Friday, February 2, 2007

Philip Larkin, "First Sight"

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth's immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.


From The Whitsun Weddings (1964)

Shifting from thoughts of suffering and death, we end the week on birth and hope. Such sentiments are uncharacteristic for Larkin, who tends to keep a steady and ironic eye on the petty miseries and shortcomings of life. Here, however, he portrays such a state as being not necessarily permanent - that the world itself may hold a revelation in store. Despite the literal appropriateness of 'revelation' and the reverence in which this transformation is held, the paradise Larkin heralds is not heavenly, but here on Earth. Furthermore, it is not something awaited, but something that exists currently and is merely under cover. What is hoped for is a new means of perception, the melting away of one's cloak of sorrows, so that one is reaquainted with the sustaining beauty that waited all along.

(Read more about Philip Larkin:

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Derek Mahon, "The Snow Party"

(for Louis Asekoff)

Basho, coming
To the city of Nagoya,
Is asked to a snow party.

There is a tinkling of china
And tea into china;
There are introductions.

Then everyone
Crowds to the window
To watch the falling snow.

Snow is falling on Nagoya
And farther south
On the tiles of Kyoto;

Eastward, beyond Irago,
It is falling
Like leaves on the cold sea.

Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,

Thousands have died since dawn
In the service
Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.


From The Snow Party (1975)

This poem provides a counterpoint to Wilbur. The mention of "barbarous" acts being perpetrated against humanity "Elsewhere" implicitly critiques the 'civilized' aestheticism of the snow party and the "silence" of poets who turn away from the ugliness of the world, ignoring it in preference for beauty. Ironically, this poem participates in such a bias as well, focusing on the aesthetic realm, its implicit ethical comment a form of "silence" as well. Choosing the poet Basho for a protagonist, Mahon seems to express a sympathy, or at least empathy, with the desire to use poetry for escape from the darkness of the world. But he remains concerned about the cost of the escape, about what ends poetry can serve. The poem itself is obviously far more subtle and delicately ambivalent than my clumsy explication.

(More about Derek Mahon:

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Richard Wilbur, "First Snow in Alsace"

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they'd changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.

The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.

You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.

Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.

At children's windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.

The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:

He was the first to see the snow.


From The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947)

An offered gloss: Even within the most unnatural destruction and fear of war, beauty may blossom naturally, our recognition and appreciation of it a force of life and showing forth of our humanity. At the same time, these initial instincts might be seen to contain seeds of hubris, or to display an ignorance of the obliviating power of beauty, the way such transformation may be a form of elision, covering up, or death. Beauty is like snow, is a balm which ambivalently may both conceal and heal.

(More about Richard Wilbur, including audio:
(More poems by Richard Wilbur:

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
the darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


From New Hampshire (1923)

It might seem an oversight to take up the theme of snow without mentioning Frost, especially this well-known poem. It's become commonplace that the poem expresses the speaker's temptation towards death; however, such a gloss often separates us from the poem rather than helping us to know it more intimately. For example, let us look again at the imagery used for death here. Yes, dark woods with the threat of being buried in snow; but the terms Frost actually uses convey a much more positive disposition towards death. In the first stanza, death is aligned with passivity and time passing in inaction ("stopping ... To watch"). The third stanza gives a description of ultimate calm and tranquility, approaching nothingness in a Buddhist negation of the self: "The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake." The steady iambic tetrameter rhythm and smooth sound repetitions throughout create the effect of a lullaby (culminating in the repetition of the final lines) ... death is not the terrifying black unknown but idealized as the perfect sleep, "lovely, dark, and deep". The speaker does not grudge being pulled back into the world by "promises"; though desiring relief (the poem does not depict suffering; it is only implied), he is resigned to life as well as death, knowing that the end will come in due course.

(More about Frost here:

Monday, January 29, 2007

Louis MacNeice, "Snow"

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.


From Poems (1935)

Last night was the first snow in New York for this winter, so I thought it would be appropriate to take such as this week's theme, beginning with what is likely MacNeice's best known poem. On the one hand, this poem can be taken as illustrating a certain metaphysical sensibility that we observed in "Train to Dublin" during TPQ's first week – MacNeice's embrace of the particulars of sense experience, "The drunkenness of things being various." His masterful control of diction and syntax is also on display here: such pairings as "collateral and incompatible" and "peel and portion"; the repetition of "World", itself made immediate by the absence of an article "the" or "this" etc.; and the excelling exuberance of the non-punctuated "On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands". The paradoxical independence and interrelation "collateral and incompatible" is consummated in the final line's "between", meaning both shared connection and separating division, reinforced by the mention not only of "glass" (with implicit immaterial reflections) but an unspecific "more" as well.
MacNeice's poem has a significant socio-political valence as well. Its imagery of division, difference and incompatability relate to the divisions within (Northern) Ireland. The mention of roses links back to the English Civil Wars of the Roses between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, represented respectively by a red and a (snow-)white rose. This allusion is channeled in part through Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (if I remember correctly) where the houses and their emblems are used to represent opposing groupings of students at Stephen's boarding school; Stephen who decides to reject his obligation to the Nationalist cause of Ireland. Snow, on the other hand, is the concluding image of the concluding story, "The Dead", in Joyce's Dubliners. In the Irish tradition more generally, of course, the rose is a Nationalist emblem of Ireland, as it remains the term of feminine representations ("an Irish rose"). Within this context, the latent violence within some of the imagery may become apparent: the snow and roses as explosions outside the window, with fire inside as well. MacNeice's poem has continued to be a significant reference point in subsequent Irish writing - see, for instance, Muldoon's "History" or Carson's "Snow".

(More about Louis MacNeice [1907-1963]: