Scrooge, the Poet: Philip Larkin Celebrates Christmas (QotD)

 

Christmas 1940

‘High on arched field I stand
Alone: the night is full of stars:
Enormous over tree and farm.
The night extends,
And looks down equally to all on earth.

‘So I return their look; and laugh
To see as them my living stars
Flung from east to west across
A windless gulf?

– So much to say that I have never said,
Or ever could.’

-Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin was never a particularly cheerful man. Nor was he much of a Christian. But as in so much else (love with “The Arundel Tomb” and tenderness with “The Mower”, for starters), Larkin manages to penetrate beautifully the heart of the matter even without completely understanding, or celebrating, it himself. In only 11 lines he captures the magic of Christmas; the gift of life, which we can never fully explain the meaning or beauty of in words.

Pretty good, for a self-declared grumpy cynic.

(I’ll leave you with a bit of music, performed by a contemporary that Larkin admired very much, Benjamin Britten. A performance of “Die Winterreise” from 1968. A Schubert composition using poems by Wilhelm Müller about a winter journey. Perfect for the Christmas season).

.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    It’s not too late to become a librarian. 😜


    This is the Quote of the Day. Our sign-up sheet for December is here and still has three openings starting with Christmas. We welcome new participants and new members to Ricochet to share their favorite quotations.

    Another ongoing project to encourage new voices is our Group Writing Project. December’s theme is ‘Tis the Season. If you’re looking to share your own thoughts rather than those of others and have some ideas about the holiday(s) season we are entering, why not sign up there?

    • #1
  2. notmarx Member
    notmarx
    @notmarx

    Larkin, the lyricist of loss. (I find the laugh he gives to the great field of stars one that passed bitterness years before.) It’s odd how consoling his inconsolable poems are.

    • #2
  3. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    Thank you, KW.

    A very merry Christmas to you and your family.

    • #3
  4. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Captain French (View Comment):

    Thank you, KW.

    A very merry Christmas to you and your family.

    And to yours as well!

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    An unlikely, yet totally appropriate choice! Thanks, KW. And for all the cultural gems you’ve brought us year-round, Merry, or perhaps I should say, Happy Christmas. 

    • #5
  6. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    An unlikely, yet totally appropriate choice! Thanks, KW. And for all the cultural gems you’ve brought us year-round, Merry, or perhaps I should say, Happy Christmas.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it (and all of the other old and strange cultural stuff I’ve written about in 2020). Merry Christmas to you and yours as well, Gary!

    • #6
  7. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    notmarx (View Comment):

    Larkin, the lyricist of loss. (I find the laugh he gives to the great field of stars one that passed bitterness years before.) It’s odd how consoling his inconsolable poems are.

    There’s something bitterly ironic in an inconsolable man writing poetry which brings such comfort to others. And a man so unhappy in, and suspicious of, love penning profoundly beautiful love poetry. That duality I suppose, though, fits rather well with the Christian story, which celebrates the brutal crucifixion of its central figure as hope, a new beginning for humanity.

    • #7
  8. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio…
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I suppose that I am simply obtuse about this.

    I do not see any poetry in this quote. I do not detect any notable meaning at all, let alone something about Christmas. I do not even detect any meter or rhyme.

    Some people seem to like this. To me, it looks like the verbal equivalent of so-called modern art, which never struck me as meriting the name “art.” Perhaps I am simply an unsophisticated rube.

    • #8
  9. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    I suppose that I am simply obtuse about this.

    I do not see any poetry in this quote. I do not detect any notable meaning at all, let alone something about Christmas. I do not even detect any meter or rhyme.

    Some people seem to like this. To me, it looks like the verbal equivalent of so-called modern art, which never struck me as meriting the name “art.” Perhaps I am simply an unsophisticated rube.

    Larkin is a poet people either love or hate, and, although he wasn’t particularly fond of Eliot or a lot of the modernists, he did follow them by largely abandoning rhyme and meter. Ironically, he was a huge fan of W.H. Auden, who stuck to conventional rhyme and meter forms almost all of the time. 

