Monday, February 16, 2015

`A Slight Scorn in You for What Appalls'

One of my most attentive readers notes the allusions to Larkin’s “Aubade” in Les Murray’s “Corniche,” one of the “Black Dog Poems” written while Murray was gripped, though never entirely paralyzed by depression. Larkin famously begins his poem “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night,” and Murray starts with an echo in another key: “I work all day and hardly drink at all.” Larkin writes as an embattled agnostic with a horror of death and a taste for depression’s bosom friend, alcohol. Larkin writes as a depressive but not about depression. Murray, a serious Roman Catholic and a more severely afflicted depressive, addresses his malady directly and alludes again to Larkin’s poem: 

the black dog was my brain. Come to drown me in my breath
was energy’s black hole, depression, compère of the predawn show
when, returned from a pee, you stew and welter in your death.

Murray is intimate with the wily, seductive ways of clinical depression, its masks and feints. He speaks of those (like Larkin?) who “killed themselves to stop dying. The blow that never falls / batters you stupid. Only gradually do / you notice a slight scorn in you for what appalls.” “Corniche” was first collected in Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996), and included in Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression, first published in 1997 and reprinted in 2011 with a new afterword and an expanded anthology of the “Black Dog Poems.” In my mental anthology, both poems and the “Black Dog” of depression are published alongside a passage quoted by Yvor Winters in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (Alan Swallow, 1967). The words are by the poet Fulke Greville (1554-1628) in his prose “Life of Sir Philip Sidney.” Different species, same genus:

“For my own part, I found my creeping genius more fixed upon the images of life than the images of wit and therefore chose not to write to them on whose foot the black ox had not already trod, as the proverb is, but to those only that are weather-beaten in the sea of this world, such as having lost the sight of their gardens and groves, study to sail on a right course among rocks and quicksands; and if, in thus ordaining, and ordering matter and form together for the use of life, I have made those tragedies no plays for the stage, be it known, it was no part of my purpose to write for them, against whom so many good and great spirits have already written.”

The OED defines “the black ox” not as depression but as “adversity, hardship, misfortune; the cares of life.” A black dog might tear our flesh. A black ox may trod on our foot and gore us. Ben Jonson writes in A Tale of a Tub (1633), though not of Larkin or Murray: “The black Oxe never trod yet O your foot.” 


Subbuteo said...

Reading Edward Mendelson and John Fuller on the early Auden recently. They cite Auden's espousal of Lane, Layard and DH Lawrence's ideas which suggest that personal unity (the search for which exercised Auden enormously) arises from allowing what is in a person free flow because, essentially, what is in us is good. Of course, with the triumvirate mentioned above the sexual is bound to figure largely in this formula. For me this explains a lot of depression. It is the result of the thwarting or inturning of our spirits which then do damage inside us. It's all about how the body and mind are linking most particularly in the sexual. I once took it upon myself to write a sonnet on the subject:

Body Language

My tongue, my lips, speak kisses, words, and taste
you, love. I tell my truth with carnal speech,
and you make utterance – naked vowels -out-faced
to me in tender causerie. The reach

of love defined by tips of breasts, bent knees
and fingertips. Extremity’s delight
contained, fulfilled in limbs. In matrices
like these does love find means and so recites

its joy. But we use measured talk and line,
whose borders loose the captured sense. We catch
the meaning, let it walk, no more confined.
Ties body thoughts that we leave unattached.

Just as ideas in verse’s form are meshed,
my love for you’s interpreted in flesh.

E Berris said...

I think there is a line in Yeats' "Countess Cathleen" about the black ox, on the Countess's death::
'the years like great black oxen tread the world, And I am broken by their passing feet'.