Monday, September 07, 2009

`Bad Habits of Expectancy'

I arrived at the conclusion that D.H. Lawrence never wrote a line worth remembering when a junior high school English teacher read “The Ship of Death” aloud and with great feeling. I thought it was a joke, a parody of poetic flatulence à la Percy Dovetonsils, but Miss Clymer read it straight:

“And can a man his own quietus make
with a bare bodkin?”

Be honest now: Can you seriously answer that question? I’m not familiar with the pertinent scholarship but I suspect Philip Larkin, not yet 30 years old, had Lawrence’s poem in mind when he wrote “Next, Please” (from his second book, XX Poems, 1951). My brother happened upon this grim little poem last week and it prompted him to make three paintings using nautical imagery:

“Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

“Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

“Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

“Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

“We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

“Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.”

As always, Larkin’s theme is our gift for self-delusion. Along these lines, “Watching from a bluff” reminds me of the seaside resort at Bournemouth, where poor Dencombe meets his end in Henry James’ “The Middle Years”:

“He sat and stared at the sea, which appeared all surface and twinkle, far shallower than the spirit of man. It was the abyss of human illusion that was the real, the tideless deep.”

Dr. Johnson defines “to prink” as “To prank; to deck for show.” In other words, to preen or strut one’s stuff. Such is the “Sparkling armada of promises,” until you remember what happened in 1588. The final stanza sinks Lawrence’s bombast for good with the “black- / Sailed unfamiliar.” What other poet would write of a “huge and birdless silence?” The poem, despite such wonders, is early, relatively minor Larkin. “Church Going” and “Aubade” are still in the future and by then he will have cast off the unnaturally “poetic” flavor of a ship of death. Larkin was at home in the close-at-hand, the dreary and wonderful place where most of us dwell. As he told an interviewer:

“I don’t want to transcend the commonplace, I love the commonplace, I lead a very commonplace life. Everyday things are lovely to me.”

1 comment:

WAS said...

What quietus with a bodkin? Wasn’t that Hamlet’s question?

You weave a fascinating connection between Lawrence and Larkin, both writing about the endlessness of human folly using the same set of metaphors yet saying totally different things.

The death ship metaphor for building a bonfire of the false self is one hammered in like dogma to today’s new age believers—the Bleep movie, Eckhart Tolle, Bill Plotkin all use it, among others—but it seems strange in Lawrence, who vies earnestly and unsuccessfully to use traditional English poetic language to describe his new religion of experience (part Hindu, part Pagan, part Freud)—a wooly proto-modernist, as it were.

Larkin, who aims not at the moon and stars but the more low-hanging fruit of human frailty, injects a secondary metaphor, as you so astutely observe, of the Spanish Armada. That would be typical of Larkin to go straight to the root of the British superiority complex and root for the other side, if only they weren’t even slower and more deluded. Also typical of his proto-post-modernism, he stays ironically detached from divine intervention as explanation, unlike 1588 commentators, who viewed Spain’s ridiculous lack of luck as proof of the superiority of the Protestant God.

Between Lawrence and Larkin, I see another poem coming out of the same harbor, one that does not have the time, as the English poems do, to wait on the surface twinkles of “the abyss of human illusion.” It goes full fathom five to embrace the nothingness on the other side:

Farewell to Florida
by Wallace Stevens

Go on, high ship, since now, upon the shore,
The snake has left its skin upon the floor.
Key West sank downward under massive clouds
And silvers and greens spread over the sea. The moon
Is at the mast-head and the past is dead.
Her mind will never speak to me again.
I am free. High above the mast the moon
Rides clear of her mind and the waves make a refrain
Of this: that the snake has shed its skin upon
The floor. Go on through the darkness. The waves fly back

Her mind had bound me round. The palms were hot
As if I lived in ashen ground, as if
The leaves in which the wind kept up its sound
From my North of cold whistled in a sepulchral South,
Her South of pine and coral and coraline sea,
Her home, not mine, in the ever-freshened Keys,
Her days, her oceanic nights, calling
For music, for whisperings from the reefs.
How content I shall be in the North to which I sail
And to feel sure and to forget the bleaching sand ...

I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools
Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness
Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms
Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones,
The trees likes bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.
To stand here on the deck in the dark and say
Farewell and to know that that land is forever gone
And that she will not follow in any word
Or look, nor ever again in thought, except
That I loved her once ... Farewell. Go on, high ship.

My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime
Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.
The men are moving as the water moves,
This darkened water cloven by sullen swells
Against your sides, then shoving and slithering,
The darkness shattered, turbulent with foam.
To be free again, to return to the violent mind
That is their mind, these men, and that will bind
Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me
To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on.