The title sounds like a joke told by the never-married Philip Larkin: “To My Wife.” A grim joke, perhaps based on his parents’ marriage. The husband self-pityingly regrets what he has given up. He sounds like a young man who resents no longer being able to play the field, but otherwise the poem feels like the work of a man at least middle-aged and no longer a newlywed:
“Choice of you shuts up that peacock-fan
The future was, in which temptingly spread
All that elaborative nature can.
Matchless potential! but unlimited
Only so long as I elected nothing;
Simply to choose stopped all ways up but one,
And sent the tease-birds from the bushes flapping.
No future now. I and you now, alone.
“So for your face I have exchanged all faces,
For your few properties bargained the brisk
Baggage, the mask-and-magic-man's regalia.
Now you become my boredom and my failure,
Another way of suffering, a risk,
A heavier-than-air hypostasis.”
Obviously there are good biological reasons for marrying young. (Larkin never had children.) But how many of us are sufficiently mature when young to marry? What do we know at that age about life, about devotion and sacrifice? I’ve known prodigies of maturity, people young only in the trivial chronological sense, but they’re rare and memorable. The rest of us too often choose and rue our choice. “The mask-and-magic-man’s regalia” sounds mockingly like Yeats and a life dedicated to poetry. And what does our unhappy husband get instead: “my boredom and my failure.”
Larkin completed “To My Wife” on this date, March 19, in 1951. He chose not to include the sonnet in XX Poems (privately printed in 1951), and it was published only posthumously, in 1988. Larkin hadn’t yet matured as a poet. He was twenty-eight. Soon he would be writing “Church Going,” “I Remember, I Remember,” and “Mr. Bleaney.”
I suppose it sounds juvenile to say it, but doesn't any choice extinguish the pantheon of other choices? Freedom of choice only has value when you act and so negate other choices. Granted, choosing badly has consequences, but a man who seeks to keep all his options open is no different from the man with no options. I chose, therefore I am.
And I do so love Philip Larkin.
Yes, it must indeed reflect something of what PL thought abt his parents and their marriage, but I wonder how much "To My Wife" equally (or more?) reflected what PL really thought abt Kingsley Amis's marriage? He and KA were intimate friends and correspondents throughout this period, with KA perhaps revealing more of himself in his letters than PL ever did--in both his letters and poetry.
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