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George Herbert and Philip Larkin
A painter I know tells his students a parable about the creative process: "When you go into your studio and stand in front of your canvas," he says, "about sixteen people are there with you: some of your teachers, a lot of painters from the past and some from the present, some friends, maybe even relatives, and you. As you begin to think about your painting a few of the people get up and leave; when you lift your brush, a few more go; as you advance on the canvas you're down to just one or two, and when you start to paint you're all alone with the canvas, and with the work you're trying to make." I like the story because it encapsulates so much of the artist's struggles, but it also slights a bit other elements of aesthetic decision.
Because when the painter picks up the brush or the poet the pen, it isn't only the obvious artistic influences that make claims on the creating consciousness—the entire world does, every detail of every reality the artist has ever known or even heard of; every belief, every myth and every concept, every iota of every perception the artist has ever had or imagined. That's not even counting those other variables that constitute our personal identities, the assemblages of assets and liabilities, ambitions and gifts and quirks, facilities and flaws that drive or impede us as we confront the more than improbable undertaking of reducing all this to a sheet of linen or the puffs of bent air that indicate that a poem is being spoken.
Really, the most radical decisions an artist or writer has to make concern what of reality to omit from the work. Of course we don't have to be conscious of most of these variables all the time: many of the choices about what to deal with and how to deal with them are made in advance. We're situated at a certain point in history from which we encounter reality, and we are the recipients of a conglomerate of cultural assumptions that eliminate other areas of reality and experience. Then there are those elements of the metaphysical that were inculcated in us and that we "believe in," or wish we did, or once believed in, or wish we didn't or hadn't. Our vision of course is further determined by the language we speak, as well as by the aesthetic forms in which we're fluent.
It's clear then, that every artist, and every poet—I'll speak only of poets now—more or less systematically though not necessarily entirely consciously develops modes of inclusion and exclusion with which to elaborate a vision and to accomplish works in accord with that vision. One might even imagine a scale of inclusion and exclusion as a way to categorize poetic intention. Poets like Shakespeare, Dante, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Yeats would be at one extreme, writers who mean to account for as many instances of reality as possible. At the other extreme would be those poets who for various ends purposefully limit their work in either an experiential or formal way. The reason for such limitings might be to go more deeply rather than comprehensively into aspects of self or nonself or to investigate more subtly rather than inclusively perceptual consciousness or belief. It's in this category in which I would situate George Herbert, whose work is an obvious instance of a conscious limiting of spiritual concern and aesthetic scope, and Philip Larkin, whose systems of exclusion are less apparent but just as rigorous.
There's no great puzzle in seeing how Herbert strictly defined his aesthetic intentions: all his poems are designed to serve one single purpose, which is prayer, although this also includes preparation for prayer and despair about not being able to pray, or to pray properly, with adequate conviction or purity of conscience and consciousness. To pray is to praise and thank Christ for the benefits, some not immediately evident, that his incarnation and self-sacrifice have brought to humanity; all other movements of mind, unless intimately connected with those facts, are trivial, distracting, spiritually dangerous, and potentially repulsive. Herbert is alone in his poems with his God, and a listener, one who also presumably wishes to pray. If Herbert participates in a community of human affection, that is incidental to his purpose; if he has aesthetic aspirations for his poetic gifts , they are to be mistrusted, although he is perfectly aware of his talents. For example, in "Jordan II," he writes
When first my lines of heav'nly joys made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excel
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention;
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.
Thousands of notions in my brain did run,
Off'ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begun;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sun ...
Herbert's genius is so ample that he can command himself to spontaneity, and accomplish it, so richly elegantly and with such unselfconscious abundance do his verses seem to flow from him. And we take more pleasure in his work than he claims to allow himself, for in fact he does bring great areas of the world into the poems—both in their associations and figurations—and intricate and precise examples of worldly reality and personal experience (though now presumably renounced) adorn the poems. Passions, though overcome, are still accounted for; earthly longings, though sublimated for spiritual ends, are elaborately recast. In one of my favorite poems, "The Pearl," Herbert acknowledges his attentiveness to the pleasures of human experience and reveals how much he has incorporated of them.
