Whatever you think of his message, you have to admit that Philip Larkin is a very good poet. "Continuing to Live" was written in April, 1954, and was published in Collected Poems 2003. First the poem and then a bit of commentary.
Continuing to live — that is, repeat A habit formed to get necessaries — Is nearly always losing, or going without. It varies.
This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise — Ah, if the game were poker, yes, You might discard them, draw a full house! But it's chess.
And once you have walked the length of your mind, what You command is clear as a lading-list. Anything else must not, for you, be thought To exist.
And what's the profit? Only that, in time, We half-identify the blind impress All our behavings bear, may trace it home. But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins, Just what it was, is hardly satisfying, Since it applied only to one man once, And that one dying.
One can see that Larkin is a very good poet indeed. And like most good poets, he knows enough not to send a poem on a prose errand, to borrow an apt phrase from John Ciardi. So one will look in vain for a clearly stated philosophical thesis packaged poetically.
There is nonetheless philosophical content here. I read Larkin as expressing the futility of life. We are in the habit of living, despite the losses that pile up day by day. Like nervous chess players eyeing the clock, we are in time-trouble as our positions deteriorate move by move. We know what is coming and its inevitability. Life's a series of checks culminating in mate.
What one is sure of, what we command, is as clear as a lading-list and as boring and inconsequential: an inventory of events, mostly failures. Beyond these mundane particulars we are sure of nothing, and our intellectual honesty does not permit us to entertain dreams of transcendence. Anything else, anything more, must not be thought to exist.
So what's the use? The use of a life is to identify or half-identify the unique upshot of our varied behavings, an upshot and deposit unforeseen. The mark we make is blindly made and no providential power foresees or provides.
But this paltry result hardly satisfies. I've spent a life making a mark, leaving a trace, making a dent unlike anyone else's, and now appreciating it. But I will soon pass from the scene and be forgotten. So any uniqueness achieved is as good as nonexistent. It pertains only to me and I am soon not to be.
A poem of despair by a 20th century atheist.
But does Larkin have good reasons for his atheism? That is a question that, for a poet qua poet, 'does not compute.'
This philosopher asks: what's the ultimate good of suggesting momentous theses with nary an attempt at justification? Of smuggling them into our minds under cover of delectable wordcraft? Poetry is a delightful adjunct to a civilized life, but philosophy rules. It would be very foolish, however, to try to convince any poet of this unless he were also a philosopher.
In 1963. Or at least so we hear from Philip Larkin in his Annus Mirabilis. It was indeed a wonderful/remarkable year. I was but a boy in grade school, but old enough to remember all those wonderful songs and not so wonderful events such as the Profumo scandal in Britain. What ever happened to sex kitten Christine Keeler, by the way? Brace yourself.
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,A quite unlosable game.
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
4. Note the poetically pleasing addition by the author of his name to his title.
5. The well-made hard-bound, acquired via Amazon, is a Mount Mary College (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) library discard. There is no evidence that it is a second copy. How naive of me to think that libraries ought to be permanent repositories of high culture. But the folly of reliably liberal librarians redounds to the benefit of the bookman.
A post that moves me to find Larkin's Letters to Monica. Kurp quotes Larkin:
I seem to walk on a transparent surface and see beneath me all the bones and wrecks and tentacles that will eventually claim me: in other words, old age, incapacity, loneliness, death of others & myself . . . .
I saw the vast majority of three generations destroyed by madness, cursing unethical betrayed
Spitting at frozen screens teasing 404 error waiting for the dusk of peak hours
Onesie-clad hipsters sipping hot chocolate little marshmallows bobbing blinking hashtags in a sea of brown
Who opened cancellation notices all hollow-eyed and bitter sat up spewing the PolitiFact-tested rhetoric of 2010 word wars that promised nothing unfair to anyone rural or citified, and all that jazz . . . .
It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
Half-right, say I. I am the captain of the ship of soul, my soul; I control rudder and sails and chart my course. But I am not the master of the sea or the wind or the monsters of the deep or the visibility of the stars by which I steer, or the stars themselves.
Nor am I the master of that which I control, my soul. That I am a soul is beyond my control.
And so my captaincy, sovereign in its own domain, and undeniable there, is bound round and denied by conditions and contingencies beyond my control.
I am not the master of my fate; at most I am the master of my attitude to it.
And then there are the conservatives (liberals) for whom a refusal to demonize liberals (conservatives) makes you one.
Here is the first stanza of "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939):
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
If you paid attention in Logic 101 you may remember that the immediate inference called 'conversion' is valid for the I and E forms of the traditional square of opposition but not for the A and O forms. Poetic illustration courtesy of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) where 'Every poet is a fool' is an A-proposition:
Sir, I admit your gen'ral rule That every poet is a fool: But you yourself may serve to show it, That every fool is not a poet.
