Monthly Archives: December 2009

#1 “Church Going” (Philip Larkin)

And the best short poem in the English language since 1798 is . . .

Philip Larkin’s “Church Going.”

This poem was the final exam text for ENGL 2303 this semester, and as such the class has already dealt with it, so I don’t need to use this post to explicate the poem. In any case, except for an unusually high percentage of specialized or “dictionary” words that make good sense once you look them up, “Church Going” isn’t mysterious or obscure. If anything, it’s more rhetorical than the typical poem on the Countdown. It tells a brief story that sets up an internal debate in the speaker’s mind about faith and the material trappings of faith.

“Church Going” is also not particularly lyrical. I think Larkin shows extraordinary control in its phrasing, with great precision of language and his usual intellectual concision. But it’s not a poem in the Keatsian mode, not like Trumbull Stickney’s “Mnemosyne” or other poems on our list that revel in the music of language.

“Church Going” is, however, noble and of a high seriousness. It is an intellectual successor to “Dover Beach.” It forms a context for Larkin’s own concerns in other poems, like “Aubade” (written later) where he dismisses religion as a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade,” or his famous “High Windows” (not on our Countdown), with its brash cynicism:

I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest.

In some respects, “Church Going” is a Victorian poem written in the mid-20th century, a poem about a kind of religious faith that has ceased to exist. The speaker is hardly nostalgic for that faith per se. But he is certain that the desire for faith, if not any particular faith, will persist. Instead of Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” Larkin’s speaker has a certain faith in, well, people like Matthew Arnold:

someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground

As always in Larkin’s work, this Victorian sentiment is hedged about with self-deprecating cynicism. But not self-flagellating cynicism. The speaker is a bit of an idiot:

Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly.

He leaves “an Irish sixpence” (worth a little less than a dime) and shows the church in question not much respect at all. And as in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he is largely ignorant about what he observes, and not much inclined to do any research to enlighten himself. But despite being a half-hearted idiot, the speaker is not a buffoon. He wants to take things seriously, but his culture has left him almost no room in which to be serious. The only place that doesn’t make fun of him for having a serious side is a deserted, neglected building. The building and its faith are “obsolete.” But the man standing in their midst isn’t. He expresses perhaps the profoundest dilemma, and in its midst the most persistent hope, that the 20th century could express.

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#2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (John Keats)

First of all, the urn in John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is not any particular urn. It’s something that looks like this: usually red on black or black on red, with various pictures of people or gods doing this and that. It’s not a real urn; it’s a composite urn that Keats produced out of his own imagination. And you don’t have to know much about Greek art in order to appreciate it. In fact, much of the poem consists of the speaker looking at the urn and not being able to understand what it means.

There are only a few unfamiliar place-names in the poem, including Tempe and Arcady. They are places in Greece. (OK, I suppose Tempe is also a place in Arizona, but I can’t imagine that’s what Keats had in mind.)

The rest of the poem contains some dictionary words, but it’s not particularly obscure in any respect. So my task here is less to explicate it than to argue for its placement at #2 of all time.

Very few critics would disagree, except perhaps to place the Ode at #1. Though not quite as perfect as “To Autumn,” the “Grecian Urn” ode has everything going for it: exquisite verbal music, profound ideas, great humanism, and inevitable phrasing.

We’ve remarked on Keats’s sheer lyricism before, and the “Urn” ode is where he shows it off to its fullest. Lyric beauty is a subjective thing, but I’d argue that Keats’s odes might fulfill the function that, at the start of this countdown, Rilke’s sonnets filled for us, if you didn’t know the English language: to serve as an example of pure linguistic music. And that’s in part Keats’s point, one of his profound ideas:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone

This is part “Too Marvelous for Words,” part art appreciation, and part negative capability: sound, form, and yes, even silence, can express beauty better, and more directly to the soul, than pyrotechnics.

Some critics have pointed out that the biggest idea in the poem (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”) would be a pretty banal truism on its own. Yet here, as we’ve seen before, the poet “earns” the big ending by setting up a net of tensions first. The speaker’s love for art, for life, for love itself; his despair at mortality; his almost frantic belief that beauty can transcend suffering and make life worthwhile – all these things have to be set in place before the payoff.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain

We’ve heard this idea in other poems (“An Arundel Tomb,” “Sailing to Byzantium”): art will survive us all. But it has never been so resoundingly expressed. By reflecting on art itself, Keats made an even more imperishable work of art.

#3 “Among School Children” (William Butler Yeats)

“Among School Children” by William Butler Yeats is among the most famous English-language poems of the 20th century; critical consensus would certainly rank it in a top ten, and #3 seems about right to me. It is about many things in its 64 lines: age, youth, desire, ambition, art, education. It is also ambiguous (deliberately so). If the speaker doesn’t seem to know quite what he thinks of the many issues and ideas and emotions he brings up, it’s perhaps because it’s very hard for any of us to reach firm conclusions about them.

And frankly, it’s gorgeous. The lines melt with lyricism even as they offer a compressed look at complicated ideas.

World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard

You could say something like that in prose: “Pythagoras, who was semi-legendary, used music to convey the mathematical rhythms of the Universe which are the unconscious underpinnings of Art” … but said that way, it’s a textbook, or maybe a blog post. Said the way Yeats says it, it enters into the unforgettable.

I’ll blog this one glossary-style, as I have done for a few others in the Countdown.

  • schoolroom questioning: Yeats served as a member of the Senate of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1928, when he was in his late 50s and early 60s. Part of the job involved inspection visits to schools, more ceremonial than investigative.
  • a kind old nun: What is a Senator doing inspecting a Catholic school? Ireland, like many European countries, has a tradition of religious freedom without a guarantee of separation of church and state. Religious schools are therefore also state schools, as in many countries. Public subsidies for Catholic schools in America would freak out Protestants, atheists, and Catholics, but there is little objection in Ireland, not least because the Free State and its successor, the current Republic, have a largely Catholic population.
  • a Ledaean body: the story of Leda and the swan was one of Yeats’s favorite items from Greek mythology. The god Zeus, in the form of a swan, raped the mortal woman Leda, and from their union came four notable characters: Castor, Pollux, Clytemnestra, and Helen. Yeats was fascinated by the story, and wrote the poem “Leda and the Swan” about it. My link above is to the famous image created by Leonardo da Vinci (it’s a copy of a lost Leonardo). In Leonardo’s conception, the swan seems to be Leda’s boyfriend; Yeats had a more brutal sense of the story.
  • Plato’s parable: in the Symposium, Plato tells the story of how people long ago were going around perfectly happy till Zeus (again!) split them in half. Now our divided halves go through life looking for each other, explaining sexual love and sexual unhappiness if you don’t find the correct “other half.” It is altering Plato’s parable quite a lot to see this as man and woman being the yolk and white of an egg, but hey.
  • Quattrocento: the 15th century, especially in Italian art, which includes many of the great old masters, including Leonardo himself. Quattrocento artists weren’t particularly given to drawing haggard middle-aged women, so “Quattrocento” here probably just means highly-skilled at draftsmanship.
  • played the taws: Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the Great. “Taws” are something you don’t want played on your bottom, I would think.
  • golden-thighed Pythagoras: You remember Pythagoras from high-school geometry. He was said to have a golden thigh. Literally, I mean, one of his thighs was made of gold. Kind of like a hip replacement, only a thigh replacement, and in gold. And you thought that President Obama’s health plan was going to be expensive!