I know the ways of Learning; both the head
And pipes that feed the press, and make it run;
What reason hath from nature borrowed,
Or of itself, like a good housewife, spun
In laws and policy; what the stars conspire,
What willing nature speaks, what forc'd by fire;
Both th' old discoveries, and the new-found seas,
The stock and surplus, cause and history:
All these stand open, or I have the keys;
Yet I love thee.
I know the ways of Honor, what maintains
The quick returns of courtesy and wit:
In vies of favours whether party gains,
When glory swells the heart, and mouldeth it
To all expressions both of hand and eye,
Which on the world a true-love-know may tie,
And bear the bundle, wheresoe'er it goes:
How many drams of spirit there must be
To see my life unto my friends or foes:
Yet I love thee.
And then, although Herbert is dedicatedly abstinent, he continues, in one of the most sensual stanzas of poetry in the language:
I know the ways of Pleasure, the sweet strains,
The lullings and the relishes of it;
The propositions of hot blood and brains;
What mirth and music mean; what love and wit
Have done these twenty hundred years, and more:
I know the projects of unbridled store;
My stuff is flesh, not brass; my senses live,
And grumble oft, that they have more in me
Than he that curbs them, being but one to five:
Yet I love thee.
It's more difficult to see how Larkin made an equivalent limiting aesthetic decision for his poetry. There's a great deal of reality directly and concretely considered in his work; he is vigorously contemporary in his imagery; and his poems incorporate a wide variety of his own experiences, sentiments, and perceptions: he writes of everything from mine explosions to race horses to train rides, country fairs, sadly spoiled love affairs, and dismal rooms in horrid boarding houses. And yet his poetry manifests just as severe a system of omission as Herbert's, and its content and modes of reflection are equally determined by that system.
If Herbert committed his poetry to the ultimate and intimate demands of his religion, the resolution manifested in Larkin's work is perhaps even more radical. Larkin's poems evidence a vision of commitment to absolute personal truth: there is present in the poems only the poet as he actually lived, with no compromising illusions about himself or about the reality in which his life took place. Larkin dedicated his work to an unflinching refusal to allow in it any element of his character that aspired to be other than it really was, which generated illusion or lied to itself or others, that fantasized or aggrandized or mythologized itself in any way.
This can seem to be a rather self-evident commitment for a poet, but in fact it's quite rare. The aggrandizement of the lyric personality is a basic assumption in poetry, and in Romantic and post-Romantic poetry the act of writing itself came to be regarded as redemptive: the poet as the protagonist of his poems became something like a secular priest, or a prophet, recasting modalities of beauty and veracity and redefining ethical and aesthetic boundaries. There are obvious examples: Wordsworth, Shelley, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, and Lowell. But even in figures of apparently lesser ambition, it's the rule rather than the exception for poets to assume implications for their writing that imply a larger-than-life scale and significance. Furthermore, even introspective activities such as self-scrutiny, even an analytic vision of consciousness, point in most modern poets towards a presumably valiant enlarging of lexicons of concern.
Larkin will have none of this. Despite the powerful influence of Yeats on his early work (he famously replaced Yeats as his tutelary spirit with Hardy and declared that this had allowed him to mature as an artist), and despite some later experiments with an Audenesque public persona, and even a Dylan Thomas-like orchestration of the ego, in all his mature work there is apparent what can only be called a renunciation, a refusal to allow the self any deceiving overevaluation, and this discipline brings as decisive a limitation in thematic enactment as Herbert's, and one that is as poetically effective.
Larkin, at heart, was surely an incorrigible romantic, haunted by the transcendence he longs for but knows he can't have, whether that transcendence is in the form of sexual or spiritual fulfillment, and yet this passion is always kept in check, ironized, even sometimes quietly mocked, and finally the strictures on these desires end up constraining anything like the solace they might offer. No more than Herbert will he find pleasure in any manifestation of worldly satisfaction; though he certainly knows their attraction, Larkin will not comfort himself with anything that might be characterized as metaphysically illusory.
There is much else similar in the two poets. Both have an ascetic, even mistrustful attitude towards beauty, yet both are brilliantly accomplished in a wide variety of poetic music, and compose with an inimitable polish. There is even a certain unlikely conjunction in their areas of concern: both write of the seductive absurdity of money, of the temptations of the flesh, and of the illusions of worldly success. Of course we read the poets very differently: his poetic gifts aside, Herbert's spiritual agon, though exhilarating and even inspiring, takes place at a certain moral distance from most of us; his poetry enacts a spiritual struggle that concerns us mostly in a theatrical way.
