Wednesday, August 09, 2017

`What's Left Is Drear'

Philip Larkin is best read as a corrective to socially mandated lapses into optimism. Convention tells us to anticipate in our sixties, seventies and beyond a Golden Age of contentment, with rewards for a life well lived. I turn sixty-five in October and have been flooded with mail from Medicare, the Social Security Administration and current and former employers, yammering on about pensions and 401(k) plans and other things I don’t understand. I resent the assumed linkage between money and happiness. This is where Larkin’s common sense comes in handy. He is the funniest major poet of the twentieth-century, and writes like a cant-free hybrid of Dr. Johnson and Thomas Hardy. Here is “The View,” written around the time of his fiftieth (!) birthday, in 1972:

“The view is fine from fifty,
Experienced climbers say;
So, overweight and shifty,
I turn to face the way
That led me to this day.

“Instead of fields and snowcaps
And flowered lanes that twist,
The track breaks at my toe-caps
And drops away in mist.
The view does not exist.

“Where has it gone, the lifetime?
Search me. What’s left is drear.
Unchilded and unwifed, I’m
Able to view that clear:
So final. And so near.”

In Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love(2014), James Booth rightly describes the poem as dramatizing the poet’s feelings “with the zestful gusto of a stand-up comedian.” The rhymes (“fifty”/”shifty” is priceless) subvert any potential bleakness or self-pity. Booth writes: “With an elliptical virtuosity characteristic of Larkin’s late style the poem modulates at the last minute into pensive self-elegy. Puzzlingly he did not publish it. Eight years later in 1980 he sent it to his friend Anthony Thwaite on his fiftieth birthday with the compliment `But it would have been far worse without you.’”Larkin was born on this date, Aug. 9, in 1922.

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