Saturday morning in Houston, the thermometer read 23° F. Plants drooped and blackened, some perhaps never to revive. No birds or squirrels, and no children outdoors, only silence, as though sound waves froze. Siege conditions prevailed. Native Northerners shivered and ached. I dug out my long-packed-away gloves and felt the old impulse to hunker down. On this date, Jan. 8, in 1889, Thomas Hardy was in London, as recorded in his journal:
“Omnibus horses, Ludgate Hill. The greasy state of the street caused constant slipping. The poor creatures struggled and struggled but could not start the omnibus. A man next to me said: `It must take all heart and hope out of them! I shall get out.’ He did; but the whole remaining selfish twenty-five of us sat on. The horses despairingly got up the hill at last. I ought to have taken off my hat to him and said: `Sir, though I was not stirred by your humane impulse I will profit by your good example’; and have followed him. I should like to know that man; but we shall never meet again.”
Hardy, then age forty-eight, makes no effort to conceal his selfish impulse to understandably remain seated, and teases us with the seriousness of his dilemma. Who is this solitary equine Good Samaritan? Is he motivated strictly by concern for the welfare of the horses, or is he a professional do-gooder, the sort who waits for opportunities to publicly demonstrate his superior morality? Is he, in short, an activist? As Hardy attests, we’ll never know.
In January 1962, Philip Larkin wrote a sonnet never published during his lifetime. With some uncertainty, Archie Burnett in his edition of The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin (2012) titles the poem “January,” based on the presence of that word on the manuscript page. It fits: “dark ruinous light / Scratched like old film.” He asks: “Shielded, what sorts of life are stirring yet [?]” Despite “the old cold grey sour bed” and “corpse stubbled,” the sky an “absent paleness,” Larkin concludes: “All is not dead.”