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“At this unique distance from isolation…”: additional notes on Philip Larkin

November 13, 2010

“Two human beings are like globes, which can touch only in a point, and, whilst they remain in contact, all other points of each of the spheres are inert…”  —Emerson, “Experience”

*   *   *

“Talking in Bed” (with the last poem addressed in these pages) appears in Philip Larkin‘s 1964 volume The Whitsun Weddings. The title speaks of couplings, and the title poem, as any reader of it knows, fairly crackles with acerbic sparks of the sort we expect from Larkin when he writes about such matters. Here’s the dour, chill heart of it, which I’ll quote but set aside for another occasion for commentary. Save, that is, for three things, of which I can’t not speak: the bleakly perfect touches of that “uncle shouting smut,” “those women [sharing] / The secret [of marriage] like a happy funeral,” and the perfection of the verb “larking” in reference to the porters with the mails.

Cover of the Faber & Faber re-issue.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding.

Whitsunday (“white Sunday”) falls on the seventh sabbath after Easter, the Pentecost. Whitsun week—coming, as it does, in full spring—is notable for weddings in England, as (say) June is in the United States. Into this general context, then, established by the title and title-poem of the book, falls “Talking in Bed.” Which does not necessarily have to do with a marriage at all, of course; only with a couple de-coupling.

“Talking In Bed”

Philip Larkin, photograph by Fay Godwin.

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

In speaking of that “emblem of honesty” that a couple “talking” or “lying” in bed together “ought” to constitute, Larkin doubtless has in mind for “emblem” O.E.D. senses 2a and 3a: “a drawing or picture expressing a moral fable or allegory; a fable or allegory such as might be expressed pictorially. Obs.,” and “a picture of an object (or the object itself) serving as a symbolical representation of an abstract quality, an action, state of things, class of persons, etc.” The “easiest” place not merely to talk but to do so honestly ought to be in bed, then, partnered, coupled—in fact, “post-copular,” one inevitably supposes, whether with or without that old cinematically iconic cigarette.

George W. Bush, deplaning after pseudo-flying in to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off of San Diego, May 1, 2003. An emblem of talking and lying of another sort. So much for Honest Abe.

Whatever the case, the poem has to do, in some sense, with blowing smoke, right there at the outset, with that wily pun: “lying together goes back so far…” Well, yes, back even into antiquity. (Re-read a bit of Catullus or Propertius as to the dubiety of “lying” in bed.) Lying in bed together may well be an “emblem of two people being honest,” but not every sign signifies what (or as) it ought to. Emblems typify by abstracting this or that quality from their real-worldly entanglements anyway. (Cf. “Mission Accomplished” & presidents in cod-piece jumpsuits.)

So, equivocation is our theme, or one of our themes: “lying together,” which in every sense “goes back so far.” How confidential is all this “talking in bed” anyway? And not only how confidential, but how frequent, and for how long: “Yet more and more time passes silently.” Here the grammar has about it some slight equivocation. Is the duration of time that passes silently, or the frequency of it, most in question? That is, do we hear the line as “Yet, more and more, time passes silently” (which would have to do with frequency: the thing happens more often). Or as “Yet, more and more time passes silently” (which would mean that the silences grow longer)? Well, it hardly matters as to general import. Though, if you’re to read the poem aloud, you must decide how to lay your voice into the sentence. I quibble it out here simply to suggest that equivocal matters of all sorts make their way into the bedroom imagined in this poem.

Even the couplings in rhyme are not “true” for the duration of the piece. “Far” has no partner anywhere, and the relatively full rhymes of easiest/honest/unrest run down the page alongside the sight rhyme of silently/sky, the almost full rhyme of horizon/isolation, and the triplet rhyming of the last tercet where the second and third lines involve a kind of quasi-repetend that engages its own semi-negation (in sense): kind/not unkind. The rhyming is irregular, never quite in harmony, or at ease, with itself—as of course is only fitting in a poem on the theme in question here. And who knows but that we ought to score a point or two for Larkin for having written a poem about a slowly de-coupling couple in tercets? Why should he write of this couple in couplets? He makes four threesomes of his coupling conundrum, and gives us three sets of triple rhymes (easiest/honest/unrest, silently/sky/why, & find/kind/unkind). But nothing requires us to make the supposition. I’ll leave it merely as an agreeable possibility, as to his poetics, in this instance. Larkin’s crafty.

