Giant whispering and coughing from
Vast Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on spaces
Precede a sudden scuttle on the drum,
‘The Queen’, and huge resettling. Then begins
A snivelling of the violins:
I think of your face among all those faces,
Beautiful and devout before
Cascades of monumental slithering,
One of your gloves unnoticed on the floor
Beside those new, slightly-outmoded shoes.
Here it goes quickly dark. I lose
All but the outline of the still and withering
Leaves on half-emptied trees. Behind
The glowing wavebands, rabid storms of chording
By being distant overpower my mind
All the more shamelessly, their cut-off shout
Leaving me desperate to pick out
Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.
Philip Larkin might not be an obvious choice for St Valentine’s Day; after all, he did say “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”. But let’s get this straight: I love Larkin’s poetry. And it’s lazy to simply call his work too depressing and too bleak.
The persona, Larkin I presume, is somewhere listening to a radio broadcast of some concert. Although the title is ‘Broadcast’, he’s more interested in someone he feels deeply for who is present at the concert. The language at the start reflects his disdain for much of the proceedings, ‘frowned-on’, ‘scuttle’, ‘snivelling’, ‘slithering’ in contrast to the way he describes his love, ‘Beautiful’, ‘devout’. He uses all that space created in words such as ‘Giant whispering’, ‘Vast Sunday-full’ to create the beautiful tenderness he feels as he zooms in on the object of his affections, ‘I think of your face among all those faces’. Lovely, isn’t it? There’s nothing bleak or depressing here as Larkin reminds himself of the tiny details which only affection and companionship might notice, the ‘gloves’ and ‘slightly-outmoded shoes’.
I know, I know, it doesn’t stay there. Larkin can never quite commit himself to saying that ‘what will survive of us is love’. It was only ever ‘almost true’. Even in the midst of this tenderness, his longing for the woman, he can’t keep imagining her, ‘it goes quickly dark’. The language reflects his annoyance at the music, ‘rabid storms of chording’ because it has taken his attention away from her. What he sees instead is failure. The trees are ‘half-emptied’, the leaves ‘withering’. He is ‘desperate’ to imagine her again but fails.
So why isn’t this the bleak poem I suggested at first? Firstly, because Larkin realises the truth that love cannot answer everything. He knows that we fail. Even with those we love most deeply, we let them down, we disappoint them, we behave in unloving ways. Better to understand that, to know that love cannot possibly answer everything we hope it will. More than that, even as he thinks of failure, he’s still trying to find her ‘hands, tiny in all that air’. The tenderness, his love and desire for her undermines the idea of failure. And he’s written a poem about it! About her! A poem which I’m writing about now and you’ve just read! And in that way what Larkin felt for this woman, this tenderness, this love, does last, it does endure.
The poem speaks to that feeling we all know. That feeling of being apart from the one we love. That failure of memory to do the loved one justice. That tenderness which comes with love. That desire to be with someone which can bring both joy and sadness, both beauty and loss. It’s about the complexity of love in all its loveliness.
It’s true love. And you won’t find that in a Valentine’s card.