Sunday, January 21, 2007

The greatest poem in the world

Well, that's a large claim - but, for me, it's certainly up there.... always among my personal top 5 or 10.

The Aubade, or 'morning song', is a poetic genre of some antiquity, but traditionally the theme is the forced parting of secret lovers at dawn. Here Larkin considers instead what a man alone thinks about in his bed when waking before dawn.

It's a great subject: the recognition of mortality that settles on us in middle life, the dread and incomprehension that evokes. And it's full of marvellous phrases: I once looted this for signature lines to my regular-ish e-mail 'bulletins' to the folks back home.... and came up with a new line or phrase (pithy and wonderful) to quote every week for three months.

I tossed the opening line of this at my favourite "cyber-stalker" (my new guerrilla blog-commenter, 'Tulsa') the other day to see if she'd recognise it; and she asked for more details. So, here you go: the full thing.

Dark it is. But I like dark.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare.
Not in remorse -
The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always.
Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die;
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)


Anonymous said...

I must object to being termed your "cyber-stalker" or stalker of any type, though I may be your favourite (which implies you have others?)

If you must call me by some name other than my own or the names I give myself, then surely "cyber-fan" or "cyber-groupie" would be more fitting.

Anyhow, I'm expecting the TV repairman any moment, now. While a repaired TV won't solve my lack-of-reading-material problem (or make me less of a fan), it should distract me sufficiently to allow your other cyber-stalkers to take over the commenting for a bit.

Thanks for the intro to Larkin. Once I manage to get back into wikipedia, I'll be reading up more about him. The Aubade is hauntingly accurate. Some consider those moments in the early morning hours the ideal moment for prayer.

The empty calm of the dark that comes after moonset and before sunrise brings out that something in our souls that acknowledges existance beyond the daily activities of postmen, ringing phones, and unfinished reports.

I was about to comment on how the locals might respond to that 4am moment - but I realized it might reveal too much about your adopted country -- have you addressed the local's spirituality in your blog, yet? I suppose not, since this is quite definitely not a **** blog.

And what about yours? Surely, along with opening up your literary fountain, all that alcohol must release some deeply hidden spiritual thought, no? I think most great religious poets from the East (East of Budapest, West of Lhasa) found their inspiration in the bottle. Their poetry is filled with references to the pre-dawn hours filled with love/desire (for God, woman, bottle - you choose the object of desire).

Froog said...

Sorry, I was deliberately enclosing the word "stalker" in inverted commas to make it seem a less threatening concept - it was a tease rather than a criticism.

But hey, you know, if the cap fits.... You were 'following me around' in my eccentric mental peregrinations - shadowing my every post, taunting me with my failure to recognise you.

"The judge calls it 'stalking', but it's just selective walking."