Coming by Philip Larkin

How successful is Philip Larkin in depicting the transition between winter and summer?

Change of seasons, an uncommon theme in modern poetry, is explored beautifully in ComingPhilip Larkin, a poem by Philip Larkin. In its totality, it provides us with a real life experience of transition between two seasons.

The title itself refers to transition and in a subtle way points to the popular phrase ‘this too shall pass’. Moreover, time is a common topic of interest in modern poetry and season is all about time. Towards the end of the poem, the poet says,

And can understand nothing

But the unusual laughter

which is to suggest that the whole poem is more of an experience rather than an exercise in language.

Change of season is a metaphor of life itself. To endorse this idea, the poet brings up an image of a couple reconciling ,

Feel like a child

Who comes on a scene

Of adult reconciling

Such an incident will surely make people happy. It is also noticeable that he says ‘adult’ and not ‘adults’ thereby making it an adjective of reconciliation. Moreover, the warmth of the sun which has stayed away returns to the earth to make it fully blossom.

Bathes the serene

Foreheads of houses

The comparison is all the more significant since winter connotes not only hatred and being cold-shouldered but also frigidity as well, while spring entails warmth and warm-heartedness as well as fertility and potency by extension.

Imagery is what makes the poem very effective. By choosing a set of harmonious images which refer to the happiness and sunny days, the poet is able to convey the heart-warming effect of spring.

On longer evenings,

Light, chill and yellow

Bathes the serene

Foreheads of houses

Since the poem abounds in a wide variety of images, it can be classified as an imagist poem. TO depict the various appearance of both the seasons, the poet strings together some fresh visual images.

Images of melodious sounds are also heard in such phrases like ‘thrush sings’ ‘fresh-peeled voice’ and ‘unusual laughter’. Of these ‘fresh-peeled voice’ is double effective since the first word gives a visual image of a freshly peeled fruit and then the same image enhances the beauty of the bird’s song. Furthermore, this voice is contrasted with the stolid, solid ‘brickwork’ in the background.

After a time of inactive winter, it is time for some dynamic movements in summer. All will be up and about. The kinesthetic images (those of movement) make the poem more dynamically energetic. ‘Coming’ and ‘reconciling’ are dynamic verbs while ‘spring’ echoes of movement.

In the second half, the repetition of the first line,

It will be spring soon—

It will be spring soon

suggests the skipping spirit of a young child and soon the poem moves from ‘forgotten boredom’ to ‘unusual laughter’.

The poet also uses his keen sense of sound all through the poem. The first stanza begins with a lot of soft consonants and ends with hard and hard sounds

Thus from

Light, chill and yellow

we move over to

Laurel- surrounded

deep bare garden

Thus the poem in its deceptive simplicity, manages to highlight in very subtle ways, the transition between winter and spring. Philip Larkin has successfully employed his skill at creating a very precise effect of his choice.

Afternoon with Irish Cows

2015 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature: On Africa © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

 

Scientists mostly ask questions about the world outside themselves. It is very rare that they question themselves or try to learn about themselves. There is no subjectivity here.

But artists, on the other hand, keep questioning themselves and ask questions to themselves. They are introspective and want to know more about themselves. Poetry, for example, is mostly one way of doing this. Thus, a poem becomes an attempt to answer the question: Who am I?

The poem “Afternoon with Irish Cows” by Billy Collins is a typical example for such introspections. The poet does look out and sees cows and observes their behaviour which is in contrast with his.

This contrast can be seen all over the poem. In a beautiful country, the poet prefers to be indoors while the cows prefer to be outdoors,

Stepping all day from tuft to tuft

their big heads down in the soft grass,.

The distinction starts there and continues in different ways. The cows live from moment to moment, in the real world of the meadows which provides them with food while the poet lives in a world of imagination too. He describes himself realistically

I would sometimes pass a window
and look out to see the field suddenly empty

But then reveals his world of imagination with he says,

as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.

But imagination cannot provide a realistic answer and the poet continues to observe them with a view to understand them which by contrast may help him understand himself. So, he does not believe that they have flown away but opens the front door to look for them and there they are going ahead with their routine mundane things like eating, chewing the cud and lying down on their sides, completely relaxed.

Then later, I would open the blue front door,
and again the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,

The black and while patterns that the poet refers to as a map is of importance here. These patterns which only roughly resemble maps still remind the poet of maps because of his interest in the world and its affairs. But for the cow it is just a pattern on their body and they don’t mind getting them dirty by lying on their sides. It is nothing to be proud of or flaunt.

We pride ourselves as social animals, but we commit uncivil and unsocial acts. The newspaper, the stone wall and the knife are symbols from such a world. But the cows, which do not seem to communicate like we do, are also social animals and when they rest lies down in different direction to guard one another.

facing in all directions, waiting for rain.

After such an observation the poet’s interest in the cow comes out in the open when he says,

How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
they appear in the long quiet of the afternoon.

They only “appear” dumbfounded, mysterious and patient. They are not to take things lying down, for,

… every once in a while, one of them
would let out a sound so phenomenal

 

Given the kind of world he lives in, this noise brings only memories of torture and pain to the poet’s mind.

