September 19th, 2013

Poets of the right

British poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a complicated man, like many poets. But unlike most of them these days, he was politically of the right, at least in some respects.

Larkin wrote in forms, which is inherently conservative. But his language, although direct and very accessible, was most assuredly not conservative (liberal use of the f-word, for example). There’s a tension between the traditionalism of his forms and the modernism of what he was saying, and in that conflict lay his uniqueness and a good deal of his appeal. He wrote about things people tend to understand and care about: love, death, time, country, religion, sex. And he wrote in a way that doesn’t need special training to understand, although he’s a good (and many think great) poet.

Here’s a poem of Larkin’s that I recently discovered. Seems that England went through a lot of things before we did, or simultaneously (the poem was written in 1969 and published in 1974, around the time of the wind-down in Vietnam):

HOMAGE TO A GOVERNMENT

Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

It’s a fitting coda to the warning voiced by an earlier British poet, Kipling, on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. His foreboding has borne fruit (Kipling was a poet of the right, too):

RECESSIONAL

God of our fathers, known of old–
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe–
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the law–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard–
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard–
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!

Kipling’s tone is much more archaic; he was a man of his time, after all. That’s not the only difference; another is that Kipling believes in God and invokes him to help a nation that is beginning to forget religion, but Larkin senses that religion has almost entirely deserted a land that once pulsed with it. We know this about Larkin because he wrote about the phenomenon, in one of his most famous poems “Churchgoing,” in which he reflects on his visit to one of England’s increasingly deserted churches:

….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 will 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…

12 Responses to “Poets of the right”

  1. Mac Says:

    I’ve been a Larkin fan since I read a few of his short poems, such as “Home”, in college many years ago. Never have worked my way entirely through the Collected, though–much of his work proved more obscure than one (or at least I) would have expected. “Churchgoing” is one of my favorites.

    Anyway, interesting pairing.

  2. Ymarsakar Says:

    “I would rather die having spoken in my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet in law ought any man use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death, if a man is willing to say or do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs deeper than death.”-Socrates before the Athenian Death Panel (TM)

    The Ancients got it right more than they got it wrong. And some of it was timeless indeed.

  3. Ymarsakar Says:

    One of the poems in On Killing is interesting.

    Fear among Medical Personnel:

    “They Take Not Their Courage from Anger.”
    In a vision of the night I saw them,
    In the battles of the night.
    ‘Mid the roar and the reeling shadows of blood
    They were moving like light . . .

    With scrutiny calm, and with fingers
    Patient as swift
    They bind up the hurts and the pain-writhen
    Bodies uplift . . .

    But they take not their courage from anger
    That blinds the hot being;
    They take not their pity from weakness;
    Tender, yet seeing . . .

    They endure to have eyes of the watcher
    In hell and not swerve
    For an hour from the faith that they follow,
    The light that they serve.

    Man true to man, to his kindness
    That overflows all,
    To his spirit erect in the thunder
    When all his forts fall, —

    This light, in the tiger-mad welter,
    They serve and they save.
    What song shall be worthy to sing them —
    Braver than the brave?

    — Laurence Binyon, World War I veteran
    “The Healers”

  4. Sharon W Says:

    “The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs deeper than death.”-Socrates before the Athenian Death Panel (TM) Love this!

    As for “Churchgoing”, when last in Paris, France (2011), the lines outside the cathedrals were crazy. I took pictures of people taking pictures (many Asians). I thought of Cardinal John Henry Newman (also a poet), when he wrote, “In the capitals of Christendom the high cathedral and perpetual choir still witness to the victory of Faith over the world’s power. To see its triumph over the world’s wisdom, we must enter those solemn cemeteries in which are stored the relics and the monuments of ancient Faith–our libraries. Look along their shelves, and every name you read there is, in one sense or other, a trophy set up in record of the victories of Faith. How many long lives, what high aims, what single-minded devotion, what intense contemplation, what fervent prayer, what deep erudition, what untiring diligence, what toilsome conflicts has it taken to establish its supremacy! This has been the object which has given meaning to the life of Saints, and which is the subject-matter of their history.” His book, Conscience, Consensus, and the Development of Doctrine brought this nominally raised Catholic who spent 9 years in the Foursquare Church (studying the Bible backwards and forwards), back to Catholicism, where I am grateful I started out.

