I’ll slip this one in because I haven’t done a poem for a while. Someone is bound to say it’s just dreary, miserable, self-pitying old Larkin again; but … well, it’s a classic, and anyway, it’s my blog and I’ll post what I like. And the last four lines (which, bizarrely, I first heard read by Roy Hattersley on the telly) express a sort of extreme of negativeness and depression which needs to be said, defined, staked out, even if not actually espoused. And express a real fear – a fear which it seems claimed him in the end.
I’ve often thought my friend Colin Lester, who died much too young, might have liked this, or at least, appreciated it. And he had something in common with Larkin (Hull). But I don’t think I ever talked to him about it.
It’s also another one of Larkin’s great railway poems, of course …
‘Dockery was junior to you,
Wasn’t he?’ said the Dean. ‘His son’s here now.’
Death-suited, visitant, I nod. ‘And do
You keep in touch with ——’ Or remember how
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight
We used to stand before that desk, to give
‘Our version’ of ‘these incidents last night’?
I try the door of where I used to live:
Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.
A known bell chimes. I catch my train, ignored.
Canal and clouds and colleges subside
Slowly from view. But Dockery, good Lord,
Anyone up today must have been born
In ’43, when I was twenty-one.
If he was younger, did he get this son
At nineteen, twenty? Was he that withdrawn
High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms
With Cartwright who was killed? Well, it just shows
How much … How little … Yawning, I suppose
I fell asleep, waking at the fumes
And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed,
And ate an awful pie, and walked along
The platform to its end to see the ranged
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong
Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,
No house or land still seemed quite natural.
Only a numbness registered the shock
Of finding out how much had gone of life,
How widely from the others. Dockery, now:
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of … No, that’s not the difference: rather, how
Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution. Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got
And how we got it; looked back on, they rear
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying
For Dockery a son, for me nothing,
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
Philip Larkin (1963)