Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Marion Shaw's lecture "Larkin and Tennyson"

HS made me a copy of the revised text of the Distinguished Guest Lecture delivered at the Larkin Society AGM on 13 June 2009. In the lecture, Marion Shaw discussed Larkin's ambivalence towards Tennyson, how he at once excoriated the Laureate's silliness and envied the poet's, and his period's, "range, the colour, the self-confidence of it all" (Required Writing, p. 182).

Using Bloomian theory in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), a book Shaw describes as "slightly mad," she reads three poems by Larkin as  "corrections" of his poetic predecessor. "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" directly quotes "sweet girl-graduate" from Tennyson's The Princess. The "heavy-headed rose/ Beneath a trellis" also works within a field of Tennysonian reference, in particular that of his early English Idylls, perhaps "The Gardener's Daughter." The narrator of Tennyson's poem is a portrait painter who invites the reader to look into the past. In Larkin's poem, it is the work of photography, "a different kind of recollection, harder, sharper, more accurate," as Shaw puts it. She goes on, "The twentieth century cannot tolerate too much in the way of roses."

She compares Larkin's "Here" to section CXV of Tennyson's In Memoriam by pointing out both poets' skill in working with different visual distances. Her conclusion here is a rich insight: "Although Larkin's Here" is bleaker and even slightly sinister, and Tennyson's poem is optimistic, both belong to the traditional pastoral form which finds in nature an echo of human emotion. Tennyson gave this kind of landscape writing, which of course does not originate with him, an apparent simplicity and large reflectiveness which Larkin could draw on, could mould to his own desires, could rewrite with a characteristic, clear-sighted focus on the parochial and the mundane."

Finally she reads Larkin's "Aubade" as a reworking of Tennyson's poem about the dawn "Tithonus." Larkin would have known the Tithous myth, but would have recognized that his readership would probably not know it. Shaw comments, "So his own dawn song swerves away from the glorious colour and self-confidence of his predecessor." Here I am reminded of Larkin's criticism of poets who resort to the common myth kitty, a comment that points to a highly self-conscious choice of poetic strategy. But one breaks with one strand of tradition only to connect with another. If not Tennyson, then Hardy. Larkin seems, to me, not to attempt an individualism like the American Eliot, but to choose his lineage carefully. Or is the difference between choosing and taking for granted the choice?

It is interesting to me that Shaw concludes her essay by quoting Heidegger, from his essay "What are poets for?" The German writes, "In the age of the world's night, the abyss of the world must be experienced and endured. But for this it is necessary that there must be those who reach into the abyss." Asked about the melancholic nature of his poetry, Larkin said, in Shaw's paraphrase, "ah, but writing something, no matter how sad, is a celebration, an achievement, like laying an egg." The abyss and the triumph over it through art is Nietzsche's central thesis. Nietzsche--Heidegger--Larkin. The line, preposterous at first glance, is not so silly. I don't mean the Nazi taint. I mean something more fundamental, a tragic view of the world.

1 comment:

Shropshirelad said...

The more I stare into Nietzsche's Abyss, the less Abyss I see. You never can tell for certain what is going on in Abysses, but now and then I think I see in my Abyss the psychological phenomenon Freud identified as reaction formation, the reaction to the notion that God is dead. I wonder if my mind hasn't created a Miltonic pit out of the pinnacle of Heaven it had once imagined?

If one grants that Heaven might not exist, why then do we suppose an Abyss? We can point to acts of evil, or banality, I suppose, as evidence of something abysmal at the heart of things: but how is this mentally any different than pointing to the mathematical structure of a nautilus shell and inferring intelligent, benevolent design?

I remember once having a talk with a roommate about how awful our childhoods were. We sighed mightily about it. And then, after another glass of wine, I said something like, "What really makes my past so hard to remember was that it wasn't all bad. There really were a lot of beautiful moments." When I think about how to incorporate these ideas into a poem, I am reminded of something by Nabokov, from the poem in Pale Fire:

I'll turn down eternity unless
The melancholy and the tenderness
Of mortal life; the passion and the pain;
The claret taillight of that dwindling plane
Off Hesperus; your gesture of dismay
On running out of cigarettes; the way
You smile at dogs; the trail of silver slime
Snails leave on flagstones; this good ink, this rhyme,
This index card, this slender rubber band
Which always forms, when dropped, an ampersand,
Are found in Heaven by the newlydead
Stored in its strongholds through the years...

How do I square this circle? I wonder if the tragic universe works as well as a model for me now as it used to do. I have to exclude too many supple, evanescant, fragile, complicating details from the machinery for it to really work out (geometrically) in my imagination...

Just a few funny thoughts inspired by your thoughtful remarks...