That scale in the middle of which Larkin resides, as a poet on love (and many another thing).

As for the second tercet, the best of it lies here: “Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest / Builds and disperses clouds about the sky.” Just how “complete” in its “unrest” does the wind have to be before we speak of it as—what would it be?—gusty, stormy? I am not being whimsical. The enterprise of the poem works in that intermediary space between rest on the one hand, and restiveness or restlessness on the other, whether we speak of “outer” or of “inner” (i.e., psycho-sexual) “weather.” The two harmonize here, if things ill at ease can be said to “harmonize”: the inwardly awkward (and quiet) disquiet of the couple, the outward disquiet of the wind. In both cases, something is being built, or has been, and is as readily dispersing—a cloud, a cloudy human affair; a coupling, a de-coupling & dispersal.

To put it another way, we have here to do with a thing somewhere between coherence & integrity (even if of a cloudy sort) and disintegration. Couples, clouds. It hardly matters what Larkin has in view; in fact, he has them both. Couples cohere, adhere, and then disperse and dissolve. I give you O.E.D. sense 2c for “disperse”: intr. (for refl.) To separate, go different ways.” Larkin, in his usual bleak way, seems to imply—wait: there’s no seeming about it in Larkin’s poetry—that most couples lie at some point along a spectrum that runs from cohesion to dispersal, as do clouds. The anecdote in this poem is emblematic, representative, not meanly or merely autobiographical. It as if the poem somehow licensed one to say to his neighbor, “Well, how sits it with you and your partner? Is that rather cloudy coupling you built out of your weltered lives still stable? Or is something already undermining it? Has it already gone entropic, centrifugal, dispersive? Exactly where along the spectrum are the two of you? Is your un-rest—and, come on, we’ll just stipulate, on the authority of Catullus, Propertius, and Larkin that ‘complete rest’ is not really in question;—is your un-rest still ‘incomplete,’ or is it nearing its completion? Or is it still, well, perfectly incomplete, even as on the day of your jointure?” Anyway, Larkin puts such a query to himself—and, implicitly, to his reader, with whom he may assume some fellow-feeling, given (after all) that most of us read him by election. And don’t poems, even when they concern de-couplings and dispersals, somehow exist to create fellow-feeling of a kind? I mean no paradox here: a not completely unhappy fellow-feeling about de-couplings, dispersals. Why not? There’s nothing uncharming about Larkinesque meditations on these themes. The poems are simply too fine.

But the “dark towns heap up” on the “horizon” lying beyond the couple in this poem, even as the “building” and “dispersals” go on above them. And wouldn’t you know it? “None of this cares for [them].” The natural world and the social world alike afford cold comfort. There’s no curacy in either, no charge, no oversight, no responsibility. But what’s more, and worse, there’s no “care” (le mot juste). I suspect Larkin is reaching back in the career of the latter word in English, when “to care” meant “to grieve,” “to mourn,” “to lament,” to be “troubled”—or “uneasy, or anxious”—about a thing: say, this couple. No, the dis-ease, the anxiety, the unspoken griefs (and grievances) are inside this room and “lying” on this bed. Let the towns build and “heap up” on the horizon; we only feel all the more claustrophobic, and all the less agoraphilic. Let the “incomplete unrest” of the wind undertake its cloudy buildings and dispersals. Let the couple lying together in bed do the same. Who “cares”? And “nothing in any of it “shows why”