  5. Beverly Says:

    This is still my favorite (and a favorite of my mother’s): On Dover Beach.

    The sea is calm to-night.
    The tide is full, the moon lies fair
    Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
    Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
    Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
    Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
    Only, from the long line of spray
    Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
    Listen! you hear the grating roar
    Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
    At their return, up the high strand,
    Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
    With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
    The eternal note of sadness in.

    Sophocles long ago
    Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
    Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
    Of human misery; we
    Find also in the sound a thought,
    Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

    The Sea of Faith
    Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
    Retreating, to the breath
    Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
    And naked shingles of the world.

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    –Matthew Arnold

  6. Beverly Says:

    And this: the final paragraph of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion:

    Our long voyage of discovery is over, and our bark has drooped her weary sails in port at last. Once more we take the road to Nemi. It is evening, and as we climb the long slope of the Appian Way up to the Alban Hills, we look back and see the sky aflame with sunset, its golden glory resting like the aureole of a dying saint over Rome and touching with a crest of fire the dome of St. Peter’s. The sight once seen can never be forgotten, but we turn from it and pursue our way darkling along the mountain side, till we come to Nemi and look down on the lake in its deep hollow, now fast disappearing in the evening shadows. The place has changed but little since Diana received the homage of her worshippers in the sacred grove. The temple of the sylvan goddess, indeed, has vanished and the King of the Wood no longer stands sentinel over the Golden Bough. But Nemi’s woods are still green, and as the sunset fades above them in the west, there comes to us, borne on the swell of the wind, the sound of the church bells of Aricia ringing the Angelus. Ave Maria! Sweet and solemn they chime out from the distant town and die lingeringly away across the wide Campagnan marshes. Le roi est mort, vive le roi! Ave Maria!

    –Sir James George Frazer

  7. Caedmon Says:

    A sidelight on Larkin here.

  8. mizpants Says:

    Larkin is my favorite poet. Here’s another of his, which expresses a regret that both right and left acknowledge, in their different ways:

    NOTHING TO BE SAID

    For nations vague as weed,
    For nomads among stones,
    Small-statured, cross-faced tribes
    And cobble-close families
    In mill-towns on dark mornings
    Life is slowly dying.

    So are their separate ways
    Of building, benediction,
    Measuring love and money
    Ways of slow dying.
    The day spent hunting pig
    Or holding a garden-party.

    Hours giving evidence
    Or birth, advance
    On death equally slowly.
    And saying so to some
    Means nothing; others it leaves
    Nothing to be said.

  9. gs Says:

    A.E. Housman died in 1936, but he foresaw war coming:

    `Oh is it the jar of nations,
    The noise of a world run mad,
    The fleeing of earth’s foundations?’
    Yes, yes: lie quiet, my lad,

    `Oh is it my country calling,
    And whom will my country find
    To shore up the sky from falling?’
    My business: never you mind.

    `Oh is it the newsboys crying
    Lost battle, retreat, despair,
    And honour and England dying?’
    Well, fighting-cock, what if it were?

    The devil this side of the darnels
    Is having a dance with man,
    And quarrelsome chaps in charnels
    Must bear it as best they can.

  10. Bilwick Says:

    My favorite line of Larkin’s was not part of his poetry but something he said or wrote to a friend. I forget the exact quote but it was something like, “Why spend money on a date when for the price of a skin magazine you can toss off [English slang for nasturbation] and save yourself a quid?”

  11. Bilwick Says:

    I meant “masturbation,” not “nasturbation”–although that’s fun, too.

  12. Stan Smith Says:

    My favorite Larkin, “This Be The Verse”:

    They f*ck 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 f*cked 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.

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