Friday, March 20, 2015

`Our Virtues Are All Social'

As children we’re told that solitariness is not a good thing. There’s something unhealthy about the wish to be left alone; or, rather, to be alone, for “left alone” implies someone else is doing the leaving. At the same time we’re urged to be self-sufficient, to stand on our own two feet, not to run with the crowd, to rely on what John Berryman’s mother called “Inner Resources.” Our mother was forever telling my brother and me to go outside and “blow the stink off.” The world is a baffling place, made more baffling by those happy to plan our itineraries. 

For writers, solitude is essential. Nobody writes in a herd. Even in a raucous newsroom, disciplined writers cloak themselves in protective aloneness. Here is Philip Larkin in a letter to Monica Jones in 1952: “Seriously, I think it is a grave fault in life that so much time is wasted in social matters, because it not only takes up time when you might be doing individual private things, but it prevents you storing up the psychic energy that can then be released to create art or whatever it is.” Archie Burnett includes this passage in a note to “Best Society” (The Collected Poems, 2012), a poem from the early nineteen-fifties that remained unpublished during Larkin’s lifetime. Burnett also cites an apt line from Paradise Lost as a possible source for the title: “For solitude sometimes is best society.” Larkin was a testily private man, but no hermit. His friends, relatives, lovers and professional colleagues were numerous, but one suspects Larkin was blessed and cursed with a gift for being alone even in a crowd. Irony drips from every line of the third stanza: 

“Much better stay in company!
To love you must have someone else,
Giving requires a legatee,
Good neighbours need whole parishfuls
Of folk to do it on — in short,
Our virtues are all social; if,
Deprived of solitude, you chafe,
It’s clear you’re not the virtuous sort.” 

Burnett quotes another letter from Larkin to Jones, from 1968: “Alone, I am placid, industrious, inventive, amiable. In company, I am locked in a rictus of rage and irritation.” This prompts a metaphysical question: Can one be amiable when alone in a room?: 

“Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.”

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

I have just discovered your blog and your comments on Johnson, Larkin, Sissman, Charles Lamb delight me. I, too, have my Adrians who are present when I read certain poems.

I am amiable when alone in a room because I know that the sound of a telephoning ringing instantly can snap on my insolent sneer.