing something--a poem, a stanza, even a single line--that will live on its own, in its own time" (Poetry Notebook, p. 77.) Larkin has plenty of special moments.

Larkin also has a good instinct for metrics. The line, "The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went" is a great example, starting with three strong iambic feet but in the last two feet giving us a reversed foot (so that it dwindles) and a dwindled monosyllabic foot. Or take a look at the thicket of accents in "And dark towns heap up on the horizon." Or try this line: "And the widening river's slow presence." It's almost as neat a combination of metrics and sense as Pope's "Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain, / Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main." Those smooth iambic combined with "o'er" and "th'unbending" are speedy.) "And the widening river's slow presence" appears in the midst of established iambic pentameter lines but varies from them by giving us a ten-syllable tetrameter line, essentially widening out the expected first three feet by substituting extra slack syllables with two anapestic feet. That last trochaic foot is the perfect word for a river that is widening and slowing: no motion but merely presence.

See credits above.
When I come to the last poem in the book, there are tears in my eyes as I read of the earl and countess in stone fidelity on their Arundel tomb, their absurd little dogs at their feet (his is actually a small lion), while all the world whirls on and the people change around them. Time happens: "Snow fell, undated. Light / Each summer thronged the glass. A bright / Litter of birdcalls strewed the same / Bone-riddled ground...." Then I realize that the reason the poem moves me is that I identify not so much with the changed world of "endless altered people" but with Larkin's image of the faithful, clasped stone hands of the dead "to prove / Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love."

And think on this: in our time, doesn't Larkin's poem belong to that older world--the world where grace caught in iambic tetrameter meter and an abbcac rhyme scheme could be considered achievement? Julian Stannard writes, "Post-1945, English poetry, thanks to Larkin and the Movement and Philip Hobsbaum and the Group, distanced itself from international modernism, re-establishing the English line and privileging form and meaning." Nevertheless, we are neck deep in the diminishing rear-guard returns of Modernism (perhaps truly free verse can only be written by those who have experienced the shackles of form, as in early Modernism), where line and form and meaning are in abeyance. Do I need to say I don't object to free verse? I don't. I object to slackness and to being bored (that goes for my own poems, too, though sometimes I don't dislike them until they are already circulating, which is annoying.) Clive James calls our own time one in which "almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem" (Poetry Notebook, p. 66.)

All the same, the poem's little dogs at the feet of Richard and Eleanor make me think of Causley's "Eden Rock" portrait of his parents waiting for him on the other side of the Jordan with the little terrier Jack trembling at their feet, while the sky whitens as if from the light of three suns. "They beckon to me from the other bank; / I hear them call, See where the stream-path is! / Crossing is not as hard as you might think." Here comes a stanza break and then the final line: "I had not thought that it would be like this."

Ah, well, maybe I love Causley a lot but Larkin a little after all....

Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.


  1. Larkin's hard to love isn't he? And if you've read his correspondence with Kingsley Amis he becomes even less lovable.

    I have a similar problem. Having passed through all the conventional reactions towards Richard Wagner I found myself transfixed a year ago by the long, long passage in Die Walküre wherein Wotan punishes his daughter Brunhilde for disobedience and Brunhilde points out that the results of her disobedience were what Wotan (secretly) wanted. Wotan's anger, frustration and refusal to accept the truth brilliantly conveyed by Bryn Terfel with Debra Voigt, loaded with filial obligation but a woman in her own right, a force for honesty. For me Wagner had cleared the final hurdle, he had moved me and - almost casually - proved that opera can do anything.

    Yet this was Richard Wagner who... well, we know all that, don't we?

    Instead we love the work and we push our accommodations to one side, to be dealt with at some other time. Secretly, like Wotan, knowing this may be never. And you, quoting your piercing bit of Larkin, leave me space to quote mine:

    Hardly involves the eye, until
    It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
    Clasped empty in the other; and
    One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
    His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

    For this cannot be gainsaid, it depends on the neutral act of observation and the result laid simply in front of us, do with it what we will. And to wrestle with the dilemma.

    1. Yes, I like those lines well, and they make his observant eye seem kinder and more loving. I often wish that I hadn't bumped into so many quotes from the Larkin-Amis correspondence, but the poems are revelatory of the same sort of attitude. As in "Wild Oats," where the narrator does not try for the "bosomy English rose" but for her "friend in specs." (Thanks, Larkin!) After seven years and a ring and many meetings, they break up, "after an agreement / That I was too selfish, withdrawn, / And easily bored to love. / Well, useful to get that learnt." I think the young woman needs a riposte because that sounds to me what the narrator doesn't say, that he ate seven years of her life and she kept thinking (there was a ring!) that there was a future they could have together. But after seven years, well, it was pretty clear.

