Monday, April 04, 2016

`I Don't Like Sweet Things'

In his life of the poet, James Booth describes the untitled “An April Sunday brings the snow . . .” as Philip Larkin’s “single mourning elegy.” Larkin’s father had died on March 26, 1948. He was a difficult man, a bully, a fascist sympathizer, but also a reader with sophisticated tastes in literature, some of which he passed on to his son. Larkin, not yet twenty-six, was stricken by his father’s death from liver cancer, and on this date, April 4, in 1948, wrote his sole elegy: 

“An April Sunday brings the snow
Making the blossom on the plum trees green,
Not white. An hour or two, and it will go.
Strange that I spend that hour moving between

“Cupboard and cupboard, shifting the store
Of jam you made of fruit from these same trees:
Five loads – a hundred pounds or more –
More than enough for all next summer’s teas.

“Which now you will not sit and eat.
Behind the glass, underneath the cellophane,
remains your final summer – sweet
And meaningless, and not to come again.”

That Larkin left the poem unpublished during his lifetime is artistically puzzling, though not emotionally. Booth even suggests Larkin may have judged it his first “good poem,” based on an ambiguous remark made years later. It’s an exceptional poem, tightly written and powerful in the plain-spoken, understated manner of the mature Larkin, and certainly superior to that better-known “plum poem,” which is childish, sentimental and not a poem. Booth sees the shade of Hardy in Larkin’s poem, with the jam reminding the poet of his father just as the burning logs in “Logs on the Hearth” reminds Hardy of his sister. In his notes to “An April Sunday . . .” in The Collected Poems (2012), Archie Burnett hears an echo of XXXIV in Housman’s Last Poems: “The plum broke forth in green, / The pear stood high and snowed.” Burnett also quotes a passage from a letter Larkin wrote to Monica Jones on April 4, 1948, the date he completed the poem: 

“My holiday was rather as I expected—my poor father grew steadily worse & died on Good Friday. Since then mother & I have been rather hopelessly looking at the stock on the house—this morning I shifted 100 lbs of jam – 1945, 1946, & 1947 years – and about 25 Kilner jars of bottled fruit [ . . . ] I don’t know what will happen to it all – I don’t like sweet things, you remember.” 

One reads Larkin at his best, as one reads Henry James and Chekhov, for many reasons (including pure delight in storytelling – the narrative impulse in Larkin, who started as a novelist, is seldom far away). Perhaps chief among those reasons is something Joseph Epstein identified in “Educated by Novels” (A Literary Education, 2014): 

Knowledge of the kind conveyed in novels may not, in any conventional sense, be useful. All that there is to recommend it is that it feels true, which, for someone educated by novels, is all the recommendation required.”

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