150+ essays on literary topics
I remember when High Windows was published in 1974 the excitement I felt in anticipation of reading Philip Larkin’s first collection of new poems in a decade. I remember also the feeling of disappointment I had in finding in it nothing new, nothing that he had not said already in The Less Deceived in 1955 and Whitsun Weddings in 1964.
But then disappointment is mainly what Philip Larkin wrote about. The word itself made an early appearance on the first page of his first book.
‘But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds’
are the pivotal lines in the middle of Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album, which concludes by regretting ‘a past that no one now can share’.
High Windows begins at the seaside where what he sees
‘Brings sharply back something known long before –
The miniature gaiety of seasides.’
The observation of an annual ritual had been a staple of Larkin’s poetry since, in Whitsun Weddings, after a train journey in the course of which he saw a dozen wedding parties standing on a dozen station platforms, he felt
‘A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.’
Twenty years divides two more poems that are quintessential Larkin, both about the coming of spring.
‘On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.’
The metaphor in Coming could not be bettered but was certainly equalled by that in The Trees.
‘The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.’
All one can say about the poet of High Windows, which turned out to be his last collection, is that he was older. The wisdom had already been achieved and that was there too in its familiar guise of sometimes grudging, sometimes willing acceptance. Two metaphors, one from At Grass, the last poem in the first book, the other from The Explosion, the last poem in the last book, show how close his older self was to his younger one. The retired horses in the former
‘Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.’
In the latter, a miner who, on his way to that day’s shift, had stopped to take some eggs from a bird’s nest, appears to the wife who waits with the other wives after an explosion at the mine.
‘…and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed –
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.’
Those who like Larkin for his cynicism might consider that sentimental. It would be more just perhaps to see it as an expression of the need all human beings have for solace in the face of their own mortality, as in The Building which ends with hospital visitors in their ‘struggle to transcend the thought of dying’ coming each evening ‘with wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers’.
R.S.Thomas published more than twenty volumes at regular intervals throughout his much longer life, each of which surprised his readers. The Welsh priest left God out of his poetry to begin with. In his last collection, No Truce with the Furies, God is everywhere. The parishioners who populated his first books of poetry, Prytherch, Cynddylan, Davies, are just a memory. His struggles with them, with what he thought they might have to teach him, rather than he them, give way in his last book to his own struggles with God.
The poems that made his name as a poet, with the publication of Song at the Year’s Turning, though they took his parish as their subject, were always ambivalent about its true nature. Iago Prytherch is painted in A Peasant as ‘a winner of wars, enduring like a tree under the curious stars’. But in A Priest to His People he asks their forgiveness for his ‘initial hatred’ and concludes by telling them:
‘You will still continue to unwind your days
In a crude tapestry under the jealous heavens
To affront, bewilder, yet compel my gaze.’
In the end though he turns his back on them and his Valediction is anything but kind.
‘Unnatural and inhuman, your wild ways
Are not sanctioned; you are condemned
By man’s potential stature.’
He concludes with words that, if Christianity is about forgiveness, seem hardly Christian.
‘For this I leave you
Alone in your harsh acres, herding pennies
Into a sock to serve you for a pillow
Through the long night that waits upon your span.’
He addresses God in his last book with the same honesty and directness as he addressed Prytherch and the others in his first. Geriatric, the first poem in the book, is a reaction to visiting a geriatric ward.
‘What god is proud
of this garden
of dead flowers, this underwater
grotto of humanity,
where limbs wave in invisible
currents, faces drooping
on dry stalks, voices clawing
in a last desperate effort
to retain hold?’
Developing the image of the neglected garden as a metaphor of age (‘reason overgrown by confusion’) he sets against it (‘comforting myself, as I can’) the possibility
‘that there is another
garden, all dew and fragrance,
and that these are the brambles
about it we are caught in’
but leaves us in no doubt that he knows which is the reality and which the poetic image (‘all dew and fragrance’) for the parson to comfort his congregation with. Except for the three lines that follow and give the poem its ending:
‘a sacrifice prepared
by a torn god to a love fiercer
than we can understand.’
The concept of a torn god is one that a humanist (though not, perhaps, a fundamental humanist such as the author of The God Delusion) can appreciate, if only as a way of describing the human condition. It is explored in other ways in other poems. In S.K. it is a theological problem, the S.K. in question being Søren Kierkegaard, whose questioning of the objective and subjective reality of God and his relationship to Him (or His to him) leads him to conclude that:
with prayer is the exchange
of places between I and thou,
with silence as the answer
to an imagined request.’
There are times when the poems remind one of Shakespearean soliloquies, asking questions (‘To be or not to be?’), testing hypotheses (‘Ah, there’s the rub!’), concluding more often than not with an inconclusive shake of the head (‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all’). Reflections, from which comes the line that gives the book its title, is one such.
‘The furies are at home
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the deepest water,
if deep enough can drown.’
(Don’t be fooled. Write it down differently and it’s blank verse.) The inconclusive conclusion takes the form of a poetic sleight of hand by which the mirror is changed into a chalice
‘held out to you in
silent communion, where gaspingly
you partake of a shifting
identity never your own.’
The torn god, the shifting identity, enable the humanist reader to share in a religious experience which in the hands of another religious poet would be so remote as to be meaningless. The seventeenth century poets managed it no better and, as he says himself in Ressurections, it was
‘Easier for them, God
only at the beginning
of his recession.’
He describes Herbert and Traherne as ‘walking in a garden not yet polluted’. But with the immediacy for which Herbert especially is renowned (‘I struck the board and cried, No more!’) he asks, ‘What happened? Suddenly he was gone, leaving love guttering in his withdrawal.’ This short poem ends with an image of startling, metaphysical potency – God’s corpse.
disaster, as flies are attracted
to a carcase, far down
in the subconscious the ghouls
and the demons we thought
we had buried for ever resurrected.’
There are, among the poems of religious questioning, of growing faith, poems of love too, love of his wife and love of others. Yet somehow, read together, they are all of a piece, the same voice in all of them. In one, The Morrow, the first verse is about climbing a hill the night after his wife’s death and asking,
‘Is she up there, the woman
who was the pawn that love
offered in exchange for beauty?’
The next verse, the last, is about going back to his room and finding her there, ‘speechlessly enquiring: Was all well?’ You don’t need to share his faith to share in the moment or perhaps to recall similar moments in your own life. He concludes by giving his answer to ‘the world’s question as to where at death does the soul go’:
‘There is no need under a pillarless
heaven for it to go anywhere.’
You get the feeling, reading these late poems, that, unlike Philip Larkin, who had only so many poems in him, R.S.Thomas could have gone on forever. He says it himself in Swallows, bidding them farewell for another year, knowing they will be back on time next year.
me whose migrations
are endless, though my perch
be of bone…
a new singer of an old
song, an innovator
too regardless of time
for the time-keeping swallows.’
The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 3 December.
On 10 December I will be writing about two plays that are better known as operas, Pelléas et Mélisande and Salomé.