Philip Larkin (1922-1985)


This Be The Verse / Days / Church Going / I Remember, I Remember / Home is so Sad / The Trees Breadfruit / Sad Steps / The Building / To the Sea Many famous feet have trod / Next, Please Heads in the Women's Ward / The View / Good for you, Gavin First Sight / Tops

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you. But they were fucked up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats, Who half the time were soppy-stern And half at one another's throats Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself.

Days

What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us Time and time over. They are to be happy in: Where can we live but days? Ah, solving that question Brings the priest and the doctor In their long coats Running over the fields.

Church Going

Once I am sure there's nothing going on I step inside, letting the door thud shut. Another church: matting, seats, and stone, And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff Up at the holy end; the small neat organ; And a tense, musty, unignorable silence, Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off My cycle-clips in awkward reverence, Move forward, run my hand around the font. From where I stand, the roof looks almost new - Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't. Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce 'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant. The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence, Reflect the place was not worth stopping for. Yet stop I did: in fact I often do, And always end much at a loss like this, Wondering what to look for; wondering, too, When churches fall completely out of use What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep A few cathedrals chronically on show, Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases, And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep. Shall we avoid them as unlucky places? Or, after dark, will dubious women come To make their children touch a particular stone; Pick simples for a cancer; or on some Advised night see walking a dead one? Power of some sort will go on In games, in riddles, seemingly at random; But superstition, like belief, must die, And what remains when disbelief has gone ? Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky, A shape less recognisable each week, A purpose more obscure. I wonder who Will be the last, the very last, to seek This place for what it was; one of the crew That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were? Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique, Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh? Or will he be my representative, Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt So long and equably what since is found Only in separation - marriage, and birth, And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built This special shell? For, though I've no idea What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth, It pleases me to stand in silence here; A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete, Since someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious, And gravitating with it to this ground, Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that some many dead lie round.

I Remember, I Remember

Coming up to England by a different line For once, early in the cold new year, We stopped, and, watching men with number-plates Sprint down the platform to familiar gates, 'Why, Coventry!' I exclaimed. 'I was born here' I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign That this was still the town that had been 'mine' So long, but found I wasn't even clear Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates Were standing, had we annually departed For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went: Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots. 'Was that,' my friend smiled, 'where you "have your roots" ?' No, only where my childhood was unspent, I wanted to retort, just were I started: By now I've got the whole place clearly charted. Our garden, first: where I did not invent Blinding theories of flowers and fruits, And wasn't spoken to by an old hat. And here we have that splendid family I never ran to when I got depressed, The boys all biceps and the girls all chest, Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be 'Really myself'. I'll show you, come to that, The bracken where I never trembling sat, Determined to go through with it; where she Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'. And, in those offices, my doggerel Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read By a distinguished cousin of the mayor, Who didn't call and tell my father There Before us, had we the gift to see ahead - 'You look as if you wished the place in Hell,' My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well, I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said. Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.

Home is so Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left, Shaped to the comfort of the last to go As if to win them back. Instead, bereft Of anyone to please, it withers so, Having no heart to put aside the theft And turn again to what it started as, A joyous shot at what things ought to be, Long fallen wide. You can see how it was: Look at the pictures and the cutlery. The music in the piano stool. That vase.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf Like something almost being said; The recent buds relax and spread; Their greenness is a kind of grief. Is it that we are born again And we grow old? No, they die too. Their yearly trick of looking new Is written down in rings of grain. Yet still the unresting castles thresh In fullgrown thickness every May. Last year is dead, they seem to say, Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Breadfruit

Boys dream of native girls who bring breadfruit, Whatever they are, As bribes to teach them how to execute Sixteen sexual positions on the sand; This makes them join (the boys) the tennis club, Jive at the Mecca, use deodorants, and On Saturdays squire ex-schoolgirls to the pub By private car. Such uncorrected visions end in church Or registrar: A mortgaged semi- with a silver birch; Nippers; the widowed mum; having to scheme With money; illness; age. So absolute Maturity falls, when old men sit and dream Of naked native girls who bring breadfruit Whatever they are.