(Epigrams and Epitaphs, Faber & Faber, 1977, p. 82)
This world is a vanishing quantity. I am glad soon to be quit of it. It has nothing to offer in the end but bagatelles that can fool only the foolish and must leave the wise unsatisfied. Vanitas vanitatum; omnia vanitas.
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Clever verse from a drunken fool to be admired by adolescents. It amounts to:
Do not go gentle from this dark Cave, Old age should cherish its lack of sight: But rage, rage against the gaining of the Light.
Here are the first few lines of Charles Bukowski's one-page late poem "Zero" (You Get So Alone At Times it Just Makes Sense, Ecco 2002, p. 104, originally publ. 1986 by Black Sparrow Press):
sitting here watching the second hand on the TIMEX go around and around . . . this will hardly be a night to remember sitting here searching for blackheads on the back of my neck as other men enter the sheets with dolls of flame I look into myself and find perfect emptiness.
Here is an adolescent effort of mine when I was literally an adolescent:
tiredly picking my nose listening to the grinding sounds of clocks, air conditioners and refrigerators i can hear it all this night snarfing a fart now and then, tiredly checking beef pies cooking in the oven picking at a jammed-up typewriter in confusion dancing around on featherweight fright flights and tiredly picking picking my nose & my acne and eating it is this any way to run an airline?
I'll grant that Bukowski's poem, published when he was around 66, especially if you read the whole of it, is better than mine, which is not saying much. But there are plenty of common elements: self-indulgence, self-absorption, diasaffection, alienation and disconnectedness. My excuse is that my adolescent rubbish was written when I was 16. At 66 that particular excuse lapses.
From The Oxford Book of Short Poems, eds. Kavanagh and Michie, OUP 1985, p. 100:
Man's a poor deluded bubble, Wandering in a mist of lies, Seeing false, or seeing double, Who would trust to such weak eyes? Yet, presuming on his senses, On he goes, most wondrous wise: Doubts of truth, believes pretences, Lost in error lives and dies.
One indicator of her angelicity is her support of my chess activities -- in stark contrast to the wives of two acquaintances both of whose 'better' halves destroyed their chess libraries in fits of rage at time spent sporting with Caissa. "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," wrote old Will.
I'm no bard, but here's my ditty in remembrance of my two long lost Ohio chess friends:
Forget that bitch And dally with me. Else I'll decimate Your library.
After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption. What a paltry redemption! It would be better to say that there is no redemption than to say something as silly as this. Learn to live with the death of God, my friend! Don't insert a sorry substitute into the gap. Don't try to make a religion of what is only a dabbling in subjective impressions. Compare John Gardner, "Fiction is the only religion I have . . . ." (On Writers and Writing, p. xii.)
I doubt you are saying that poetry, perhaps even all art, ‘is only a dabbling in subjective impressions’ because to say that Greek tragedy, for example, is only a dabbling in subjective impressions would surely be saying something even sillier than what Wallace Stevens says. Moreover, you mention that you have ‘nothing against art properly chastened and subordinated to the ultimate dominatrix, Philosophia’. So what did you mean?
Lastly, are there any books of literary criticism/aesthetics you think are especially worthwhile? It seems that apart from Plato and Aristotle, the best treatment of it outside of poets’ letters and journals is Jacques Maritain’s ‘Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry’.
Best wishes, and keep up the great work.
Thanks for the response. It would indeed be absurdly silly to maintain that all of poetry is "only a dabbling in subjective impressions." But note that the context is critical commentary on certain aesthetic aphorisms of the distinguished American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Wallace is the focus of my interest in that post and no one else. And my focus is not on his poetry but on certain aesthetic (and thus philosophical) observations of his about poetry and art in general.
What I am objecting to in the passage you quote above, and quite strenuously, is the notion that poetry, especially Stevens' sort of poetry, could be an adequate substitute for God, or that belief in poetry could adequately substitute for belief in God. To my mind that is silly, absurdly silly. And Wallace's talk of redemption in this context makes a joke of the quest for genuine redemption. No one who understands what the religious yearning for redemption and salvation is all about could trivialize it in such a way as to suggest that the writing or reading of poetry could satisfy it. That's ridiculous. Imagine a naked Jew standing before a grave he was forced to dig himself, about to be shot down by a Nazi SS officer. Imagine telling him that redemption from meaningless suffering is to be had from the poems of Wallace Stevens.
What I'm saying is: be honest and don't misuse words. You cannot plug the gap caused by the death of God (Nietzsche) by putting some paltry idol in its place. Poetry in Stevens' style would be such a paltry ersatz. Better nihilism than idolatry. The death of God is an 'event' of rather more significance than the discovery that Russell's celestial teapothas been destroyed by an asteroid. The death of God, as Nietzsche well understood, has grave and far-reaching consequences. Knock out the celestial teapot and nothing of moment changes. The death of God is the death of truth and meaning. Everything changes.
As for your question about lit crit recommendations, I'd have to think about it.
