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“I set so much on this Assumption. Now it’s failed.”

September 28, 2009

Philip Larkin, photograph by Fay Godwin.

“Autobiography at an Air-Station” (Philip Larkin)

Delay, well, travellers must expect
Delay. For how long? No one seems to know.
With all the luggage weighed, the tickets checked,
It can’t be long. . . We amble to and fro,
Sit in steel chairs, buy cigarettes and sweets
And tea, unfold the papers. Ought we to smile,
Perhaps make friends? No: in the race for seats
You’re best alone. Friendship is not worth while.

Six hours pass: if I’d gone by boat last night
I’d be there now. Well, it’s too late for that.
The kiosk girl is yawning. I feel stale,
Stupified, by inaction—and, as light
Begins to ebb outside, by fear; I set
So much on this Assumption. Now it’s failed.

The Assumption of Mary, painting by Peter Paul Rubens

The Assumption of Mary, painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

N.B.: (O.E.D.) assumption 1. The action of receiving up into heaven; ascent to or reception into heaven. HANMER Anc. Eccl. Hist. (1619) 21 The wonderfull resurrection of our Saviour, and his assumption into the heavens. 1627 tr. Bacon’s Life & Death: He lived after the Assumption of Elias, sixty yeares. TENNYSON In Mem. lxxiii: Can hang no weight upon my heart In its assumptions up to heaven.   b. esp. The reception of the Virgin Mary into heaven, with body preserved from corruption, which is a generally accepted doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church. Also the feast held annually on the 15th of August in honour of this event.

The first thing to point out is how the title, a little whimsically and sardonically, sets the anecdote retailed in the sonnet in the largest possible frame: that of a life—of an “autobiography.” Whatever else this mundane anecdote of a delayed flight might be, it is somehow a representative anecdote. Making an “autobiography” out of something so commonplace and inconsequential as this (a wasted afternoon at an airport) is ingenious. Whole lives, after all, can be “summed up” in an anecdote. We do this all the time in American English. When some trivial accident befalls us we say, “That’s the story of my life.” This is exactly what Larkin is doing here.

Two tendencies are at work: the mundane (bad steel chairs, cigarettes, & newspapers); and then the ultra-mundane, the larger context into which not merely the title but the last line of the sonnet places us: the span (and implicit end) of a life, and the “Assumption”—which here works both in its commonplace sense (“I assumed I’d make this flight & get to my destination on time”), and in its theological sense (hence the capitalization: cf. the definition above). Larkin prepares himself to take an airline flight, an ascent into the heavens, and he associates it with the oldest fables we have in the Christian tradition about such ascensions (for which, again, see the above definition from the OED, with its Tennysonian “assumptions up to heaven,” and so on). And in this larger, ultra-mundane context, the “ebbing” of the light, the “fear,” take on their richer, more disturbing implications. Mary, Mother of God, may have been “Assumed” into Heaven, but Philip Larkin won’t be—no matter how much faith he “sets on” it. (Here, the poem may remind readers of such other Larkinian frustrations of belief as the wonderful poem “Church Going,” with its bicycle clips taken off in the narthex, and its concession that churches are good places to “grow wise” in, “if only that so many dead lie around.”)

And I would say further that the mundane and the ultra-mundane compete for our attentions quite vividly & aurally here: there is the frank & sardonic & utterly mundane colloquiality of the phrasing (“If I’d gone by boat last night I’d be there by now”), and then there is the larger, ultra-mundane context of the “autobiography,” the story of a life lived in such representative irritations as delayed “flights,” and without hope of any “Assumption” into Heaven at its inevitable, sorry end. Alert readers will have noticed as well how Larkin works, in his way, within the tradition of  the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, with its turn at line nine, here underscored (so to speak) typographically by the break, but also by the time: “six hours pass,” the sestet begins. Haven’t we all been there, waiting in the airport, watching (say) CNN as the hours roll by?

And yet we do not speak of flight delays as “failures”—not typically. There is in the phrasing, here, the slightest tendency to transfer responsibility to the speaker—to sad-sack, middle-aged Philip Larkin. At any rate, he seems quite willing to share in the responsibility of this “failure” to be “Assumed.” Had he arrived late, or made some error in ticketing, well, then, he might have “failed.” But something in the drift of that last line wants to generalize the failure, to implicate the poet in it;—which is, I might add, an honesty too rarely risked, and also one of the great charms of this wonderful sonnet.

N.B. For commentary in relation of sentence to line in this and a few other sonnets, click here.

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