Thursday, December 28, 2017

`All Is Not Dead'

Someone asked if I missed Northern winters, and I do, though in my experience winter at those latitudes is not one thing. Some years it means snow and cold and little else. Other years it’s a cycle of freezes and thaws, beginning in October or November and ending for good in May with the big thaw of summer, the season that seems like an anomaly, a mere interruption of winter. The best thing about the latter is the thaw that arrives late in January or early in February, boosting the temperature into the forties or higher. It’s the thaw you can smell. The earth in patches is bare again and the mineral scent of rot – death turning into life – fills the woods. Skunk cabbage melts snow cover and sends up twisted purple buds, a false harbinger of true spring.

Few think of Philip Larkin as a nature poet, largely because he writes about human beings and because he was no nature mystic. You’ll find no soft-headed, Emersonian, Mary Oliver-style swooning in Larkin, but you will find frequent observations of the natural world. Fifty-six years ago, in January 1962, he worked on an untitled sonnet never published during his lifetime and posthumously titled “January” by editors:

“A slight relax of air where cold was
And water trickles; dark ruinous light,
Scratched like old film, above wet slates withdraws.
At garden-ends, on railway banks, sad white
Shrinkage of snow shows cleaner than the net
Stiffened like ectoplasm in front windows.

“Shielded, what sorts of life are stirring yet:
Legs lagged like drains, slippers soft as fungus,
The gas and grate, the old cold sour grey bed.
Some ajar face, corpse-stubbled, bends round
To see the sky over the aerials—
Sky, absent paleness across which the gulls
Wing to the Corporation rubbish ground.
A slight relax of air. All is not dead.”

Larkin refers to the nameless season called by Eliot “midwinter spring.” In Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (2014), James Booth describes the poem’s setting as “an urban wasteland [in which] a decrepit figure reminiscent of a Samuel Beckett character turns towards the faintest hint of spring.” One looks for hope in Larkin (it's there, though unadvertised) as one awaits warmth and blues skies.

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