Tuesday, March 25, 2014

`A Special Way of Being Afraid'

I’ve never read a word written by T.F. Powys, author of the allegorical novel Mr. Weston’s Good Wine (1928) and scion of the prolific Powys clan, though his death in 1953 moved Philip Larkin to a typically Larkinesque contemplation. In a Nov. 11 letter to Patsy Avis Strang, recipient of the first love letters Larkin ever wrote, the poet says: 

“I expect you noticed Theodore Powys had died. I felt greatly distressed – did I say so before? However much you talk yourself into regarding death as merciful oblivion, the moment of death, I can’t help thinking, must be a little choppy, a fribbling as the currents of life fray against the currents of death, & it must leave plenty of time to realize what’s happening to you. `Between the stirrup & the ground, Him terror sought, him terror found.’ I went a long walk on Sunday in his memory, as it was the kind of day he liked -- `The colour of a poor man’s coat.’” 

The final quoted line I’m unable to identify but “Between the stirrup…” is Larkin’s grimly purposeful misquotation of two lines from “Epitaph for a Man Killed by Falling” by William Camden (1551-1623): “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, / Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found.” In other words, between the time a Christian begins to fall from his horse and when he crashes dead on the ground, he is given sufficient opportunity to repent, ask for mercy and receive absolution. Call the couplet an expression of folk optimism. Boswell reports Dr. Johnson quoting Camden’s lines to him in 1783, one year before Johnson’s death. The old man says: “Sir, we are not to judge determinately of the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted of God.” Graham Greene has the unschooled sociopath Pinkie Brown recite the lines in Brighton Rock (1938). 

Larkin, of course, would have none of this. The moment of dying is “a little choppy, a fribbling [OED on fribble: `to falter, stammer’],” he jokes. It represents the ultimate experience of horror, without consolation. What’s noteworthy is that the poet, at the age of thirty-one, uses the recent death of a writer, one for whom he seems to feel no profound enthusiasm, to meditate on the subject of dying without hope. And in a letter to a woman upon whom he has romantic designs – surely an unconventional strategy of seduction. More than twenty years later, in 1977, Larkin returned to the theme in a very different setting. “Aubade” is one of the great poems of the last century, including these lines: 

“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 anaesthetic from which none come round.” 

Reading “Aubade” again for the thousandth time, I thought of the final lines Kingsley Amis writes in his portrait of Larkin in Memoirs (1991): 

“My sorrow at his death and my abiding sense of loss is tinged with regret. He was my best friend and I never saw enough of him or knew him as well as I wanted to. If I had, I might have been able to tell him, among other things, that he was a wonderful poet whose work would last. But as it is I have to fall back on hoping he knew I thought so.”

1 comment:

Adam said...

I wonder if the seduction was a subtler (perhaps even unconscious) attempt at something along the lines of Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress'. This life is fleeting; love and sex are suitable past times in the meantime.