27 January 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/5

Naturally the Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses

Hurrying to catch my Comet
     One dark November day,
Which soon would snatch me from it
     To the sunshine of Bombay,
I pondered pages Berkeley
     Not three weeks since had heard,
Perceiving Chatto darkly
     Through the mirror of the Third.

Crowds, colourless and careworn,
     Had made my taxi late,
Yet not till I was airborne
     Did I recall the date –
That day when Queen and Minister
     And Band of Guards and all
Still act their solemn-sinister
     Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall.

It used to make me throw up,
     These mawkish nursery games:
O when will England grow up?
     – But I outsoar the Thames,
And dwindle off down Auster
     To greet Professor Lal
(He once met Morgan Forster),
     My contact and my pal.

Philip Larkin

This strikes me as lesser Larkin, but it has always amused me for a couple of reasons which I'll get to in a moment. What struck me when I re-read it before typing it here, and what I had not remembered, is how dense it is with references that need some explanation (for some of which I have relied on Archie Burnett, editor and annotator of The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, from which I took this poem). The speaker is at the intersection of two different worlds, and makes references to both, casually and knowingly.

There's the social/political world of Great Britain: the "Comet" is a type of jet, the "dark November day" turns out to be the 11th, what used to be called Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, when the Queen and other representatives of Britain's military and political establishment lay wreaths honoring the British war dead at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the area of London where most government offices are located. "Auster" is the south wind, hence the direction in which the speaker is traveling: towards warmth and light, away from the grayness and conformity he perceives in London.

There's also the more global cultural world, which is larger than any individual country, and which the speaker clearly prefers: he has recently been to California ("Berkeley" is the University of California at Berkeley) and is on his way to Bombay. He has his eye on "Chatto" (the publishing house Chatto & Windus) and "the Third" (Radio 3, the BBC radio network devoted to higher culture), and can tie them together with an apt and witty reference to 1 Corinthians ("for now we see as through a glass, darkly"; surely this speaker knows these lines for their literary fame, and not in the same way as might the more piously inclined members of the "colourless and careworn" crowd). He refers excitedly, and by the name used by friends and family, to "Morgan" Forster, better known to us as the novelist E M Forster.

Mentioning Forster in the context of a trip to Bombay can't help but remind us of A Passage to India, and the memory would associate the speaker with that novel's examination of (among other things) British imperial power in that country, which was given up not that long before this poem was first published in 1961. Forster's name might also bring to mind his famous quotation, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country"; a line which perfectly encapsulates the speaker's preference for personal relationships over the nation-state (I have to say that although I'm drawn to the sentiment, it strikes me as a bit inadequate, better in its high-minded sound than in practice; if Forster had, in fact, betrayed his country to the Germans in order to protect his friend, or even what used to be called euphemistically his friend, then you have to wonder how he thinks the victorious Master Race would have treated leftist intellectual/artistic homosexuals like himself and many in his circle of friends).

Here are the two things that amuse me about this poem: first, the subject of Larkin's satire here – this hanger-on in Academia, this globe-trotting internationalist, so contemptuous of official patriotism ("their solemn-sinister / wreath-rubbish") and so excited about any contact, however slight, with significant artists ("He once met Morgan Forster" – you feel there should be an exclamation point there); so dismissive of the anonymous crowds who inconvenienced him by delaying his taxi, and himself a bit childish and petulant ("it used to make me throw up") – this acidly etched portrait is, basically, of me. Not me personally, of course, and I don't have either the employment or the connections or the travel opportunities of the speaker here, but the poem clearly is about people like me: I too regularly express contempt for my fellow-citizen's mawkish and ignorant patriotic ceremonies (though I would make a clear distinction between official ceremonies and personal mourning of the actual dead), I too would turn away from the Queen but would be thrilled at the thought of meeting someone who once met Larkin. I still admire the wit and satire of the poem; it's always useful to be reminded that political beliefs cover a wide and always changing spectrum, and we can't necessarily expect great artists to hold the same beliefs we might hold dear, or at least conventionally accept. (I remember how saddened I felt when I realized how many great writers in the early twentieth century flirted, or in some cases actually tied the knot with, totalitarian systems both Communist and even Fascist; later on I came to have a better sense of why authoritarianism would appeal to an artist, impatient of the uncomprehending sheep that constitute his or her fellow citizens, but how can any artist, at least in self-interest. approve of any system that limits freedom of expression?).

The second thing that amuses me: the name of my alma mater is pronounced "BER-klee." Burnett's annotations note that when Larkin read the poem he gave the name a British pronunciation, so that it rhymed perfectly with "darkly," but he does not note that that pronunciation is incorrect. I once read that Nabokov had had the narrator of Lolita use an anatomical term incorrectly, but he later changed it, fearing that the error would be ascribed to him instead of Humbert Humbert. So is the mispronunciation of Berkeley a subtle master-stroke of characterization, showing that the speaker is more inextricably British, more provincial, than he thinks? Or does the error belong to Larkin himself?

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