Sunday, May 23, 2010

"THE TREES" by Philip Larkin

It’s time for a little Larkin, line-by-line. The text for today is his poem "The Trees," composed 2 June 1967, originally published 17 May 1968, collected in High Windows (1974) and in the essential Collected Poems, a volume that should be on the bookshelf of anyone who reads.


The trees are coming into leaf

We begin in banality, the starting point of many a Larkin poem, but here the banality is linguistic as well as imagistic. This is simply bad verse, a line we might find stitched into a sampler or printed inside a greeting card. It lends itself to easy doggerel parody: The trees are coming into leaf / The Brits are eating too much beef... But just as we’re ready to conclude that Larkin has joined the staff of Hallmark and kissed his talent goodbye, along comes the second line:

Like something almost being said;

Old Larks to the rescue. The second line saves a poem that initial banality threatened to strangle in its cradle. This is a wonderful simile that deserves and provokes meditation. How exactly is a tree wearing that thin veil of green that comes in American April and English May really ‘like’ a statement that remains unspoken? (A possibly related question: How does Rilke’s headless Apollo ‘see’?) It’s interesting that Larkin chooses to compare the leafing trees not to a whisper or a murmur or even a guttural Midlands mutter but to something ‘almost being said.’ The last two words denote an ongoing process of saying which the ‘almost’ cancels (appropriately) even before it linguistically begins. The line thus exemplifies what it represents: like the trees, it doesn’t quite say anything, but there is a definite vague ‘something’ it wants to say. The line grasps for that ‘something,’ that impossible statement, in the same way that any poet in the act of composition reaches for a perfect metaphor, a mot juste, an image that clicks into place like the tumblers of an opening lock. The fact that the poet doesn’t find it (yet) lifts the poem out of the ditch of banal Romantic ‘Nature’ cliches and places us squarely in the more disconnected world of modernity. Willie Wordsworth’s daffodils were sprayed and paved over a long time ago. The problem now is not building nature into a pseudo-religious ‘supernaturalism,’ but rather finding ‘something,’ anything, to say about it that doesn’t reek of misunderstood Wordsworth.

The recent buds relax and spread,

An exhausted impulse toward natural supernaturalism gives way in the third line to a Lawrencian natural eroticism. The buds on the branches ‘relax and spread’ like a welcoming female lover, an image that causes us to jump back and eroticize the first line’s ‘coming’ as a leafy green orgasm. We might also re-read the second line as a bit of puritanical self-censorship: nature’s eros is the love that dare not speak its name in these lines, the ‘something almost being said’ since it is stated figuratively rather than literally.

Their greenness is a kind of grief.
And so the whiplash rhythm of this stanza snaps our necks back one last time, unexpectedly transforming nature’s eros into a festival of mourning, a green carnival of grief. But this identification is again uncertain. Just as the greenness ‘almost’ said something in line 2, here it is figured as a "kind of grief," not in the literal sense of ‘a type or species of grief’ but signifying a ‘vague something or other that resembles grief.’ The line’s central copula, the rhetorically powerful ‘is,’ is a bit of Larkinian legerdemain. It makes the metaphor seem more solid and direct than it really is. It also contradictorily foregrounds the metaphor’s construction and causes the attentive reader to say, "Hey, wait a minute, exactly how is greenness a kind of grief?" The second stanza attempts an answer.

Is it that they are born again

The poem’s most dramatic enjambment comes here (in its least interesting passage) as Larkin breaks the line upon an image of resurrection, snapping the core belief of Christianity like a matchstick between his fingers.

And we grow old? No, they die too.

The poem talks prosaically to itself in these two lines, implicitly interrogating Gerard Manley Hopkins’s "Spring and Fall" to ask if it’s really Margaret that Margaret mourns for. Does the greenness of the trees produce something like grief because we dialectically project upon a natural image of resurrection the fact of our own mortality? Does Father Hopkins’s Christianity work in an allied but less complex way, salving our grief with an image of resurrection? If so, both strategies have now shipwrecked on reality’s rocks. We have all seen trees die–from disease, lightning, wildfire, plaid-shirted lumberjacks, etc.–and the 'evidence' for Christian Resurrection would probably be inadmissable even in an American courtroom.

Their yearly trick of looking new

Aha! A trick! Nature’s images of resurrection and immortality are mere sideshow entertainments, makeup on a deathmask.

Is written down in rings of grain.

This is lovely. The rings in which we read the tree’s life (and which can be read, like Gerald Ford’s best interviews, only after the subject’s death) are troped as a kind of writing. This metaphor tilts the poem to a self-conscious angle and foregrounds for the attentive reader all of Larkin’s rhetorical ‘tricks,’ most pointedly the descent into conversational demotic in this stanza’s first two lines followed by the knockout metaphor in its last two. This is the salient Larkinian ‘trick’: the shift of register creates a satisfying climax even though the metaphor doesn’t entirely convince. In fact, the closing two lines are almost a non sequitur with regard to the first two.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
And yet. And yet. After the tricks of poetry and religion have come undone, after we’ve looked behind the curtain and seen the singularly unimpressive wizard (as unimpressive a man as the fascist-tending academic librarian who wrote this poem)–after all that, the vision of trees remains. With a wildly beautiful metaphor, Larkin tranforms the leafy branches of trees into the turrets and towers of castles. But the line also does more this: it takes those castles and knocks them about, forcing them to ‘thresh,’ with all of that word’s pastoral, mechanical and historical overtones. And let us pause for a moment over the sheer sonic beauty of this line. Listen to the play of sibilants that sounds across it like the threshing of windblown trees.

In fullgrown thickness every May.
A pretty prosaic line. Not much to say about it, because it doesn’t say much. Yes, it completes the image of the preceding line and underlines it a bit, but it seems more a rhythmical placeholder than anything else.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Again with the uncertainty... The trees only seem to say this–in an act of poetic projection. The speaker is clearly throwing his voice into the branches. This is what he wants them to say: a pure affirmation that all the metaphorical piss and shit of the previous year has come to an end and he is released to begin anew– in the perhaps nonmetaphorical piss and shit of a whole new year. Hooray. This type of nature ventriloquism is a staple of third-rate Romanticism, and Larkin is too much the Modern to uncomplicatedly indulge in it. And yet, like the trees, the thought remains: If the trees are in fact almost saying something, it probably would be something like this.

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

The stanza’s opening sibilants return with a vengeance in this supremely beautiful final line. It’s still a projection/ventriloquization, but the beauty of the line and its sentiment overrides any niggling anti-Romantic criticisms. We are swept away like the branches and we want to believe it. Larkin has slyly enlisted our own desires (wouldn’t we all like to begin afresh?) in his poetic cause. And in so doing he has moved absurdly far from the first stanza’s ‘kind of grief.’ A memento mori has become a call to life. How the hell did that happen? Answer: the same way a call to life became a memento mori between lines 3 and 4 of stanza one. The whole poem is a tennis match between life and death, and we’re the engrossed spectators, turning our heads back and forth until we grow dizzy. And the game ends with this soft, sibilant repetition, which should probably die into a whisper when read aloud.... The line also brings immediately to mind a poet and poem rarely mentioned in discussions of Larkin, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. We hear an echo in Larkin’s last three words of Eliot’s "peace which passeth understanding": shantih shantih shantih. You can discuss that connection amongst yourselves...