… which one of them was being torched
or pierced through the side with a long spear.

But looking at the cow, the poet finds that the cow was only being self-assertive.

… it sounded like pain until I could see
the noisy one

Through mooing, the cow was only asserting its nature, voice and behaviour and it is not ashamed of its ‘unadulterated cowness’ but rather proud of its self.                       

The cow’s self expression does not come from its soul or mind as some poet deem their poems to do. It is a product of its body.

… she gave voice
to the rising, full-bodied cry
that began in the darkness of her belly
and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.

The cows have been here long before us and they have been trampling the hills, munching away the grass, polluting bays and cursing the rain. But unlike humans they were always apologetic about their atrocities and the poet believes that every mooing of a cow is only its apology for what its race did. The poet’s face coming up behind the wall is a later incident in history and shocks the cow with a premonition about the worse things the new race can do to the world.

Now the afternoon is no afternoon but the second half of the earth’s own life as it is unapologetically hurriedly pushed into its grave by the human race. And Ireland, though a land of great writers, is also famed to be a land of faction and civil wars where people pride in killing their own siblings in the name of God and faith.

But the cows are the same anywhere, anytime. They don’t kill one another or damage the environment in any serious way. Yet they are apologetic.

At the same time, through a series of concrete images, mostly visual and kinaesthetic but auditory and tactile too, the poet has managed to give us an almost direct experience of his surroundings. The visual imagery, like

the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
facing in all directions

recreates the scene in our mind while the kinaesthetic images, like

her bellowing head
laboring upward as she gave voice

make us feel how dynamic the scene is.

Thus in highly subtle ways the poet is able to suggests what he learns from watching some Irish cows one afternoon, without being preachy or overtly didactic. Even we set aside the philosophic content of the poem, there is still enough in the poem to enrich us in a pleasing way because of the skill employed by the poet.

The Lady of Shalott

The Lady Of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is a beautiful poem in which the poet catches the true spirit of Romanticism. The poem has plenty of exquisite images and presents different tones and moods.

The poem begins with a beautiful description of the island of Shalott . Water lilies grow around the island and on either side of the river there are fields of barley and rye. Along the river there is a road that runs ‘to the many-towered Camelot’. Here we get a picture that matches the descriptions in King Arthur’s legends. However, the images of flowers and grains as well as the movements around serve as a contrasting back drop for the barren life of a lady who lives on the island.  She is generally known as Lady of Shalott. Nobody knows whether she has any other name. She lives a cloistered life in a castle with ‘four grey walls and four grey towers’.

But who has seen her wave her hand?

Or at the casement seen her stand?

Only the reapers reaping early in the morning or late at night hear her singing a song. Then they whisper to each other that it is the Lady of Shalott. She stays in her bower by day and night and weaves  a magic web in bright colours.

She has heard a whisper say,

A curse is on her if she stay

To look down to Camelot.

However, she has no idea what the curse is. So weaves on, without thinking of anything else. She sees the world only as the reflection on a mirror hanging in front of her. For years, she has not looked directly down the road to Camelot. Here the poet not only depicts what happened long ago and far away but also sustains the mystery by leaving a few things unsaid. Sadly, all the images that get reflected on her mirror are happy ones unlike her own life. She sees market girls in their bright dress, group of girls who are all happy, abbots passing by, shepherds tending their sheep, and boys on errands. She also sees the reflection of knights but she has no favourites among them.

She, however, weaves onto her web things that she sees. She weaves the images of a funeral and two loves in the moonlight and laments, ‘I am sick of shadows.’

One day, a handsome and bold knight comes riding down the road to Camelot. His attire and appearance are remarkable. The bridle with gems glitters like a string of stars; the bridle bells make sweet music, and on his bright dress hangs a silver bugle. The jewel on his saddle shines brightly and the helmet and the plume are as bright as a flame. His whole appearance is like that of a meteor burning bright. His curly hair is coal-black in colour and,

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;

On burnished hooves his war-horse trod;

He sings a merry tune as he rides and the mirror in front of Lady of Shalott reflects him for her. This sight is too much for her to resist. She leaves her web and the loom. She walks up and down in her room three times. She dares to look out at the water lilies and she sees the knight’s helmet and plume. She looks down to Camelot. In that instant her web flies away and her mirror cracks from side to side. She now realizes that ‘the curse is come upon’ her.

Nature changes immediately to foreshadow her tragedy. Everything merry becomes sad, a storm brews and it starts raining heavily. Lady of Shalott comes down from her tower and finds a boat beneath a willow tree. She writes her name on the prow of the boat. She looks towards Camelot, with no expression on her face, like a seer who looks at his own grim future. At the end of the day she loosens the chain that stays the boat and lie in it. The broad river takes her away down to Camelot. She is wearing a snowy white dress, giving her the appearance of a bride. Leaves fall on her like the nature’s tears.

As she drifts towards Camelot, they hear her sing her last song. She sings a carol in a low voice till her blood is completely frozen. She dies even before she reaches the first house in Camelot. Her dark eyes are still turned towards Camelot. She floats like a gleaming shape by the garden and galleries of houses in Camelot.