      Wagner is a good comparison.

  2. This is such a special treat! It is like having a New Criticism master-class in the nuts-and-bolts of poetry explication (which I intend as a compliment); you are teaching me how to see poetry! Thank you, Marly. Where were you when I need such a special guide?

    1. Kind of you to say so, Tim.... As for the New Critics, I once had a class with Cleanth Brooks. Not poetry, though--Faulkner.

  3. In the Renaissance "everyone" wrote poetry: royalty, chancellors, explorers, soldiers, cardinals. The favored genres today seem to be the detective novel--though I think it has been a while since a senator has published one--and the memoir. But no doubt Clive James travels in more poetic circles than I do. As for the good and the bad, it is easy to forget how much winnowing time has done.

    1. Oh, yes, I've read poems by plenty in those categories--Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Raleigh, various priest-poets, firebrands about to be hung the next day, etc. But I do think it's different now, when literacy is spread more widely and much of poetry is prose broken into lines, sometimes with sense of the powers of meter and sound behind it and sometimes not. I don't object to free verse; I tend to sigh at free verse that has no sense of form, that doesn't know how to play with language, that cannot hold life. And then I think of Tom Disch's "The Castle of Indolence."

      Wouldn't you say that the job of winnowing is rather different in our time? The quantities to be winnowed are vast. The qualities desired by self-proclaimed winnowers in the academy often have zero to do with whether a poem is any good or not. Those are the qualities they teach to students, future possible winnowers, future possible writers. I have no doubt that a great deal of politically correct and axe-grinding lineated prose-as-poem will age quickly, but there are such mountains of chaff and grain. Digital "mountains, cliffs of fall!"

      But I suppose that I must not say so, for "ever to confess you're bored" is, well, not quite polite for a Southerner raised in a certain way, and fails to take into account those who would be equally bored or repulsed by what I make. And why should I care if there are hills of soulless poems out there? Surely all those people are yearning and longing to render up some "unshedding bulky bole-proud blue-green moist / thing," to the "flashing and bursting tree." And maybe some of them will.

      I should now shut up and just go on doing the best work I can do because that is the path I follow and make at once. And that is a simple call, though long.

    2. Well, I have no clear notion of the quantities of chaff out there. I work as a programmer, and if I want to look at poetry, I must take a book from a shelf, my own or a store's. It doesn't come in through the mail slot, I don't go to meetings where it is read.

      However, though the winnowing may seem hard labor to you--even the labor of keeping eyelids up--mostly it is a negative process, isn't it? At some point, not enough people feel compelled to read something, and it goes out of print. Admittedly, "out of print" means little in an age of mass digital storage, but I doubt that old dull poets are browsed much on the Gutenberg Project.

    3. Winnowing is an interesting process at times, and I notice it even locally in my little village. Here I've met people involved in restoring the reputation of Susan Fenimore Cooper and preserving the reputation of James Fenimore Cooper. A former rector at Christ Church in Cooperstown was poet W. W. Lord, who had a large reputation until skewered by Poe. And I know someone who used to live here who is writing a book about him...

      I like the results of re-winnowing. I suppose winnowing goes on a very long time, with what is winnowed re-examined (at the moment, particularly for lost 19th-century women) and sometimes the chaff re-examined. The resurgence of Melville and Donne in the twentieth century is a good example of second looks.

      So I don't object to winnowing. It just sometimes feels daunting in our day. But I am now reading Michael Donaghy--I'd never read him before and am feeling pleased. I guess that's personal winnowing.

  4. "What will survive of us is love."
    And Chichester Cathedral too (I know the place quite intimately, I feel)
    And.... Larkin, yes.
    How you connect the dots over the centuries with this beautiful blog.

    1. Ah, thanks--that's sweet. (And Larkin is sweet if you leave out the penultimate line!)

      I haven't been to that Chichester, though I've seen images of the Arundel tomb for so many years that I always think that I have been there.

    2. Marly, Chichester and Arundel are delightful places.
      You would love being in either place - and they are just a train-stop away from one another.
      One day, if you can, do?
      (And remember, I will want to show you around! My old hunting grounds. I love those places. Humanity sank into the earth and the spread its arms up through the buildings there.)

    3. I am sure.... That's a lovely way to describe the cathedral etc. and Gothic aspiration.

      Well, it would be lovely to hop around England with you and Lynn some time!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.