Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
And traffic all night north; swerving through fields
Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,
And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river’s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud,
Gathers to the surprise of a large town:
Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water,
And residents from raw estates, brought down
The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,
Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires –
Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers –
A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling
Where only salesmen and relations come
Within a terminate and fishy-smelling
Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum,
Tattoo-shops, consulates, grim head-scarfed wives;
And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges
Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,
Isolate villages, where removed lives
Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
Two and a half hours into English Literature poetry revision this afternoon, I’ve somehow found a positive angle on a Philip Larkin poem!
He puts consumerism in an unpleasant light, and I agree with his stance. In the superb words from Alison Morgan’s book The Wild Gospel:
“Do you not find”, asked Thomas, a banker in Mbulu, Tanzania, as a chicken strutted through his simple living room, “that in the West people have so much more than they need that they do not know they need God?”As I ate the dumplings cooked over a charcoal burner outside, and watched his daughter hanging the socks she had unobtrusively rewashed for me after my knuckle-busting failure to get them clean, I was forced to agree with him. The postmodern world invites us to slake our thirst by drinking deeply from the golden goblet of consumerism. We drink; only to find that we are drinking salt water.
“Unfenced existence” suggests a sense of spiritual freedom, whilst the positive image of the sun and the stillness found evokes from the speaker a sense of awe and a depth of response which is far removed from the detached, ambiguous tone of the earlier stanzas – as if he needs the silence, the stillness, the absence of traces of human activity and the broad sweeps of landscape in order to connect with vital elements of his own being. The solitude in this environment appears to be more satisfying and authentic than the persistent sense of alienation encountered in the urban setting he previously described.
Yet typically of Larkin there is a hesitation. With “out of reach” there’s a sense of ambivalence.
Can we find this “unfenced existence”, this world with no boundaries, of possibility, where nature lies untouched from human intervention, this beautiful spiritual freedom, and keep it in our lives? And does the loneliness that Larkin speaks of in the isolating lack of contact with others drive people to desperation, or to see and understand life more clearly? Both?
I like this poem. And I’m surprised I do because Philip Larkin is usually so negative about life.
My English Literature poetry teacher Alastair says that although Larkin is a pessimist, he speaks truth. However bluntly Larkin puts it, his poems do mean something. With the poem “Here”, I reluctantly (because Larkin is so miserable 99% of the time) agree that he may be right. In this instant anyway!
May we find beautiful unfenced existence within our grasp, facing the sun, untalkative, yet laughing and smiling. And if not in this world, then the next…