Philip Larkin's natural redemption
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
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.
On first reading, I found Larkin to be unbearably morose and assumed his life was pitiable. I forget which of his poems I first encountered, but in general they seemed filled only with darkness and, at times, outright malicious rancor. He enjoyed wearing a victim's habit, I assumed. Was lost in it. A rotten, sour British post-modernist still clinging, through form, to tradition.
Then I read "High Windows"; poem and book. And I read it again, then over and over again. I still read both regularly. Something about the closing image, the immensely heavy grace of the deep blue endless sky above; one must assume it is there looking on as the youths mentioned at the poem's outset conduct their illicit sexual explorations. Something to ponder... What was he implying?
And then I found this gem, "First Sight," in Larkin's masterpiece The Whitsun Weddings. Two simple stanzas, the first driving home firmly the idea of the bleakness sheep (we) are born into in this life. Bleakness is life? Perhaps. A general unwelcome, even as our mothers stand close by, is the very world itself. The mother is even caked with the white unwelcome—and so besotted with "reality" do adults indeed become.
And yet. The lambs wait. What do they know? "They could not grasp it if they knew," so they know not what will come, but yet they wait. We wait. We hope. And, in time, we know: spring comes. The mother, caked with unwelcome, is not bothered by it. She has her lambs, and they have a sense, somehow, that something else, something like them, new, and fresh, is due.
Larkin, too. He is callous and he is hurt, maybe through and through, but he knows grace is possible. Behind all clouds is an omnipresent, unending blue.
Support poetry and poets: buy some Philip Larkin or another poet you love today.