‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin was honored today with a memorial stone in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. He died thirty-one years ago today. Larkin’s memorial sits between those of Anthony Trollope and Ted Hughes. Chaucer’s tomb sits nearby. Edward Lear’s memorial stone is immediately above Larkin’s.

I wrote the following essay in June:

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“I don’t know that I ever expected much of life,” Philip Larkin wrote to his lifelong friend Kingsley Amis in October 1979, “but it terrifies me to think it’s nearly over.” He had another six years of life left, but the emptiness of the end—”the total emptiness for ever,/The sure extinction that we travel to”—was much on his mind.

The poem from which those lines originate, “Aubade,” was published in 1977 in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Larkin had started it in 1974, worked at it that year, and then left it until 1977, when he finished it. “Death is the most important thing about life,” he wrote his companion, Monica Jones, when they were both still young.
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Veterans Day 2016

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Killed in action April 18, 1945.

I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then, or since. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)
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‘The Flower’

George Herbert (1593–1633) was a priest who composed devotional poems as a hobby. As he approached his early death (age 39), he collected his poems and submitted them for publication.

That collection, The Temple, went through eight editions in the next few decades, which speaks to its popularity in 17th century England. In a tumultuous era, his voice—calm, assured, embracing doubt as a necessary part of devotion—was a beloved one.

“Who would have thought my shriveled heart / Could have recovered greenness?” he asks in “The Flower.” He adds, “It was gone / Quite underground.” The poem, after the jump:
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Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’

Shortly before his death, the poet W.H. Auden told talk-show host (and former politician) Richard Crossman, “Nothing I wrote prevented one Jew from being gassed or stalled the war for five seconds.”

At first glance, this places the bar very high for the role of a writer in the affairs of the world, but it is simply a stark assessment of the reality that a writer has no say in the practical matters of life and death. He is not saying that words do not matter but is instead drawing the boundary between where they do matter and where they can not. Writers are makers and not doers, not “men of action,” Auden also liked to say.
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‘Nobody is sleeping in the sky’

It is believed that August 19 is the date on which the poet Federico García Lorca (above) was assassinated by Nationalist forces in Spain. The killing was 80 years ago today. The poet was 38.

Lorca was murdered during the Spanish Civil War by soldiers on the Nationalist side, the Francoists. In “Fable and Round of the Three Friends,” he foresaw, in his surrealist fashion, his own end:
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Moonlight Madness: A Non-Quote

In his published works, Allen Ginsberg wrote not one single thing about moonlight and madness, yet there is a popular Internet meme—an Internet poster—usually seen with a handsome photo of our moon and the rousing declaration credited to him that you should “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” (See above.)

It is a Bizarro World version of a speech given by a football coach at halftime. “Follow your inner moonlight, boys, and let’s win one for State! Don’t hide the madness!” (The team huddles together and starts to chant, quietly and slowly at first, but then they build it to a hypnotic intensity: “Don’t. Hide. The. Madness. Don’t. Hide. The. Madness.”)
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Today in History: Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin, born on this date in 1922, was a librarian at the University of Hull in the north of England. He was also a major poet; thirty years after his death, he is consistently ranked among the top ten post-war English writers. Born in Coventry, he studied at Oxford University and became best friends with Kingsley Amis; he contributed to and helped edit Amis’ first novel, Lucky Jim, which launched Amis on his own legendary career in literature.

He accepted the position at Hull, far away from the London literary scene, in 1955 and he never left. He rarely saw London or Oxford, even more rarely spent time abroad, never set foot in Canada or America. In 1964, a television program profiled Larkin, who by then had published two novels and three volumes of poetry and was being ranked among the best writers of his generation. Asked about his affiliation with Hull, he replied, “I never thought about Hull until I was here. Having got here, it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, I think even its natives would say that. I rather like being on the edge of things. One doesn’t really go anywhere by design, you know, you put in for jobs and move about, you know, I’ve lived in other places.”
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‘In Praise of Limestone’

[…] In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide.
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
—W. H. Auden, “In Praise of Limestone”

In his 66 years, W.H. Auden lived in many locations in Europe and America: he was born and raised in York, educated at Oxford, and lived long-term in Berlin, New York City, Michigan, Italy, Austria. In 1948, he started spending his summers on the island of Ischia, in the Tyrrhenian Sea. (Seen above.) That island’s landscape, covered as it is with rocky volcanic outcroppings, so different from any he had known, came to represent difference itself in his mind.
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