Sad Steps

Groping back to bed after a piss I part thick curtains, and am startled by The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness. Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky. There's something laughable about this, The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart (Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below) High and preposterous and separate - Lozenge of love! Medallion of art! O wolves of memory! Immensements! No, One shivers slightly, looking up there. The hardness and the brightness and the plain Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare Is a reminder of the strength and pain Of being young; that it can't come again, But is for others undiminished somewhere. 24 April 1968

The Building

Higher than the handsomest hotel The lucent comb shows up for miles, but see, All round it close-ribbed streets rise and fall Like a great sigh out of the last century. The porters are scruffy; what keep drawing up At the entrance are not taxis; and in the hall As well as creepers hangs a frightening smell. There are paperbacks, and tea at so much a cup, Like an airport lounge, but those who tamely sit On rows of steel chairs turning the ripped mags Haven't come far. More like a local bus. These outdoor clothes and half-filled shopping-bags And faces restless and resigned, although Every few minutes comes a kind of nurse To fetch someone away: the rest refit Cups back to saucers, cough, or glance below Seats for dropped gloves or cards. Humans, caught On ground curiously neutral, homes and names Suddenly in abeyance; some are young, Some old, but most at that vague age that claims The end of choice, the last of hope; and all Here to confess that something has gone wrong. It must be error of a serious sort, For see how many floors it needs, how tall It's grown by now, and how much money goes In trying to correct it. See the time, Half-past eleven on a working day, And these picked out of it; see, as they c1imb To their appointed levels, how their eyes Go to each other, guessing; on the way Someone's wheeled past, in washed-to-rags ward clothes: They see him, too. They're quiet. To realise This new thing held in common makes them quiet, For past these doors are rooms, and rooms past those, And more rooms yet, each one further off And harder to return from; and who knows Which he will see, and when? For the moment, wait, Look down at the yard. Outside seems old enough: Red brick, lagged pipes, and someone walking by it Out to the car park, free. Then, past the gate, Traffic; a locked church; short terraced streets Where kids chalk games, and girls with hair-dos fetch Their separates from the cleaners - O world, Your loves, your chances, are beyond the stretch Of any hand from here! And so, unreal A touching dream to which we all are lulled But wake from separately. In it, conceits And self-protecting ignorance congeal To carry life, collapsing only when Called to these corridors (for now once more The nurse beckons -). Each gets up and goes At last. Some will be out by lunch, or four; Others, not knowing it, have come to join The unseen congregations whose white rows Lie set apart above - women, men; Old, young; crude facets of the only coin This place accepts. All know they are going to die. Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end, And somewhere like this. That is what it means, This clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend The thought of dying, for unless its powers Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes The coming dark, though crowds each evening try With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers. 9 February 1972

To the Sea

To step over the low wall that divides Road from concrete walk above the shore Brings sharply back something known long before-- The miniature gaiety of seasides. Everything crowds under the low horizon: Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps, The small hushed waves' repeated fresh collapse Up the warm yellow sand, and further off A white steamer stuck in the afternoon-- Still going on, all of it, still going on! To lie, eat, sleep in hearing of the surf (Ears to transistors, that sound tame enough Under the sky), or gently up and down Lead the uncertain children, frilled in white And grasping at enormous air, or wheel The rigid old along for them to feel A final summer, plainly still occurs As half an annual pleasure, half a rite, As when, happy at being on my own, I searched the sand for Famous Cricketers, Or, farther back, my parents, listeners To the same seaside quack, first became known. Strange to it now, I watch the cloudless scene: The same clear water over smoothed pebbles, The distant bathers' weak protesting trebles Down at its edge, and then the cheap cigars, The chocolate-papers, tea-leaves, and, between The rocks, the rusting soup-tins, till the first Few families start the trek back to the cars. The white steamer has gone. Like breathed-on glass The sunlight has turned milky. If the worst Of flawless weather is our falling short, It may be that through habit these do best, Coming to the water clumsily undressed Yearly; teaching their children by a sort Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought. (1969)

