“The god of grump” someone called him on a FaceBook thread recently. Old Larkin, old love.
But how a grumpy god can haunt the reader! The last line of ‘Dockery and Son’ revisits me regularly: “And age, and then the only end of age.” Not to mention the bit in that nightmare of a poem ‘The Old Fools’:
At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend
There’ll be anything else.
Since he’s been dead, I’ve always wanted to ask him: ‘So, Philip, was it like that? Were you right?’
But the essence of grump lies in experiencing the worst before it happens and describing it so irrevocably that it feels like fact. Extending your grim apprehension long past your own demise, in fact. It is Claudio, in Measure for Measure (“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; / To lie in cold obstruction and to rot”). It is the impossible idea that consciousness is aware of its own absence. It is the opposite of death as a metaphorical sleep. Rest in peace Philip Larkin. Your poems are here to ensure that I do not.
But in any case, it was not death but age I meant to write about. It is a great theme. Youth is tremendous, but without age it would be nothing special.
So down with Mr Larkin when it comes to age! Bring back E J Scovell, who is a great comfort and under-read. It was Peter Scupham in PN Review who first made me aware of her, and I have not stopped being grateful. ‘Child Waking’ is the poem most widely known, but Joy Scovell is also brilliant on age.
It is tulip time in my garden. I have a flower bed outside the fence, just beside the path. Little children run down there and (because this is what kids do) knock the heads off the flowers, even the tulips. And I (because this is what old people do) pick up the fallen blooms and bring them into the house. They live out their days in a cup on the table, and there is another kind of pleasure watching their intimate lives, as the petals open wide and wider, with that incredible play of light on their shiny surfaces.
This takes me to E J Scovell’s poem ‘Deaths of Flowers’, which you can find in the Carcanet Selected volume, or in the Collected, come to that, if your purse is well endowed. But you can also find it here:
I would if I could choose
Age and die outwards as a tulip does;
Not as this iris drawing in, in-coiling
Its complex strange taut inflorescence, willing
Itself a bud again – though all achieved is
No more than a clenched sadness,
The tears of gum not flowing.
I would choose the tulip’s reckless way of going;
Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions
From closed to wide, from one through many perfections,
Till wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall,
Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall.
E J Scovell lived to the age of 92 (she died in 1999) and continued to write into her last years. This is one of her late poems. All the better for that. Two bits in particular stay with me: “Age and die outwards as a tulip does” and “I would choose the tulip’s reckless way of going”.
“The tears of gum not flowing” is her weakest line, I think. But after that, what a wonderful eye for detail she has. The petals of a tulip do “answer light”, just as they alter “by fractions” in the cup on the dining table. Day by day, it is a process of “many perfections”, each stage almost more beautiful than the last. I love the way the second stanza works up to a glorious highpoint. Instead of avoiding adjectives (as we poets are supposed to do these days) she lists them unashamedly: “wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall”.
The poem is incorrigible. And terrific, is it not? Now that’s the way to go.
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Calling Larkin the God of grump rather oversteps a line. Afflicted with a massive dose of tragic consciousness gets nearer to accurate description. And how many artists and how many of we mere mortals haven't taken the odd wary step in that direction!? I love the poet in Larkin.Not so keen on the icy purist of a man, though I have hugely enjoyed his letter-exchanges. Those to and from his friend, Kingsley Amis are a riot of honest rudery and a hymn of praise to the joy of being alive (even under its inescapably rigorous limitations). I have so many favourite Larkin quotes but, for me, his 'the million-flowered petal of being here' takes on all comers, past, present, and probably future. This gem, mark you, in a poem about the sheer sordidness of ageing and death. The poems are full of such paradoxes, and cannot be pigeon-holed as misanthropic, or cynical. Rilke tells us that a poet's job is to praise. Larkin, again paradoxically, meets this job-description in spades!
I agree with you about not pigeon-holing Larkin, Brian. I love his poems, or many of them, and they are part of my consciousness, like it or lump it. But I also love the God of Grump. The title is celebratory and funny. You shouldn't take it too seriously. Poetry has to keep its sense of humour somehow.
"Since he’s been dead, I’ve always wanted to ask him: ‘So, Philip, was it like that? Were you right?’"
Clearly you mean you think he was wrong. If he was right those spinning particles of him will not reassemble just to have a quick chat with you.
The idea that everyone who ever lived is dead but somehow available for conversation with those who aren't is rather horrible, really. It is a very shabby eschatology that rather demeans both the dead and the living.
Quite right, Bill. I was being facetious, as usual. But you probably knew what I meant. And I don't expect him to reply, of course, not because I think he was wrong, but because I don't think it's like that. There is a bit of us, I think, that carries on a sort of conversation with dead poets, even though they can't reply. It's because the poems themselves seem to be alive perhaps, and somehow answering back.