A Willow At Patmos

I sat below the blooming willow

As the midday sun suggested reverie

Decaying bark upholstered pillow

Shapes and shadows loomed in tapestry


A vision formed of an ancient great hall

Golden ornaments reached down from high

Lower reaches trashed and disfigured all

Athena’s statue moved to utter sigh


I saw a lion cower in a cage

Saw an hourglass empty of sand

Dreamt of books without a page

On the pinnacle, saw desolate land


I spoke with a slave without a master

Who said that doors were made to close

Dreamed his head turned to alabaster

Taken to factory for processed pose


A child sacrificed on makeshift pyre

To wild laughter and gaiety serene

I felt electric on the wire

Heard the gentle’s throttled scream


A tattooed thug in flowing robes

Pronouncing law with mocking spite

The decent trudge on endless roads

Bow their heads to spittled might


Wise men watch a great library burn

Preserve some scrap torn in haste

Wheels of toil forever turn

Spoiled product of automated waste


Among the ruins children dance

Without a melody or a role

In bare castles the princes prance

And blind scholars loudly extol


Meadows fill with poison air

Paths all lead to whence they came

What once was common now is rare

What was singular is all the same


I turned away from unwanted dreams

Evading horrors which scream and stare

In waking hours I search for means

I know not what, I know not where


An Ocean Drop

A donkey drags around the rut

Without the rope that now lies cut

A free man holds his wrists shut

Minus manacles that made him mutt


Into what ocean flow these streams

Into what pit go all these dreams

Open space, in free air seems

Yet a desert as death would deem

Without Scale

A pebble thrown in hidden creek

I dip my shoe in shallow water

With quiet sound it flows sleek

Upon the stones I ungainly totter


Day upon day as a bottomless well

It seemed the stream would endless wait

But like the tortoise loose of shell

I left my home and shut the gate

A Walk Along The Beach

Steps that wind down to shore

Sand that shimmers unto eye

Swims the tide to wet the dry

Conquer and recede once more


Calming sound that gentle roars

In steady time to reassure

In modest height waves can lure

Swimmer meek or boatman’s oars


Fine particles stick to fingers

A tiny portion of the vast

Warming sun absorbed to last

Bare feet do not long linger


Footsteps trace in gentle print

A course followed at remove

Increasing gaps serve reprove

To cloud covered sun’s mere glint


Haze obscures encircled horizon

Wind dances to unheard tune

A valley sheltered by a dune

Shadows towel a woman lies on


An intimate joins taking the air

Disrupts routine in shared experience

Making treasure of rare appearance

Lending colour to internal lair


Wind swirls in unruly direction

Blows and whistles, caress and still

Fresh to the sea, waking the will

Balancing chill for fair complexion


Here time slows almost to stop

No mechanics churn the day

Leisure’s accident is not to stay

Thoughts of work, the sun drops

The Intellectual

A spirit stands at base of great cathedrals

Its spires spray into ethereal sky

His lowly gaze fixes on reachable trestle

Rages and thrashes, then calmly plies


So many fallen join the ignorant task

Chipping and exploiting decaying symbols

When at last they undo the displaced mask

Unto each other, like crashing cymbals

About Philip Larkin

Reading some Philip Larkin poems the other day I noticed a theme of self-criticism. It has helped me understand his enigmatic attitude towards religion that writers such as Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton have written about. He was an atheist and in his startling poem about death called Aubade he famously calls it “a vast moth-eaten musical brocade/created to pretend we never die”. One notices a hint of disappointment in that description. Like anticipating to see a wonderful old painting but only finding some kitsch Virgin Mary replica.

The most direct expression of this self criticism is in “Wild Oats” where he describes going out with a girl when he was young who ultimately rejected him:

“Parting, after about five

Rehearsals, was an agreement

That I was too selfish, withdrawn,

And easily bored to love.”


Wild Oats has a connection with another poem called “High Windows” where he describes seeing young people and envying their free joy as “everyone young going down the long slide/To happiness, endlessly”. He thinks that rejection of the old morality has something to do with it “That’ll be the life;/No God any more, or sweating in the dark/About hell and that”. But ends with this vision of high windows:

“Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”


In “Vers de Societe” Larkin returns to the theme of an inability to connect with others hinted at in Wild Oats. A wistful description of quiet evenings is interspersed with strangely forceful injunctions; “All solitude is selfish” and “All virtue is social”. Then it ends with:

“Only the young can be alone freely.

The time is shorter now for company,

And sitting by a lamp more often brings

Not peace, but other things.

Beyond the light stand failure and remorse”


This explains that powerful description of the fear of death that Larkin expresses in Aubade which you really should read in full. I hadn’t before realised how important to that poem is the phrase “Time torn off unused”. Larkin has the sense that there is only so much time to do what is worthwhile and reproaches himself for not doing enough. But with his English and Anglican Christianity no longer driving him, but still making some quiet demand below the hum of thought to do something worthwhile, what is it that should be pursued?

The only answer that Larkin could find is in his poem “An Arundel Tomb”. He describes a man and woman who have been buried in adjacent graves with a single inscription that has been slightly eroded in the passage of time. Presumably they had some changing and dynamic relationship but it is captured for posterity in the only way it can be. So he ends that poem:

“Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love.”