Friday, 7 January 2011

A Chilling View of Ageing and Mortality?

Bit of a challenge for you

What do we have here?

a) a fear of ageing and death powerfully but unpleasantly expressed? (i.e. it's the "screaming" he writes of, before he himself reaches that stage - which he never did, he died at 63.)
b) a brave look at truths most of us would avoid?
c) an acceptance of our common human mortality ("well, we shall find out") which he forces on us by the power of his craft?
e) a celebration of life, the "million-petalled flower of being here, " an image that itself suddenly and unexpectedly blossoms in the middle of an otherwise bleak poem - the contrast being the point?
f) a retreat from the sort of maturity and acceptance that would have enabled him to deal with his own mortality, i.e. in a way perhaps it's an emotionally immature viewpoint (not necessarily "his," of course.)
g) nihilistic snivelling?
h) all or none of the above?

Probably not a good choice for a funeral.....

Any reactions to the poem, and musings on ageing and mortality, very welcome, as always.

The Old Fools, by Philip Larkin
 What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
Why aren't they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.


  1. What Larkin articulates better than anyone before or since, in my humble opinion, is raw, inconsolable fear.
    He wasn't trapped in a state of perpetual anxiety, most of the time he was just peevish, but 'waking at four' he shows us what is really there, and it's enough to scare the shit out of anyone.
    There is a lovely poem I hadn't heard before in his letters to Monica Jones that mirrors this imagery of old people inhabiting rooms, but, as all mirrors do, reverses it:

    We cannot be
    elsewhere than here
    and yet, just so,
    may others stare
    on our casual scene
    and cry for pleasure
    at the out of reach
    enchantment there
    where we have been.

    This is the Larkin I love, not the misogynist bitter life hating racist that he has been unfairly cast as, but the tender, frightened, truthful man, romantic and clumsy at the same time, loving life but unable to stop spoiling it with regret at its ending 'and soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true'. The Larkin who as well as writing 'They fuck you up' also wrote 'What will survive of us is love.'

    Charles recently talked about art in hospices and undertakers, pointing out that in the later they generally have figure-free landscapes. Well, we do have our share of line drawn sweeping vista's, much to my wife's annoyance, but we also have a framed poster, purchased very reasonably from the Philip Larkin Society, of the Great Man himself. Hopefully this doesn't put our clients in mind of 'the sure extinction that we travel to' but instead let's them know of our intended commitment to honesty, for if ever there was a secular patron saint of truth, it is Philip Larkin.

  2. I might have hoped, but had no right to expect, such a fine response. Thank you Rupert for taking the time to add so much to my blog - and my appreciation of a great poet.

    You are one of those who understands - feels - that good poetry isn't about categories of displayed refinement, of "Art" or "Culture" but addresses, directly or indirectly, how we live now. I shall, following your quote, go and re-read "An Arundel Tomb."

    And I love the idea of PL looking down on your clients - and on you, inspiring you ever to deliver only truths.