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#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.

#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!

#4 “Birches” (Robert Frost)

The paper birch is one of the most glorious trees of northern North America. It’s not a universal image, perhaps (any more than the blackberry canes that cover waste ground in England), but it’s one of the most striking features of the New England landscape, and familiar to more people than perhaps have ever seen live birch trees through the medium of Robert Frost’s great poem “Birches.”

Birches, as the poem suggests, are easily bent. It’s their way of surviving northern winters, with their frosts and icings. The phenomenon of birches bent to the ground, never quite recovering their upright posture, can be seen in any number of photos on the Internet.

But that is a matter of fact, and “Birches” is a matter of fancy. The speaker imagines a boy taking the place of a natural force. That boy takes up a lonely game of standing in for ice, swinging the birches down with his own weight, so that they will resume their upright posture afterwards, no worse for the experience. The very uncanny nature of the game makes the poem great and terrible. Frost, as we have seen this semester, is the great poet of working outdoors. But this poem is all about play, done purely for its own sake. And while people have doubtless swung birches just as Frost describes in the poem, and still do and will do as long as children have leisure and short attention spans, the game is so pointless that it captures the wonder of art and of existence.

Swinging birches is a benign game with enough of a hint of danger to be momentous. As Frost describes it, it’s also a careful art with enough of a hint of freedom to be exciting – much, certainly, like poetry itself.

#5 “Blackberrying” (Sylvia Plath)

Sylvia Plath had one of the most storied lives (and deaths) of any poet. The truly tragic circumstances of her passing, and the white-hot rhetoric of the poems that she wrote in the final year of her life, can sometimes obscure her exceptional poetic gift. “Blackberrying” is for me her masterpiece. It’s a poem of plain description that holds at its center something huge and unspoken.

There is no mystery to be “solved” in “Blackberrying”; the poem’s descriptions and events do not “stand” for anything but themselves. But that makes the poem even stronger, and more suggestive. It’s a piece that suggests the wonder of life itself, an amazement that such a conjunction of sights and sounds (of feasts for all five senses, in fact) could come to exist. “I knew that nothing stranger / had ever happened, that nothing / stranger could ever happen,” Elizabeth Bishop says in a different (but just as ordinary) context. Why should humans seek out fruit, why should they compete with flies for it, why should blackberries grow (as they do in England) on scraps of waste ground? Why are humans drawn by an ocean, even when they cannot sense it, and why do such marvelous juxtapositions of land and water exist in our world?

I love this poem for the way it is continually drawn beyond its subject, toward wonder. Plath is often celebrated for her extreme hatreds, for her acid satires of conventional life. But she was also capable of turning her titanic energies toward an expression of just how fabulous it is to be alive in the world.

“Blackberrying” is also a masterful use of free verse, with its long, non-rhyming, irregular lines that wander in and out of the standard ten-syllable line that is the most common pattern in English verse. It is too rhythmic and too meandering to be good prose, but it’s great free verse, unsettling readers and keeping us off balance, just as the day of blackberrying upsets and unsettles the speaker.

#6 “Lapis Lazuli” (William Butler Yeats)

In 1935, a poet named Harry Clifton gave his friend William Butler Yeats a stone carving of a Chinese scene. (The Yeats family still owns the carving; it can be seen in the National Library of Ireland.) It’s a rather conventional carving along “Oriental” themes. But as Yeats’s compatriot Oscar Wilde said, an artist

does not even require for the perfection of his art the finest materials. Anything will serve his purpose. . . . from subjects of little or of no importance . . . [he] can, if it be his pleasure so to direct or waste his faculty of contemplation, produce work that will be flawless in beauty and instinct with intellectual subtlety.

Yeats wrote one of the greatest poems in the English language about this rather ordinary collectible. “Lapis Lazuli” was published in March 1938. Two years before, Hitler’s army had entered the Rhineland (a buffer zone between France and Germany created after the First World War). Three months before “Lapis Lazuli” was published, Japanese troops massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese people in Nanjing; six months later, the French and British would cede much of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the Munich Agreement.

