I woke seeing lambs. Coming to from anesthesia is different from morning’s familiar return to wakefulness. The sense of duration – time passed, life lived -- is absent. A piece of one’s history is surgically removed, which is why general anesthesia is a better analog of death than conventional sleep. (Larkin: “The anaesthetic from which none come round.”) And I woke to a vision of white lambs cavorting in a pasture impossibly green and dense with daisies. I knew why. The night before I had been reading Wendy Cope’s Life, Love and The Archers: Recollections, Reviews and Other Prose (Two Roads, 2014), and a piece from 2001, “Larkin’s `First Sight,’” sent me back to Larkin’s poem of that title in The Whitsun Wedding (1964):
“Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.
“As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.”
Cope says her first reading of Larkin’s sonnet “knocked me sideways” and made her cry. It left her “amazed and grateful and sad and happy, all at the same time.” Cope reveals that she suffered from depression for many years. When she first read the poem, “the sun was just beginning to come out in my life.” The first half of “First Sight” with its “vast unwelcome” and “wretched width of cold” is customary Larkin, Hardy redux. The revelation comes in line eleven: “Earth’s immeasurable surprise.” What creature, lamb or human, could foresee the gift of spring? It’s just too big, too gratuitously beautiful. The poem’s effect on Cope reminds me of a friend who has lived with depression for most of his life. The only thing that once kept him from killing himself was knowing he could always listen to Bill Evans performing “You Must Believe in Spring.”