People come to the wharf to see her dead body. There were knights, burghers, lords and dames among them. They all read her name on the prow of the boat. They were all sad and silent and wondered who it was. Nobody spoke a word but crossed themselves out of fear. But Lancelot looked at her dead body and thought for a while. Then he said,

She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace

The Lady of Shalott

The poem ends there but it leaves a long lasting impression on the reader. We still don’t know who she is but we empathize with her in her tragedy. The images the poet painted are so clear and awe-inspiring that they haunt every reader. They rhyme scheme and the refrains add to the beauty of the poem. The rhythm makes the poem read like a folk song. This is indeed one of the greatest poems of all time.

The Tintern Abbey

In  The Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth we see a romantic poet at his best. The poet goes beyond the common romantic themes of ‘far away and long ago’ and looks deeper into himself by reflecting on his own relationship with nature and that of his sister’s. He argues that the pleasure derived from being in the presence of nature is more sublime than other everyday pleasures and that such a pleasure goes beyond sensual pleasures. For Wordsworth, poetry was the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility. Most of his poems on nature are recordings of his reflections on visits to landscapes he had done much after the actual visit.
Tintern Abbey even more so, since it was written after his second visit to the beautiful landscapes around the river Wye beside which there is an old place of worship called the Tintern Abbey. The abbey is now deserted and it suggests how religion has failed to console the poet during his most disturbed days and how nature took its place and successfully kept him happy and contended.
The poem begins with a graphically rich description of nature. Using beautiful images and melodious expressions the poet conjures up a beautiful image about the river.
These waters rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur

He looks higher up and sees the mountains that set forth the springs.
Once again
I behold these steep and lofty hills
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of a more deep seclusion;
The lines that follow appeal to our senses so much that they could be easily mistaken for those written by John Keats. The poet speaks of orchard-tufts which, with their unripe fruits, are clad in one great hue and lose themselves among other trees. He continues in the same mellifluous tone
These hedge rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild:
and then about movements and silence,
wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees
Having displayed his skills to describe nature, he starts to explore his own being and share his thoughts with us. He had seen that same landscape five years ago and it has changed very little. During all those years, it lingered in his memory and continued to please him.
I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensation sweet
and gave him ‘tranquil restoration’. It also gave him a serene and blessed mood in which his existence and ‘even the motion of his human blood’ were ‘almost suspended’ and he became nothing more than a pure ‘living soul’. His thoughts were settled and by the power of harmony he was able to see into the life of things. He often recalled the memory of this landscape when he was troubled by the fretful stir and the unprofitable fever of the world.
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit tuned to thee!
The poet recalls and compares how he behaved and felt during his first visit when he was much younger and less insightful and rather inexperienced. Then ‘like a roe’ he ‘bounded over the mountains by the side /Of the deep rivers’ and ‘wherever nature led’ him. Those were the ‘boyish days’ and he derived ‘coarser pleasures’ from his immediate experiences. The physical sensation and pleasure he enjoyed in the lap of nature from the ‘colours and forms’ did not make him think about or look for anything beyond the ‘here and now’.
But ‘that time is past’. During his second visit after five long years he feels ‘a pleasure that disturbs’ him,
with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
with his being. He is still,
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And the mountains; and of all we behold
But now, nature has risen from that which speaks ‘the language of the senses’ in order to please the human mind to the level of,
a nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being
Paganism or acknowledging and worshipping God in everything around us is not a philosophy favoured in the west. The monotheistic concept of the western religions does not allow the worship of any other God. So, nature poems in English, unlike those in the eastern languages, remained for long as description of nature’s beauty. Wordsworth, along with S. T. Coleridge, risked being called ‘a pagan’ and dared to call himself
A worshipper of nature …
Unwearied in that service…
making a personification of nature leading to its deification by using the word worship along with it.
The poet says that in the recent years when his life has been one of ‘sad perplexity’ and disillusionment he has learned to look on nature,
Not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity
Nor harsh or grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.
He has seen how nature can stay in one’s mind and continue to guide, help and raise one above the common din of life. Here the poet is referring to his disillusionment in his private life as well has the hope and despair that the French revolution gave him.
Now that he is aware of the immediate and long term benefits of being in the presence of nature, the poet wants to initiate into such a life his sister Dorothy who is accompanying him on this second visit. He sees in her, an image of what he used to be long ago. He assures her that no evil shall prevail on them, no rash thoughts shall come to them, no sneer of selfish men shall ever touch them and no unkind men can hurt them if they have faith in the powers of nature. It is her privilege to help men like that.
Knowing that nature never did betray
The heart that loved her
He hopes that his sister will take heed to remember this lesson that he is teaching him now.
If solitude , or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
She asks her whether she will ever forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; ………….
With warmer love – oh! With far deeper zeal
Of holier love.
He tells his sister that this second visit is dearer to him, both because of the beauty of nature and also because of his sister’s companionship. Thus we see how Wordsworth creates an atmosphere of affection, beauty, nostalgia, scenic beauty, and divinity to convey to us the embalming power of nature that raised man to sublime levels.