Sunday, May 04, 2014

`We Miss Your Voice'

“The Movement” was a journalistic coinage of the nineteen-fifties in England, a convenient handle for outsiders to grab while insiders went about the business of writing. Among its members were some of the best writers of their time and place, including Larkin, Amis, D.J. Enright, Thom Gunn (soon to join another club that was not a club, the “Stanford School”), Robert Conquest and Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001). The last was the group’s only female member and the only one who remained professionally unaffiliated with a university. In the nineteen-forties she had studied at Oxford, where she met Larkin and Amis, but later worked in publishing and as a librarian. She was also the only Roman Catholic (the only Christian, for that matter) in the group, its least clubbable member, the most traditionally lyrical and devotional. If a preference for “Realism” over “Romanticism” was The Movement’s defining trait, Jennings was a Romantic Realist. She shared none of Larkin’s or Amis’ “bad boy” qualities and was distinctly a loner on the literary scene. All of this makes her elegy “For Philip Larkin” (Tributes, 1989), written after Larkin’s death in December 1985, so moving and generous. Here is the first of the poem’s three sections: 

“The last thing you would have wanted—
A poem in praise of you. You would have smiled,
Cracked a joke and then gone back into
Your secret self, the self that exposed itself
To believe in nothing after death, to a trust
In traditional customs, marriage, falling in love
And behaving with kindness and courtesy. You watched
Horses put out to grass,
The wonder of Queen Anne’s lace,
To everything English and green and bound by rivers,
The North with its dark canals:
I see you suddenly caught by a brilliant moon
In the early hours. I offer you words of praise
From there time-rent, beleaguered
Violent void-of-you days.” 

Jennings knows her man, not the reactionary caricature of the enlightened classes.   Larkin is never a nature poet of the mystical school, but he uses the natural world with surprising frequency in the poems, and Jennings may be alluding to “Cut Grass.” Likewise, she may refer in subsequent lines to “Sad Steps.” “Void-of-you” is worthy of Larkin. The latter two sections of Jennings’ poem are filled with phrases that will prove memorable to Larkin’s admirers and surprising to his detractors: 

“I see / Your watchful care over the chosen past.” 

“I always feel relieved / And less afraid when I read what you would share.” 

“We miss your voice. / The very quiet of it / Often consoled us…” 

“But in your verse a law / Is clear, you refused to speak / When there was nothing to say.”

“You died / In a dark Winter leaving all of us / Needing you at our side.”

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