David Rieff, son of Susan Sontag, writes movingly of her mother's love of life and her refusal to accept extinction in Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir (Simon and Shuster, 2008). Her attitude and his is close to the one expressed by Philip Larkin in the following poem which displays Larkin's power as a poet in tandem with his weakness as a philosopher. Rieff, p. 13, quotes approvingly from the stanza which I have bolded.
In my humble opinion, the "specious stuff" in Larkin's phrase below is not the wisdom of Epicurus to which allusion is made, but the boozy self-indulgence Larkin serves up. What annoys me, I suppose, is the poetic passing-off of substantive claims with nary an attempt at justification. Am I again criticizing poetry for not being philosophy as I did once before with reference to Wallace Stevens? Perhaps. Or perhaps I am objecting to the nihilism of much of the 'art' of the 20th century.
Larkin's poetry illustrates how life must appear to those for whom God is dead. Read some more of it here. It is skillfully symptomatic of the age.
Getting back to Rieff and Sontag, I find curious their unquestioning conviction that physical death just has to be utter extinction. How can they be so cocksure about that? Socrates, Plato, Moses Mendelsohn and a hundred other luminaries were just deluded fools? And then there is this thought: if physical death extinguishes us utterly, then the game is not worth the candle, and Sontag's stubborn refusal to accept her mortality even after 71 years worth of this ephemeral life is just ridiculous, and the opposite of anything that could be called wisdom.
As another year slips away, a year that saw the passing of John Updike, here is a fine poem of his to celebrate or mourn the waning days of ought-nine:
And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market —— the quips, the witticisms, the slant adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears, their tears confused with their diamond earrings, their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat, their response and your performance twinned. The jokes over the phone. The memories packed in the rapid-access file. The whole act. Who will do it again? That's it: no one; imitators and descendants aren't the same.
Viewed from a third-person point of view, death seems entirely natural, not evil or tragic. Deciduous trees give up their leaves in the fall, but new ones arrive in the spring. Where's the evil in that? We too are parts of nature; we hang for a time from des Lebens goldener Baum, and then we drop off. So far there has never been a lack of new specimens to take our places in a universe that can get on quite well without any of us. But "imitators and descendants aren't the same." No indeed, for what dies when we die is not merely an animal, not merely a bit of biology, not merely a specimen of a species, a replaceable token of a type, but a subject of experience, a self, an irreplaceable conscious individual, a being capable of saying and meaning 'I.' "Who will do it again?" No one! I am unique and it took me a lifetime to get to this level of haecceity and ipseity. This interiority wasn't there at first; I had to make it. I became who I am by my loving and striving and willing and knowing: I actualized myself as a self. It was a long apprenticeship that led to this mastery. If I did a good job of it I perfected, completed, mastered, myself: I achieved my own incommunicable perfection, which cannot be understood objectively, but only subjectively by a being who loves. In the first instance that is me: I love myself and as loving myself I know myself. In the second instance, it is you if you love me; loving me you know me as an individual, not as a specimen of a species, a token of a type, an instance of a universal, an object among objects. There were all those outside influences, of course, but they would have been nothing to me had I not appropriated them, making them my own. As a somewhat greater poet once wrote, Was du ererbt von Deinen Vätern hast, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.
And so therein lies death's sting: not in the passing of a bit of biology, but in the wasting of that unique and incommunicable perfection, the instant evaporation of that ocean of interiority. But is the perfection wasted? Does the magic just cease? The animal ceases no doubt, but the magic of interiority? These questions remain open.
Poet John Ciardi (pronounced Chyar-dee, emphasis on first syllable, not See-ar-dee) was born in 1916 and died in 1986. A brilliant line of his sticks with me, though I cannot recall where he said it, and Mr. Google didn't help: "Never send a poem on a prose errand." Tattoo that onto your forearms, you would-be poets. (I myself am no poet, I know it, so I can't possibly blow it. I hereby allude to a certain troubadour who, though I would not call him a poet, others would.)
Here is the epitaph Ciardi composed for himself:
Here, time concurring (and it does); Lies Ciardi. If no kingdom come, A kingdom was. Such as it was This one beside it is a slum.
Herewith, comments on some aphorisms of Wallace Stevens from Adagia, aphorisms that sum up much of the aesthetic attitude I am concerned to oppose. (To be precise: I am out to oppose it in its imperialistic ambitions; I have nothing against art properly chastened and subordinated to the ultimate dominatrix, Philosophia.) I have bolded Wallace's lines.
Thought is an infection. In the case of certain thoughts, it becomes an epidemic.
If thought is an infection, then poetry is mental meltdown.
After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption.
What a paltry redemption! It would be better to say that there is no redemption than to say something as silly as this. Learn to live with the death of God, my friend! Don't insert a sorry substitute into the gap. Don't try to make a religion of what is only a dabbling in subjective impressions. Compare John Gardner, "Fiction is the only religion I have . . . ." (On Writers and Writing, p. xii.)