At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Just how “distant” is this “couple” from “isolation”—isolation, one gathers, not so much from the “heaped up towns” (though the phrasing hardly makes these agreeable) as from one another? The lyric treats an intimately “social” problem: two people lying in bed. Why not let it also hint, by extension, at some larger awkwardness with “the social,” at being incompletely unrestful amongst any folk in any heaped up town? (I’m simply trying to gauge what slight savor of “general” misanthropy may underlie the poem, as if to complement the as yet incomplete antipathy of the couple.) And as for the “isolation,” our distance from it, here, is “unique,” which, if indeed unique, ought to be specifiable. And specify it Larkin does. The partners to this couple are near enough, now, to “isolation” from each other such that saying words “at once true and kind / Or not untrue and not unkind” grows every night harder. Each party to the coupling must make a choice. They lie together talking, or talk together lying, or lie together lying, or talk together talking—take it as you will. But each may either speak the truth and risk unkindness, or say something kind and court dishonesty. And failing that already bedeviling choice, each must navigate one still finer and more vexing: saying things “at once” “not untrue and not unkind.” Which would carry one back to his neighbor and how things sit with him. “Are you and your partner at precisely that unique distance from isolation at which it grows difficult to be both truthful and kind? Or have you moved on and reached the point where even saying things both not unkind and not untrue puts you ill at ease?”

In any case, let’s suppose that our Larkinian “emblem of honesty” comes in here: that he should frame so precisely the problems of “honesty” and of the awkwardnesses that sometimes attend intimacy—with candor, with fidelity to all the complexities, and with wit. Whitsun weddings are all fine and dandy. But fidelity is almost never semper in Larkin, perpetual bachelor that he was in fact (and always is as a persona)—though, in his poetry, fidelity may well “simper” (cf. O.E.D.: obs. “simmer”), at some “unique distance” either from the boiling-point or from that tepid “room temperature” at which the couple in “Talking in Bed” seems to lie.

N.B. For other entries in The Era of Casual Fridays pertaining to Larkin, click here. Following is a translation of a few lines from Propertius’s first Elegy. I include it not simply because the passage treats Larkinian themes—though at a rather higher temperature to which he ever brought himself in the poems—but also because, not long before he wrote “Talking in Bed,” Larkin wrote also a distinctly Propertian poem titled “Letter to a Friend About Girls” (never collected, but printed in Anthony Thwaite‘s 1988 edition of the Collected Poems), and other poems similar in mood and wit, such as “Love” (published in Critical Quarterly in the Summer 1966 number, though Larkin never collected it), or the much later “Love Again” (also in Thwaite’s edition), which is a bit Propertian but rather more like the coarsest things Catullus did. It surprises me, somewhat, that on searching J-Stor (an archive of literary criticism) I find that no one has discussed these possible affiliations. Nor does Larkin’s biographer, Andrew Motion. Maybe I’m just imagining them.

Cover of an edition of Catullus, Tibulus, and Propertius done at Antwerp by Christoher Plantin (1560 and 1580).

But you, who called me too late as I was slipping, friends,
get help for the insane.
Bravely will I endure knife and savage fires,
just let me say whatever I want in my rage.
Take me to exotic peoples, across the waves,
where no woman may know my path.
You stay, to whom the god has easily consented,
stay equal always, throughout your love.
On me old Venus works bitter nights,
and Love is at no time absent.

—trans. Vincent Katz

The Latin original for the same passage:

aut vos, qui sero lapsum revocatis, amici,
quaerite non sani pectoris auxilia.
fortiter et ferrum saevos patiemur et ignes,
sit modo libertas quae velit ira loqui.
ferte per extremas gentes et ferte per undas,
qua non ulla meum femina norit iter.
vos remanete, quibus facili deus annuit aure,
sitis et in tuto semper amore pares.
nam me nostra Venus noctes exercet amaras,
et nullo vacuus tempore defit Amor.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tito permalink
    November 13, 2010 11:31 PM

    Incomplete unrest.
    A state of matter or of mind?
    At the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party
    What did the Dormouse find?

    • November 14, 2010 12:09 AM

      “Incomplete unrest. / A state of matter or of mind?”

      Both, Tito, I should think (mind being the matter after all).

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