    I’m fond of Larkin, and Transtromer, and a lot of poets who have chosen not to pursue rhyme or more traditional forms. Eliot’s view was “Whether poetry is accentual or syllabic, rhymed or rhyme-less, formal or free, it cannot afford to lose its contact with the changing language of common intercourse.” I wouldn’t say that I totally agree, but I like many different forms of poetry. And excessive devotion to patterns and models can become deadening. 

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    And excessive devotion to patterns and models can become deadening.

    That’s called being a metrist. It’s not a compliment. Being a formalist is fine, though.

    • #10
  11. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Some people seem to like this. To me, it looks like the verbal equivalent of so-called modern art, which never struck me as meriting the name “art.” Perhaps I am simply an unsophisticated rube.

    Concur. No meter or rhyme at all simply strikes me as lame. “Free verse” is just a fancy label for chopped up prose, pretending to be more.

    • #11
  12. notmarx Member
    notmarx
    @notmarx

    So, on the word of Giordano & Turmel I’m supposed to believe that Yeats’ “The Second Coming” or Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” or Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” or Eliot’s Quartets or his “Journey of the Magi” are not poems because they’re not rhyming compositions?

    Rhyme and meter are poetic devices, i.e. tools a poet may deploy, or not, in the exercise of his craft; likewise alliteration or consonance, ballad form, or metaphor or simile or parallelism, paradox, etc. There are books about this sort of thing.

    Many of the greats of the last century moved between free verse and rhyming, Eliot and Larkin among them. Larkin was a past master at rhyme and meter (cf. “This Be the Verse”, or “The Whitsun Weddings”, or “An Arundel Tomb”) as was Eliot, who used it mainly for irony and special effects. Am I supposed to believe that an artist as scrupulous as these chose to write free verse because he had an attack of laziness? You may want to consider that the master makers of the art may have a better idea of what is a poem and what isn’t than you do, and bring some humility to the task of reading their work.

    The pose of being the wise child who sees the nakedness of the emperor, being based on a kindergarten level understanding of poetry (he’s a poet/don’t I know it), is really simple ignorance–complacent and lazy.

     

    • #12
  13. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    notmarx (View Comment):
    simple ignorance–complacent and lazy

    That sounds like a quote from my tombstone epitaph.

    • #13
  14. notmarx Member
    notmarx
    @notmarx

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    notmarx (View Comment):
    simple ignorance–complacent and lazy

    That sounds like a quote from my tombstone epitaph.

    Now that gave me a good laugh.

    • #14
  15. notmarx Member
    notmarx
    @notmarx

    Finally took the time for the music, Kirkianwanderer. What a piquant post this is: the dark, bleak aspects of the season given their due. Every day, for a while still, there’s more night than day.

     

    • #15
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    notmarx (View Comment):
    So, on the word of Giordano & Turmel I’m supposed to believe that Yeats’ “The Second Coming” or Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” or Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” or Eliot’s Quartets or his “Journey of the Magi” are not poems because they’re not rhyming compositions?

    Nope. There are far more traditions of poetry than Mother Goose and Doctor Seuss.

    • #16
  17. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Arahant (View Comment):

    notmarx (View Comment):
    So, on the word of Giordano & Turmel I’m supposed to believe that Yeats’ “The Second Coming” or Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” or Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” or Eliot’s Quartets or his “Journey of the Magi” are not poems because they’re not rhyming compositions?

    Nope. There are far more traditions of poetry than Mother Goose and Doctor Seuss.

    The problem with free verse is that it tends towards awkwardly worded prose.

    I mean “tends towards” in its “swerves hard into” sense.

    • #17
  18. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    notmarx (View Comment):

    So, on the word of Giordano & Turmel I’m supposed to believe that Yeats’ “The Second Coming” or Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” or Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” or Eliot’s Quartets or his “Journey of the Magi” are not poems because they’re not rhyming compositions?

    Rhyme and meter are poetic devices, i.e. tools a poet may deploy, or not, in the exercise of his craft; likewise alliteration or consonance, ballad form, or metaphor or simile or parallelism, paradox, etc. There are books about this sort of thing.

    Many of the greats of the last century moved between free verse and rhyming, Eliot and Larkin among them. Larkin was a past master at rhyme and meter (cf. “This Be the Verse”, or “The Whitsun Weddings”, or “An Arundel Tomb”) as was Eliot, who used it mainly for irony and special effects. Am I supposed to believe that an artist as scrupulous as these chose to write free verse because he had an attack of laziness? You may want to consider that the master makers of the art may have a better idea of what is a poem and what isn’t than you do, and bring some humility to the task of reading their work.

