Wednesday, October 16, 2013

`I Cannot Bite the Day to the Core'

In his biography of Philip Larkin, Andrew Motion reports that the poet asked a longtime friend to destroy, after his death, the notebooks containing the diaries he had been accumulating for decades. Monica Jones in turn asked Betty Mackereth, Larkin’s secretary at the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, to destroy them. After the poet died in December 1985, she dutifully shredded “the thirty-odd thick A4 notebooks,” but preserved the covers and later transcribed the quotations and newspaper clippings the poet had pasted on them. Motion says they “give a miniature, fragmented history of his beliefs,” including samples from writers he admired (Hardy, Rossetti) and from “others who demonstrate the true nature of his reading (Joyce, Proust, Blake).” Also found (unsurprisingly) is the motto of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry (“Faint heart never fucked the pig”) and lines by Edward Thomas: “How dreary-swift, with naught to travel to, / Is time.” 

The convergence of Thomas’ name and the odd coinage “dreary-swift” made me think first of the bird, not the adjective meaning speedy. In another poem, “Haymaking,” Thomas refers to “The swift with wings and tail as sharp and narrow / As if the bow had flown off with the arrow.” But Larkin is quoting a line from “The Glory,” written by Thomas in the spring of 1915, shortly before he enlisted, fatally, in the British Army. An initial reading of the poem encourages the bird association, as Thomas refers to the cuckoo, blackbird, lark and swallow, but Motion’s reference to the “sympathetic melancholy” of the lines is apt. Larkin recognized in Thomas a fellow bleak-minded depressive who, at his finest moments, spun melancholy into threads of poetic gold. Larkin often placed Thomas, as Motion puts it, among the “plain-speaking poets who formed his pantheon,” along with Hardy, Barnes, Betjeman, Auden and Stevie Smith, among others. 

Even putting the bird associations aside, “dreary-swift” carries a tartly oxymoronic flavor appropriate to the poem’s mingling of celebration and despair (manic and depressed, simultaneously). One wonders how well Thomas knew his etymology. Dreary shows up in Old English, in Beowulf, where it means “gory, bloody”: “W√¶ter under stod dreorig ond gedrefed.” At the same time, the word was evolving a parallel meaning, according to the OED: “cruel, dire, horrid, grievous.” Soon, the recognizably modern meanings emerge: “full of sadness or melancholy; sad, doleful, melancholy” and “dismal, gloomy; repulsively dull or uninteresting.” The word moves from butchery to boredom and, in Thomas’ prescient hands, back to butchery, in less than a millennium. 

Thomas and Larkin claim as their own the intermediate places in the heart, where despair and exultation coexist. To dismiss them as “depressing” is to read with one eye, at most. I find encouragement in their best lines. They hearten me. They suggest  we persevere, but without resorting to rah-rah speeches. On his notebook cover, Larkin quotes most of the final two lines of “The Glory,” but leaves out the last eight words: “I cannot bite the day to the core.” The man who wrote that sentence has not yet succumbed to the unhappiness he embraces.

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