War was inevitable, despite British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement at Munich that he had secured “peace in our time.” But Yeats had seen wars of many kinds, up close and from a distance. He took the very long view, both by philosophical temperament and because he was in his seventies and had a very long memory.

After a first stanza where “hysterical women” complain that art is frivolous in such a momentous age, Yeats doesn’t talk about the prospect of a 20th-century war at all. Instead he talks about three things:

  1. the inevitability of death, which is an ultimate, unsurpassable tragedy that shouldn’t depress anyone who is truly alive
  2. the gigantic cycles in which civilizations are destroyed and rebuilt, cycles that have not only characterized human history but in a sense have been that history
  3. the stone carving in lapis lazuli that Harry Clifton gave him, where the “Chinamen,” who take the same long view Yeats does, are literally above it all

“All breathing human passion far above,” John Keats would agree about art, in a poem we might still see before the Countdown is over. It takes an extremely patient view to adopt Yeats’s theory of art, but it is an immensely reassuring view once one takes it.

In September 2001, W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” came to seem eerily topical. But it was not the poem I thought of, and not the one I read in class on September 13th to the people I had shared September 11th with. That poem was “Lapis Lazuli,” where the “affirming flame” of Auden’s poem was first expressed, in terms far more colossal and grand:

All things fall and are built again,
And those who build them again are gay.

#7 “The Whitsun Weddings” (Philip Larkin)

In “The Whitsun Weddings,” Philip Larkin intertwines form and content wonderfully. On the level of form, the poem “enacts” a train journey from the North of England down to London. The speaker (let’s say Larkin himself, because his speakers often parallel him closely) is probably coming from Hull, in the southern part of Yorkshire, and crosses Lincolnshire on his way south. He travels a “slow and stopping curve” of about 200 miles to the English capital.

It’s Whitsunday, the feast that Catholics, and most American Protestants, call “Pentecost.” Whitsunday is a “moveable feast,” keyed to Easter, and it falls in May or June, hence the early-summer heat that the speaker describes on the mid-20th-century, unairconditioned train.

In a unique stanza form (ABABCDECDE, where the second line is four syllables and all the rest are ten), the speaker mirrors the starting and stopping of the train, and its gathering momentum as it speeds up and eventually slows as it reaches its terminus in London. The rhythm of the poem’s lines never varies, but the rhythm of the sentences speeds and slows as they stretch across the uniform stanzas.

The basic idea of the poem’s content is provided by the peculiar, fragmentary glimpse that the speaker gets of all kinds of lives seen momentarily out the window as he passes them. But this is no ordinary train journey that unites mere random impressions. The speaker realizes, in the third stanza, that the train is collecting newlyweds. It makes sense: it’s a Saturday in early summer; a “June wedding” is traditional; so is a honeymoon journey to London. (Probably nowadays Miami or even Maui have become more popular with English newlyweds, but again, this is the 20th century.)

The “frail travelling coincidence” of the train packed with new marriages would be exciting enough, but in his particular genius, Larkin gives us a speaker (again, probably not far from the real Philip Larkin) who has a kind of comtempt for the people he sees getting married. These are working-class or lower-middle-class marriages, people from conventional families doing utterly conventional things. He doesn’t think “how sweet” and he doesn’t think back fondly on his own wedding (never having had one, even to regret it). Instead he reacts with knee-jerk superciliousness about the badly-dressed assortment of tacky types who are all doing the same thing and at the same time all thinking they’re special.

But there’s the mystery of things: just by acting as if they were special, the newlyweds are making their lives special – they are joining in some sort of partnership, while he continues on his way alone. And he can’t help but develop a sort of respect for these dubiously “respectable” people. They are on a kind of adventure, one that will lead them to unpredictable, common yet terribly momentous experiences,

and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give.