PATRICK STEPHENSON

Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

Larkin Whilst Walkin’

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On my walk home today, I decided—having backpacked my sweater during a bakery visit—to wear only my coat. This despite the cold. The coat was not enough. Instead of sweatering up, I pressed on and attempted to memorize a poem, the memorization being a distraction until I reached home. Even at the time, this seemed precious, but it worked! I recited lines robot-style until I reached my door and was admitted. It was an odd image, I’m sure. An under-dressed twenty-something recites poetry/talks to himself as he shivers across two streets and down a hill—and the poem memorized, though in its own way quite beautiful, was grim and not life-affirming:

The bottle is drunk out by one;
At two, the book is shut;
At three, the lovers lie apart,
Love and its commerce done;
And now the luminous watch-hands
Show after four o’clock,
Time of night when straying winds
Trouble the dark.

And I am sick for want of sleep;
So sick, that I can half-believe
The soundless river pouring from the cave
Is neither strong, nor deep;
Only an image fancied in conceit.
I lie and wait for morning, and the birds,
The first steps going down the unswept street,
Voices of girls with scarves around their heads.

XVI, from The North Ship, by Philip Larkin

Why the perspective switch, I wonder—from third in the first stanza to first in the second. Is Second Stanza Narrator involved in the first stanza’s wine-drinking, book-reading and love-making? The way the first stanza proceeds suggests the process is mechanical and unchanging. Uno, dos, tres, one stop per hour. And now it’s four o’clock, so we’ve left third person and first person’s instated, detachment and boredom vs. engagement and sickness. The image the poem ends with is romantic in comparison to how the poem begins. Bored by the mechanics of marriage, the narrator wants what’s outside: those hot girls with head scarves. (Maybe I’m projecting by interpreting this as an expression of desire.)

I wonder also about the “soundless river pouring from the cave.” What is it exactly? The narrator’s strong but silent internal monologue as he lies awake, I assume. He wishes it weren’t strong/deep, then, because those conditions prevent him from sleeping. He hopes they’ll loosen their hold on him so his sickness’ll end. The weaker they are, the sooner he’ll escape them. What’s got him preoccupied? I think “Aubade,” another by Larkin about insomnia, provides more detail. Notice the turning point for both poems is 4am, and again he uses “soundless,” this time for darkness:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

“Aubade,” Philip Larkin

So his preoccupations are (1) a failed relationship, and (2) death. An “aubade,” btw, is “a song or instrumental composition concerning, accompanying, or evoking daybreak,” and “a poem or song of or about lovers separating at dawn.” (Thanks, Dictionary.com) The title is muy literal, and could apply to XVI as well. You could see “Aubade” as a sequel to XVI, in that the narrator of the first is, at the very least, an insomniac with someone beside him, whereas the narrator of the second is an insomniac all alone, regretting his failures and fearing death. Both poems end with imagined, concurrent action in the outside world, the first with bird-song and voices from scarf-headed girls, the second with scary routine: the postmen as doctors, the phones in offices waiting, with hostility it seems, to ring. All of that optimism is gone.

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Written by patiomensch

February 12, 2007 at 8:24 pm

Posted in Books, Philip Larkin, Quotes

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