Sunday, January 24, 2016

`Happiness Too is Going'

Is any setting less conducive to intimacy, to the joy of arrival and dolor of departure, than the airport terminal with its amplified voices, roaring engines and echoing surfaces of plastic, steel and glass? Of all public spaces, save restaurants fitted with multiple television screens, is any less hospitable to conversation, consolation and a heartfelt embrace? Train stations I know best from the movies. They were sooty and noisy, no doubt, but on a human scale. Of course, that may suggest nostalgia for an era I never knew first-hand. What of piers where ships are docked? Gulls, the tang of brine, the ceremony of boarding. All seem more civilized and leisurely, timed to the human cadence. But that too betrays false memories burnished with fond recollection. Consider Philip Larkin’s “Arrivals, Departures” (The Less Deceived, 1955):

“This town has docks where channel boats come sidling;
Tame water lanes, tall sheds, the traveller sees
(His bag of samples knocking at his knees),
And hears, still under slackened engines gliding,
His advent blurted to the morning shore.

“And we, barely recalled from sleep there, sense
Arrivals lowing in a doleful distance --
Horny dilemmas at the gate once more.
Come and choose wrong, they cry, come and choose wrong;
And so we rise.  At night again they sound,

“Calling the traveller now, the outward bound:
O not for long, they cry, O not for long --
And we are nudged from comfort, never knowing
How safely we may disregard their blowing,
Or if, this night, happiness too is going.”

Larkin was living in Belfast when he finished the poem on this date, Jan. 24, in 1953. In the hooting of the boats he hears the sound of woeful choices, of loss and regret. In his notes to The Complete Poems (2012), the editor Archie Burnett quotes from a letter Larkin wrote to Monica Jones in 1957: “It’s like the opening of Bleak House here today—I knew it was, for when I awoke I could hear the ships hooting on the river, each to each. Choose & choose wrong!” Larkin has a long memory for sadness. The Dickens allusion is useful:   

“Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.” 

Dickens is at his best in scene-setting. The opening of Bleak House (1853) is at once hellish and fanciful. Less than two years earlier, an even greater novel opened with “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” Both fittingly suggest that “this night, happiness too is going.”

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