If my darling were once to decide, c. 1950
Philip Larkin, 1922-1985, British
The poet of the English way of being – but not only – admits that he has exerted his skill and put his worldly goods on display to gain access to the body of a woman. Out of physical need and nothing else.
She is not and will not be anywhere in his interior landscape.
The poet noted in correspondence that he did not consider this poem self-derogatory but comical.
We all think like this about the ‘girls’, he wrote.
Not wildly much progress here in 70 years despite going to the moon and Mars and despite the advent of Amazon.com, the rise of China and the development of triple espresso mocha 0% fat ice cream with bacon.
Seriously slow progress. Despite the fact that this is known to make the grief of women inconsolable.
The Lie, oil on artist’s board, 1897.
Felix Valotton, 1865-1925, French born Switzerland. Baltimore Museum of Art.
Originally one of 10 woodcuts on the vagaries of the married life, this one scene later produced in this painting.
If my darling were once to decide
Not to stop at my eyes,
But to jump, like Alice, with floating skirt into my head,
The caterpillar addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice, 2017, and detail, watercolour on paper.
Collection of the illustrator, Charles Santore, from his own ‘Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland’.
On display at the Woodmere Museum, Philadelphia in 2018.
Charles Santore, 1935-2019, American.
She would find no table and chairs,
No mahogany claw-footed sideboards,
No undisturbed embers;
The tantalus* would not be filled, nor the fender-seat cosy,
Nor the shelves stuffed with small-printed books for the Sabbath,
Nor the butler bibulous, the housemaids lazy:
She would find herself looped with the creep of varying light,
Monkey-brown, fish-grey, a string of infected circles
Loitering like bullies, about to coagulate;
Delusions that shrink to the size of a woman’s glove,
Then sicken inclusively outwards. She would also remark
The unwholesome floor, as it might be the skin of a grave,
From which ascends an adhesive sense of betrayal,
A Grecian statue kicked in the privates, money,
A swill-tub of finer feelings. But most of all
She’d be stopping her ears against the incessant recital
Intoned by reality, larded with technical terms,
Each one double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal:
For the skirl of that bulletin unpicks the world like a knot,
And to hear how the past is past and the future neuter
Might knock my darling off her unpriceable pivot.
*Tantalus was a lockable container for liqueur made of enough glass so that you could see the bottles. A feature of some middle class households.
5 thoughts on “Love 3: Carnal Love: Initiation into the Minefield”
I don’t understand the imagery of this poem at all.
The imagery? The painting do you mean? Or the images the poet is using in the poem?
The language of the poem. I find it cryptic and inaccessible. I like the paintings you used to illustrate the post.
The woman has jumped into the poet’s mind. There, like in all our minds, the mind stuff is just agitated all the time: one thing after another. The only thing which stops this being meditation and trance.
The woman is in the middle of this agitation and murkiness. The stuff that passes through our minds at all times of the day. In this case, the mind of a difficult and erudite Englishman. A librarian at the University of Hull, very famous over time and to this day for the skill with which he increased the University’s library 10-fold and with the learning in which he did this.
So, there is the impossibility of words in his mind; the anxiety about money; there is a bucket full of the finer feelings to which he was certainly socialized but which we don’t see in the poem towards this woman. There is the mind’s incessant attempt to unravel the meaning of what has been going on in the world. There is the general muddled murk and upset emotions which exist in all our minds from one moment to the next.
What the woman won’t find, though, is any reference to her importance to the poet. Which is the point of the poem.
So the imagery which describes the inside of his mind is meant to be indecipherable. Because it is because it is the sub-conscious or the unconscious.
That helps a lot, thank you.
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