Philip Larkin




Morning, a glass door, flashes
Gold names off the new city,
Whose white shelves and domes travel
The slow sky all day.
I land to stay here;
And the windows flock open
And the curtains fly out like doves
And a past dries in a wind.

Now let me lie down, under
A wide-branched indifference,
Shovel-faces like pennies
Down the back of the mind,
Find voices coined to
An argot of motor-horns,
And let the cluttered-up houses
Keep their thick lives to themselves.

For this ignorance of me
Seems a kind of innocence.
Fast enough I shall wound it:
Let me breathe till then
Its milk-aired Eden,
Till my own life impound it-
Slow-falling; grey-veil-hung; a theft,
A style of dying only.

The intimation of mortality, forever at the rim of thought and life, is never far away from here. This is one of the honestly profound poems of the twentieth century. Philip Larkin sees the world's existence as separate from his own. He views this separation as necessary for his existence: it is inevitable. With time, it has become a given. From it, the lines fall like the corollaries of half-expressed wishes: And let the cluttered-up houses / Keep their thick lives to themselves.
The imagery is fetched to mind disconnectedly, as are the images themselves, like pennies / down the back of the mind, as though the recall of the past were the seat of the self. Yet this metaphor is only half articulated before it changes. The images which are drawn to mind cannot be counted with certainty. But here, now, in the lonely separation of adulthood, the child's sense of the unity of the world is submerged beneath the experiences of the world. Islands alone remain. There is a sense of loss so keen that it is not alluded to.
Among these islands is the notion of innocence, found in a recollection of Eden. Is the present world, the place of the arrival, a mortal substitute for Eden? Here, the tree bears only A wide-branched indifference. Not even tragedy is possible. The myth of Eden came about, perhaps, to give an insight into the human quality—or flaw—which led to both human consciousness and human alienation. In this new (and mortal) twentieth century Eden—the Eden of every day's beginning, the Eden of every new skyline—there can be only one conclusion. Here, ignorance is the mortal analogue of innocence.
But the first three lines of the third verse are strange, ambiguous, yet are plain to read. They stand reading after reading.

For this ignorance of me
Seems a kind of innocence.
Fast enough I shall wound it:

No paraphrase is really possible: at least, not one which retains the subtlety of movement, but one might try for hesitant words: The new day doesn't even know I live. This ignorance —this spurious completeness—will be broken, like innocence, by my living within it. Personhood—my apprehension of my self—is presaged momently and impermanently:

a style of dying only.

The poet, in these lines, writing in 1950—and perhaps never expressing this insight as clearly again—has seen that the defences of the ego (which will inevitably traduce and corrupt both day and world) have been settled in the coinage of an unknown mortality. Unknown, because it has not yet been undergone: but, for all that, an apprehension of it lies close to the heart of my notion of myself.

David Wheldon, September 2001


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