With Larkin, in contrast, the exertions and tensions of the person moving through the poems are intensely familiar; we live Larkin's experience with him in a way that can afflict us with realizations we would just as soon not have to acknowledge about ourselves. By so completely shedding any pretension towards personal mythologizing, towards situating the self in an overt spiritual or philosophical context, Larkin positions himself unadorned, often, it can seem, even unclothed, flayed of his skin, against the potentially oppressive forces of contemporary moral and metaphysical debasement. The truth Larkin confronts and implements in his work is the insidious, barely admissible suspicion that someone else is possibly closer to the center of the reality one values than one is oneself or, perhaps even worse, that no one is at that center at all, that there might not be a hero in our way of existing. Eliot wrote, "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be," but just from his tone we know he doesn't for a moment mean what he says: all his poems are cunningly constructed so as to be certain we take him not merely as the hero of his own poetic moment but also as the culminating identity of a poetical-mythological process spanning all the realms of human angst. Larkin wouldn't dream of saying he wasn't Hamlet or any other dramatic protagonist: he has made the decision, in his poems, where it works often to great effect, and apparently in his life as well, where perhaps it brought about a less happy result, never even to entertain such foolishness; he mocks, vehemently and contemptuously, much more harmless pretensions than this.
At his best, at his most withholding and wise, Larkin's daunting commitment allows him a very effective objectivity; there's a forceful union of self-effacement and skepticism in his poems. He's like the figure at the side of some Baroque paintings who holds back a curtain with one hand while coolly gesturing a welcome into a room presumably previously concealed. Except Larkin's drama is more harrowing, because viewed in another way he is the room; language in its most reflective mode will deal with nothing other than the contents of itself, and, as with any reflective poet, it is most often the space of Larkin's own sensitivity that is the subject of his poems. And the mind he presents to us is not so much self-effacing as self-abnegating; he reduces himself in many of own poems and, in his recounting of events in his life, to a very contingent presence, one who observes, comments, scorns, despairs, and occasionally, very occasionally, exalts, but only rarely pretends to satisfying personal experience or emotions.
If the decision towards truth can be morally unnerving, it has aesthetic implications as well. Herbert's poems, for example, have an inherent propulsive pressure in them; they are in a sense underway the moment they begin: the poet knows and we know what their purpose is, what the universe will be they evoke, what emotional and intellectual and symbolic contexts will determine their trajectory and even their volume. Larkin, conversely, begins each poem in a void, both of meaning and of aspiration. If the world he will deal with is familiar to us, it is familiar in a particularly stripped way: what will be selected from the world to be meditated on, the perceptual sensitivity with which that meditation will be equipped, and, most important, what the mood of the poem will be are completely unpredictable; whatever meaning the poem might be moving towards or sometimes away from will only be revealed in the course of events. Whether any poetic meditation ends up being positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, will depend entirely on the success or failure of the inspiration of the poet and the skill with which the poem is accomplished. Every poem, then, is a risky undertaking, both to write and to read; one never knows whether the poem will lift us to the inspirational exaltation of, for instance, "Church Going" or "The Whitsun Weddings," or drive us down again into the grinding skepticism of "Reading," or the obsessive spiritual negations of "Self's the Man" or "Home."
Considered in this way, Larkin's poetry is terribly difficult, not because we have trouble parsing what the poems say—he is never anything but excruciatingly lucid—but because each work presents us with the possibility of subjecting ourselves to a first person whom we will experience with a vertiginous frankness really unlike any other—since every other poet's self-revealings, even the so-called confessional poets at their most embarrassingly sincere, have about them a personal aggrandizement that the very writing of the poem assumes and that is generally taken to be morally consoling. The poet says in one way or another: Behold the audacity with which I position myself before you in this poem, a place from which I will speak truths whose purpose, if not whose conditions, is entirely laudable. The poetic undertaking is assumed to be intrinsically noble, but for Larkin this is simply not the case. He presumes no nobility, not even any minimal personal glorification for his effort: if the experience he has chosen to investigate leads him to an abyss of self, a dismal exemplary of characterological flaw, so be it—this is the truth his poetry risks.
Excerpted from In Time by C. K. Williams Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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