    The pose of being the wise child who sees the nakedness of the emperor, being based on a kindergarten level understanding of poetry (he’s a poet/don’t I know it), is really simple ignorance–complacent and lazy.

    Meh. My opinion doesn’t conform to what you think it should be. Oh, well. I guess I will go suck my kindergarten thumb.

    Not.

    • #18
  19. notmarx Member
    notmarx
    @notmarx

    Not worth a separate post, but I keep returning to this poem. When I couldn’t find it in either of my collected volumes, I found it online, with some background. Larkin wrote it when he was eighteen; it remained unpublished during his life; nonetheless he kept the poem, communicating it by letter, self-deprecating. No surprise to me he kept it; seems to me it’s quintessential Larkin; you might take it as a skeleton key to his work.

    What a tightly contrived little thing; it sets a stanzaic pattern: five-stress first line and two-stress last line, with the intervening lines four stresses apiece. Except the first line, five accents in six syllables, the poem is metronomically iambic (e.g., stanza 2, line 3: “To SEE as THEM my LIVing STARS.”). The poem does not use end-rhyme, instead alliteration, a sonic device older in English prosody than rhyme. Thus in the first stanza, three of the four concluding words feature the “st” sound, and the other repeats the “ar” sound from the preceding line (note in stanza 2: in British English “stars” and “across” are close to rhyming). An abrupt couplet ends the poem, collapsing the pattern, and confessing the young man’s inability to believe what the beauty of the night signifies to “them” (stanza 2, line 3).

    My reading is darker than KirkianWanderer’s. “. . .laugh/to see as them my living stars. . .”. In blunt colloquial English (“to see as them”), the poem’s “I”, accepting as absurdity the notion that stars are living things guided by living beings (i.e. angels), alienates himself from them who can have the vision and keep it—in any variant. This a comfort unavailable to this unbeliever, a tragic coda. What precedes it, that rapt imagery, reveals a soul utterly alive to what he sees; but the intellect must reject the implications of native wonder. This tension between what’s felt and what is known for sure animates a lot of Larkin.

    • #19
  20. notmarx Member
    notmarx
    @notmarx

    Regarding rhyme and this poem. With apologies to Philip Larkin’s ghost I played with translating it into rhyme. Here:

     

    Christmas 1940

     

    ‘On arched field, its height,

    Alone; above, a star-filled night:

    Enormous over farm and town

    The night looks down

     

    To all earth, to all equally.

    ‘I look back and laugh to see

    As them a sweep of living stars

    Flung east to west across

    A blind and dumb

    Vacuum?

     

    — So much to say I’ve said never,

    Nor could, ever.’

    ***

     

     

    Christmas 1940

     

    ‘On arched field, its height,

    Alone; above, a star-filled night:

    Enormous over farm and town

    The night looks down

     

    To all earth, to all equally.

    ‘I look back and laugh to see

    As them its sweep of stars as living,

    As taking on the unforgiving

    Windless-frigid night?

     

    — So much to say it would be good

    To, if I could.’

    ***

    The first version accords more with my take on Larkin’s poem; the second jibes with KirkianWanderer’s, as I understand it. In either case I think rhyme, nailing the poem’s rhythms down, reduces the suggestiveness and emotional transparency of the poem.

    A rhyme can function very like a syllogism tightening to its conclusion; think Kipling or Pope. And it can be an instrument of musical beauty—say Keats or Tennyson. Larkin does both (cf. “This Be The Verse” versus “Home Is So Sad” and “The Whitsun Weddings”). In this poem, when the young poet is receiving a first intimation of the limits of his own capacities, I find the subtle, almost hesitant, sonics apt. The disjuncture between what he can believe and what he can’t help feel is an injury, chronic in Larkin; I gather it hobbled the man; yet it also serves as a wellspring of some very great poetry.

    • #20
  21. notmarx Member
    notmarx
    @notmarx

    For the pleasure of it. A thing of beauty from Larkin. Days are longer, the winter light is opening toward spring and the complex of emotions its coming evokes; here’s something to stand by you in the change of seasons. A line from this poem a favorite pianist, Simone Dinnerstein, used as title of a cd, “Something Almost Being Said”. It’s a recital of solo Bach and Schubert.

