To a friend, Philip Larkin wrote about his latest volume of poems, High Windows, “The new printing of HW came out, with 3 mistakes corrected but a new one introduced: there is talk of another—printing, not mistake.” (The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, ed. by Archie Burnett, 2012)
High Windows contains many of Larkin’s most loved poems: “To the Sea,” “The Trees,” “Forget What Did,” “High Windows,” “This Be The Verse,” “Annus Mirabilis,” “Going, Going.” They are his most loved even though they are—or because they are—his bleakest. “This Be The Verse” opens with an attempt to shock: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do … .”
That sarcastic tendency led him to reject and ridicule “The Trees” almost every chance he had. He called it “very modest.” He referred to it as his “sixteen-year-old’s poem about spring, etc.” The sentiments were those of a teenager and not a mature man, from his perspective.
“First verse all right, the rest crap, especially the last line.” That last line is almost optimistic, at least in its acknowledgement that there is something we refer to as “the future,” that there is a beginning. Hence Larkin’s out-of-hand rejection of it.
But he wanted it to reflect the reality of optimism. He saw it as something out of Wordsworth and he wrote to Monica Jones (his companion) that his ambition was for the concluding stanza to “lift the thing up to a finish.”
That is the war inside Larkin: a reflexive rejection of all things humane inside us ugly humans as sentimental concerns over things that are cloying or “crap,” yet a respect as a writer for the simple existence of those sentimental things; our acknowledgement of something we call the future—and our notion that one’s hopes about the future, while often dashed, are not dashed when we have them at first—is something he catches a hold of in “The Trees,” even while he hates it. He could not reject it quickly enough, which is why he ridiculed the poem in letters written while he was composing it.
That last line that he hated? “Begin afresh, afresh, fresh.”
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.—Philip Larkin, “The Trees”
The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 2 asks us to reflect on the word, “Profound.”
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