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What are days for?

April 19, 2011

Philip Larkin, photograph by Fay Godwin.

Philip Larkin wrote the following poem—as his editor Anthony Thwaite tells us—on August 3, 1953. He later collected it in The Whitsun Weddings (1964), where it appears between “Take One Home for the Kiddies” and “MCMXIV.”


What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

A simple enough beginning, such as might open a conversation with a child, or such as a child might say in opening a conversation. “What are days for?” The answer to the query comes in the fifth line. Days, it seems, “are to be happy in.” A typical reader of Larkin might well reply in turn: Says who? Days are also to be anxious in, to be angry in, to be lovesick in (or sick of love in), to be bored in, to be bereft and sad in, and so on. Larkin’s own poems are my register, here. Days are to be happy in! Set aside, for the moment, the question begged here: Why should “days”—the diurnal cycles that mark out our threescore years and ten—have any “purpose” at all but those we give them anyway? Set that aside, and the answer (“Days are to be happy in”), as with the query it answers, certainly does (as I say) sound like something one might say to a child (or on a greeting card posted for birthdays). What are days for? Why, my sweet, they are to happy in! This is the proposition against which, even as we find it laid out in these lines, the poem (with its ingenious barbs) somehow works.

But before going any further into the matter, I’ll take what Larkin interposes between the initial query and its deferred answer. “Days are where we live,” he writes. This confuses Time and Space, though productively, as it happens, given how this little poem ultimately declines to resolve itself. A day is a measure of Time, and in Time we live. Only in Time, and never outside or beyond it?—some may ask. Well, yes, unless we fetch in metaphysics and theology, which the poem essentially refuses to do by telling us exactly what would happen if we did:

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, "Saint Jerome in his Study" (and in his doctorly gown). 1480. Now in Church of Ognissanti, Florence.

The priest (and let’s picture an amiable Anglican one) will tell you that though your days on Earth are numbered, in Heaven they are not. And also that there, outside of Time—if you are a more or less good soul, as what souls are not in the old broad church?—your post-mortem “non-days” are most certainly “to be happy in.” As for our “doctor,” I do not think he’ll come in a lab-coat and stethoscope, running over the fields; he isn’t a medical doctor. He’s a doctor in the old sense, as given in the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first few entries for the word. 1.a: “A teacher, instructor; one who gives instruction in some branch of knowledge, or inculcates opinions or principles. Now rare.” Or 2.a (especially in its archaic meaning): “One who, by reason of his skill in any branch of knowledge, is competent to teach it, or whose attainments entitle him to express an authoritative opinion; an eminently learned man. arch.” Or perhaps 3.a: “the Doctors of the Church, certain early ‘fathers’ distinguished by their eminent learning, so as to have been teachers not only in the Church, but of the Church, and by their heroic sanctity; esp. in the Western Church, the four ‘Latin Doctors,’ Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory (so named in Roman Catholic canon law).” Or sense 5.a: “A person who is proficient in knowledge of theology: a learned divine.” Or at any rate a “doctor of philosophy,” as we now say—the general mob of PhD’s. Only with definition 6 do we reach medicine. And all an M.D. can do, when it comes to your days, is number them, as in that now quasi-proverbial (and malignant) diagnostic dictum: “I must be frank, John. You have six months to live. Set your house in order.” Hollywood now makes movies on that maudlin basis.

So, not doctors in white lab coats, but priests in their frocks and learned scholars in their gowns come trailing over the fields to trouble our peace with their nostrums and platitudes as to what days are for, and as to where we can live outside them. Not that Larkin necessarily dismisses the priests and doctors with the mocking dispatch I’ve just implied. But a reader does feel—doesn’t he?—that “Days” doesn’t really look for a “solution” to the second question it puts: “Where can we live but days?”—which (again) is to ask, Where can we live but in Time, whether “happily” or not? To live in Time is to be mortal, and so subject to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that flesh is heir to.

And it’s probably just as well not to raise questions that summon up the priests and the doctors, because aren’t “days” themselves, as Larkin gives them to us, something of a nuisance anyhow? Damn it all, here they come, like the cock of the crow, to “wake us / Time and time over” (at least until we sleep a sleep that is not the “son of the sable night,” but the long night itself). What a bother, these days of Larkin’s, disturbing, as they do, our peace! And, I should say, what inconsequence to them all into the bargain, as I suspect that deftly placed colon—capping off the only line that directly answers the question first raised in the poem—quietly suggests:

[Days] are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

From a colon something ought clearly to follow—logically I mean. Again, the O.E.D.: the colon’s “best defined use is to separate clauses which are grammatically independent and discontinuous, but between which there is an apposition or similar relation of sense.” But the logic associating these two lines/clauses—lines quite central to the poem—is a bit obscure and elusive (perhaps deliberately so). As who should say, in a Hallmark-cardish, Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul sort of way:

We can live nowhere but in days. Therefore, obviously, they are to be happy in, since (again, obviously) we are meant to be happy.

But this way of talking simply compounds the logical confusion of Time and Space. It carries us back also to the question I put on first treating the notion that days are to be happy in: Says who? Now, one might expect the lines to go: Days are to be happy in: / Where can we be happy but in days? But that’s not how they go. And so I must ask: How, after all, did some half-implicit equation between “happiness” and “living” slip into a poem by Philip Larkin, since that is the corner into which these lines appear (cunningly) to argue us? Not even the priests and doctors, with their long coats, are that easy in their formulations. In short, the dour play in the poem comes here, in the distance that always separates (in Larkin) the presumptive purpose of our days (“to be happy in”) and the lived experience of them.

N.B. For other entries within The Era of Casual Fridays treating poems by Philip Larkin, click here

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