    *****

     

     

    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 they 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.

     

     

     

     

     

    • #21
  22. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    notmarx (View Comment):

    Regarding rhyme and this poem. With apologies to Philip Larkin’s ghost I played with translating it into rhyme. Here:

     

    Christmas 1940

     

    ‘On arched field, its height,

    Alone; above, a star-filled night:

    Enormous over farm and town

    The night looks down

     

    To all earth, to all equally.

    ‘I look back and laugh to see

    As them a sweep of living stars

    Flung east to west across

    A blind and dumb

    Vacuum?

     

    — So much to say I’ve said never,

    Nor could, ever.’

    ***

     

     

    Christmas 1940

     

    ‘On arched field, its height,

    Alone; above, a star-filled night:

    Enormous over farm and town

    The night looks down

     

    To all earth, to all equally.

    ‘I look back and laugh to see

    As them its sweep of stars as living,

    As taking on the unforgiving

    Windless-frigid night?

     

    — So much to say it would be good

    To, if I could.’

    ***

    The first version accords more with my take on Larkin’s poem; the second jibes with KirkianWanderer’s, as I understand it. In either case I think rhyme, nailing the poem’s rhythms down, reduces the suggestiveness and emotional transparency of the poem.

    A rhyme can function very like a syllogism tightening to its conclusion; think Kipling or Pope. And it can be an instrument of musical beauty—say Keats or Tennyson. Larkin does both (cf. “This Be The Verse” versus “Home Is So Sad” and “The Whitsun Weddings”). In this poem, when the young poet is receiving a first intimation of the limits of his own capacities, I find the subtle, almost hesitant, sonics apt. The disjuncture between what he can believe and what he can’t help feel is an injury, chronic in Larkin; I gather it hobbled the man; yet it also serves as a wellspring of some very great poetry.

    Larkin is a hard poet to nail down, if he isn’t (as he so often was) being bluntly cynical and misanthropic. His typically dim view of life is makes poems like “An Arundel Tomb” and “The Mower”, which might seem a bit saccharine coming from someone else, touching and great. I think he also rather liked to embrace that possibility of dual readings in certain of his works. Take that aforementioned “An Arundel Tomb”: 

    Time has transfigured them into Untruth. The stone fidelityThey hardly meant has come to be Their final blazon, and to prove Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love. The final line is beautiful and moving, but much of what he builds up before contradicts or caveats it. A “hardly meant” fidelity which calls into question the truth of that love which we wish to see, or the fact that our faith in the power of love to remain is “almost true.” It was a feature of Larkin’s work that he could never really commit to an unmitigated joy.

    • #22
  23. notmarx Member
    notmarx
    @notmarx

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Larkin is a hard poet to nail down, if he isn’t (as he so often was) being bluntly cynical and misanthropic. His typically dim view of life is makes poems like “An Arundel Tomb” and “The Mower”, which might seem a bit saccharine coming from someone else, touching and great. I think he also rather liked to embrace that possibility of dual readings in certain of his works. Take that aforementioned “An Arundel Tomb”: 

    Time has transfigured them into Untruth. The stone fidelityThey hardly meant has come to be Their final blazon, and to prove Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love. The final line is beautiful and moving, but much of what he builds up before contradicts or caveats it. A “hardly meant” fidelity which calls into question the truth of that love which we wish to see, or the fact that our faith in the power of love to remain is “almost true.” It was a feature of Larkin’s work that he could never really commit to an unmitigated joy.

    Yes! Mystics know better I guess, though even they have their “dark nights”. The rest of us, even believers, live in constant tension, sometimes between faith and doubt. He seems like one of us. Sometimes he finds himself hopeful in spite of himself. I know that feeling. And his misanthropy can be so damn funny.

    I too think he welcomes multiple readings. Most poets do. I heard Dana Gioia, a very conscious craftsman, say he’s not really aware of what one of his poems can mean until someone else has told him. Poems are supposed to hold multiple meanings. It’s why God chose to communicate to us with poetry. If a reading absolutely violates the letter of the text, I’m prepared to reject it. Otherwise, the more the merrier.

    • #23