Many famous feet have trod

15 October 1946 Many famous feet have trod Sublunary paths, and famous hands have weighed The strength they have against the strength they need; And famous lips interrogated God Concerning franchise in eternity; And in many differing times and places Truth was attained (a moment's harmony); Yet endless mornings break on endless faces. Gold surf of the sun, each day Exhausted through the world, gathers and whips Irrevocably from eclipse; The trodden way becomes the untrodden way, We are born each morning, shelled upon A sheet of light that paves The palaces of sight, and brings again The river shining through the field of graves. Such renewal argues down Our unsuccessful legacies of thought, Annals of men who fought Untiringly to change their hearts to stone, Or to a wafer's poverty, Or to a flower, but never tried to learn The difficult triple sanity Or being wafer, stone and flower in turn. Turn out your pockets on the tablecloth; Consider what we know. A silver piece: That's life; and, dealing in dichotomies, This old discoloured copper coin is death. Turn it about; it is impenetrable. Reverse and obverse, neither bear A sign or word remotely legible: But spin the silver to a sphere. Look in, and testify. Our mortal state In turn is twisted in a double warp: The light is waking and the dark is sleep And twice a day before their gate We kneel between them. There is more Knowledge of sleep than death, and yet Who knows the nature of our casting there, Trawled inaccessible pool, or set A line to haul its logic into speech? Easier to balance on the hand The waking that our senses can command, For jewels are pebbles on a beach Before this weaving, scattering, winged-and-footed Privilege, this first, untold And unrecurring luck that is never completed Even in distance out of our hands' hold, That makes, this waking traffic, this one last, One paramount division. I declare Two lineages electrify the air, That will like pennons from a mast Fly over sleep and life and death Till sun is powerless to decoy A single seed above the earth; Lineage of sorrow: Lineage of joy; No longer think them aspects of the same; Beyond each figured shield I trace A different ancestry, a different face, And sorrow must be held to blame Because I follow it to my own heart To find it feeding there on all that's bad: It is sanctionable and right Always to be ashamed of being sad. Ashamed that sorrow's beckoned in By each foiled weakness in the almanac Engendered by the instinct-to-turn back -Which, if there are sins, should be called a sin- Instinct that so worships my own face It would halt time herewith And put my wishes in its place: And for this reason has great fear of death. Because tides wound it; The scuttling sand; the noose Of what I have and shall lose, Or have not and cannot get; Partings in time or space Wound it; it weeps sorely; Holds sorrow before its face, And all to pretend it is not part of me, The blind part. I know what it will not know: All stopping-up of cracks Against dissolution builds a house of wax, While years in wingspans go Across and over our heads. Watch them: They are flying east. They are flying to the ebb Of dark. They are making sorrow seem A spider busy on a forgotten web. They are calling every fibre of the world Into rejoicing, a mile-long silken cloth Of wings moving lightwards out of death: Lineage of joy into mortality hurled, Endowing every actual bone With motionless excitement. If quick feet Must tread sublunary paths, attest this one: Perpetual study to defeat Each slovenly grief; the patience to expose Untrue desire; assurance that, in sum, Nothing's to reach, but something's to become, That must be pitched upon the luminous, Denying rest. Joy has no cause: Though cut to pieces with a knife, Cannot keep silence. What else should magnetize Our drudging, hypocritical, ecstatic life?

Next, Please

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, Sparking 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 prinkled, 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.

Heads in the Women's Ward

On pillow after pillow lies The wild white hair and staring eyes; Jaws stand open; necks are stretched With every tendon sharply sketched; A bearded mouth talks silently To someone no one else can see. Sixty years ago they smiled At lover, husband, first-born child. Smiles are for youth. For old age come Death's terror and delirium. (1972)

The View

The view is fine from fifty, Experienced climbers say; So, overweight and shifty, I turn to face the way That led me to this day. Instead of fields and snowcaps And flowered lanes that twist, The track breaks at my toe-caps And drops away in mist. The view does not exist. Where has it gone, the lifetime? Search me. What's left is drear. Unchilded and unwifed, I'm Able to view that clear: So final. And so near. (1972)

Good for you, Gavin

[Ewart, I assume] It's easy to write when you've nothing to write about (That is, when you are young), The heart-shaped hypnotics the press is polite about Rise from an unriven tongue. Later on, attic'd with all-too-familiar Teachests of truth-sodden grief, The pages you scrap sound like school songs, or sillier, Banal beyond belief. So good for you, Gavin, for having stayed sprightly While keeping your eye on the ball; You're riotous road-show's like Glenlivet nightly, A warming to us all. (1981)

First Sight

Lambs that learn to walk in snow When their bleating clouds the air Meet a vast unwelcome, know Nothing but a sunless glare. Newly stumbling to and fro All they find, outside the fold, Is a wretched width of cold. As they wait beside the ewe, Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies Hidden round them, waiting too, Earth's immeasurable surprise. They could not grasp it if they knew, What so soon will wake and grow Utterly unlike the snow. (1956)

Tops

Tops heel and yaw, Sent newly spinning: Squirm round the floor At the beginning, Then draw gravely up Like candle-flames, till The are soundless, asleep, Moving, yet still. So they run on, Until, with a falter, A flicker - soon gone - Their pace starts to alter: Heeling again As if hopelessly tired They wobble, and then The poise we admired Reels, clatters and sprawls, Pathetically over, -And what most appals Is that tiny first shiver, That stumble, whereby We know beyond doubt They have almost run out And are starting to die. (1953)