Monday, April 14, 2014

`What a Miracle of Feeling'

Philip Larkin gives voice to the awkward, diffident and uncertain among us. He speaks not for the winners, the popular and well-adjusted, but for temperamental misfits, the functionally unhappy, those not miserable enough to be hospitalized (he has no sympathy for Sylvia Plath) but prey to the species of sorrow Dr. Johnson called “unavailing misery,” the garden-variety dolor that “however painful and however useless, it is justly reproachful not to feel it on some occasions.” Only after reading Letters to Monica (Faber and Faber, 2010), the poet’s four decades of correspondence with Monica Jones, have I come to this conclusion. Just as some writers fancy they speak for the poor and downtrodden, Larkin, when writing to someone he trusted as much as he trusted anyone, and with whom he shared an emotional kinship, speaks for those like himself, the undramatically, sometimes self-pityingly, sad. And such advocacy, if that’s not too misleading a word, sharpens his critical empathy. In Belfast, in 1951, Larkin writes to Jones: 

“Your remark about footworn stones made me want to dig out and quote that not very original but heartwarming sentence of Hardy’s about a worn stone step meaning more to him than scenery. What a miracle of feeling Hardy was—in a sense much rarer than a genius of expression, a particular set of responses that can never be repeated.” 

I’d be grateful if an attentive reader could identify this “heartwarming sentence” in Hardy.  Larkin strikes me as the sort of man who never had illusions about being one of the popular kids. Without his poetic gift he would have been another drudge, drinking too much, complaining, reliably making himself and others unhappy, just another self-centered twit. As it is, he’s an aphorist of common, threadbare unhappiness, the anti-cheerleader. Some of what he says feels unprecedented in literature, at least what I know of it. There’s no romantic impulse in his depressiveness. More like resignation, a form of realism and maturity about sometimes being immature. One thinks: “I felt that once. How did he know?” Here’s a vivid image: 

“I seem to walk on a transparent surface and see beneath me all the bones and wrecks and tentacles that will eventually claim me: in other words, old age, incapacity, loneliness, death of others & myself...” 

And this sampler suggests how Larkin shares much with the rest of us, and how he is so different: 

 “Originality is being different from oneself, not others.” 

“I am always trying to `preserve’ things by getting other people to read what I have written, and feel what I felt.” 

 “The poetic impulse is distinct from ideas about things or feelings about things, though it may use these. It's more like a desire to separate a piece of one's experience & set it up on its own, an isolated object never to trouble you again, at least not for a bit. In the absence of this impulse nothing stirs.” 

“”…certainly I don’t want to be bucked up with little talks on the Duty of Happiness. I was just saying that most of my miseries don’t deserve the solicitude you show for them. And my poem was really an attempt to capture my feeling one returning here: a sense of amazement that what he wait for so long & therefore seems so long in coming shouldn’t take a proportionally long time to pass—instead of zipping away at the same speed as everything else.”


Guy Walker said...

Johnson lists as possible causes of sadness - 'some sudden diminution of their fortune, an unexpected blast of their reputation, or the loss of children or of friends.'

These things, according to Johnson, might explain or even excuse melancholy. One would not insist on the "Duty of Happiness' but feel, rather, that happiness is the natural condition of man if unassailed by the occurrences listed by Johnson. Human life is, generally a joyous thing to be enjoyed and celebrated. Larkin's humour (in the old sense of prevailing mood) is, therefore something to be wondered at rathe than reproved.

Dave Lull said...

Thanks to a clue provided by James Booth in reply to an inquiry made on my behalf by Tony Fincham, Hon. Chairman of The Thomas Hardy Society, and passed on to me by Mr Fincham, I was able to track down what I think Philip Larkin refers to as a "heartwarming sentence," which can be found several places on the web, for example:

'"An object or mark raised or made by man on a scene is worth ten times any such formed by unconscious Nature. Hence clouds, mists, and mountains are unimportant beside the wear on a threshold, or the print of a hand”(Life and Work 120).’ [i.e., The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (London: Macmillan, 1984)]