Poetic Anxiety



Anxiety takes many forms; it can sometimes appear very assured. Philip Larkin's poem, Next, Please,  [1]  is a direct look at the folly of expectancy. A light beginning develops into dark gallows-humour.

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching;  every day
Till then, we say,

and a parable begins, the poet grasping the arm of the reader on a rocky headland, looking out to sea. Life's events are seen as a line of approaching ships,

the sparkling armada of promises

long awaited, ready to unload their cargoes into the lives of poet and reader. (Larkin uses the words 'we' and 'our' throughout.) The description of the incoming vessels is side-splittingly funny. This is a parable, consciously overblown and made ridiculous, description replacing purpose, but it is done, as we shall see, for a purpose of the poet's own:

though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way

But, however distinct, these vessels and their cargoes are illusory. Yet we deserve all that they do not bring, the poet says. We are owed them because we have waited: we should be rewarded for our patience.

In the event, of course, there is no such thing as reward. The poet and his reader are no more rewarded than the man 'from the country' in Kafka's parable of the doorkeeper. Kafka's fable stands scrutiny here because it gives an insight into Larkin's. The 'man from the country' — the unexceptional man, purposefully not raised from the genus of humanity — leaves the world, but not through the portal which he has spent his life attempting to enter. That portal, open to him alone but inaccessible during his life, is closed to all, forever, upon his dying. There is no necessary pessimism here; there is only the dissolution of conscious intention. The reversion of the tense has purpose: His unique portal is closed. Its closure is a permanent present. Kafka does not allude to the portal by which he did leave — he does not even call it a portal — but refers to it only as a process: that of dying. The juxtaposition of the metaphorical and the literal, so continually alarming in Kafka's work, is especially cogent here. At its root is the unspoken assertion that what is desired takes on the form of a metaphor, shimmering but unreal, while that which happens is intellectually ungraspable, real, and inescapable.

And it is here that the works emotionally and metaphysically diverge. In Larkin's poem, comedy is dropped like a mask to reveal what he sees as the future truth. A kind of portal becomes apparent:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
a huge and birdless silence. In her wake
no waters breed or break.

Death itself comes, at the end, in the form of a metaphor.

There is a delicate craftsmanship in this poem. All aspects of meaning and ornament are carefully counterpoised. Under the humour is an emotion that is saved from being terror only by its orderliness; and, beneath that, the fear of the end of order cannot be spoken, because it is mute.

If we were to remove the craftsmanship, the elegant rime, the humour, to look at the philosophy beneath, what should we find? This? Human existence inevitably depends on expectation. People spend their lives in waiting in hope. Surely patience must count for something. It does not. Death comes (it is the only expectation which actually happens) and for us the world is over.

James Fenton considers the cause of Larkin's wounds in a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay [2]. He refers to Sigmund Freud's 1916 study 'On Transience'  [3]. This short work considers anxiety in the contemplation of the brevity of summer's beauty:

Not long ago I went on a summer walk through a smiling countryside in the company of a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet. The poet admired the beauty of the scene around us but felt no joy in it. He was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and the splendour that men have created or may create. All that he would have otherwise loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.

Freud reflects on the results which this transience has on the mind. Fleetingness can be denied ('it lives elsewhere') or it can be accepted. The young poet indeed accepts the fact of transience, but transience, according to Freud, has diminished his appreciation of beauty. This is Freud's essay, and he has a point to make. Surely

Transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment.

Suggestions of an emotional market economy taint the blandness of this reasoning, which in any case does not fit everyday evidence (take the distress of a child who learns that it must shortly be parted from its family: enjoyment hardly enters the equation.) The poet does not accept Freud's argument, and says so [4]. Freud, later in the same essay, and, more convincingly, regards anxiety in the face of transience as that grief which is anticipatory of the death of all that is loved.

Consider Philip Larkin's poem Tops  [5].  The poem dwells on the life-cycle of a spinning-top, from its first unsteadiness as it settles, through its gentle mid-life where it rotates so swiftly that it appears to be still, to the first flicker of a lurch which shows that the end of its life is close: and, finally, the brief noise as it topples and skids across the floor, to lie motionless. The poem is physically very closely observed. At no time is the life of the top compared with the life of a person, yet this dark metaphor hangs mutely over the work. These lines shock:

And what most appals
Is that tiny first shiver,
That stumble, whereby
We know beyond doubt
They have almost run out
And are starting to die.

It seems that Larkin felt the first shiver in his emotional life at an early age; its effects begin to appear in his poetry towards the end of the war. He seems to feel a precarious brink, beyond which there is nothing, into which he is about to fall. Religion, that vast moth-eaten musical brocade, and the specious stuff of philosophy are not even convincing: they are relevant only to the backward-looking eye. All that is left is a perishable material world. It is often claimed that Larkin has no metaphysic. But he does have a metaphysic: it is a complex metaphysic of a lifetime's experience of change. Religion and philosophy are for the past. For the future there is extinction. But, for the present, there is the given and apparent temporary world. Point-present materialism, which he seems to adopt almost against his will (as a kind of default philosophy, in that one must have some way of looking at the present world), is itself a part of that metaphysic. To someone born and brought up in any age the culture of that age is transparent—it is a given, part of oneself, and its generalities are axiomatic. It is seen as a given only under the influence of change: that is to say, only when it is about be lost. This is somewhere near the root of the strangeness of Larkin's poetry: the poet, an unwilling believer in the materialism of his age, explores its every avenue. He rarely ventures outside it. And yet, from this world — the world from which the British prime minister said 'there is no such thing as society' — he is able to give insights which are remarkable, universal and imperishable. This is an astonishing talent.

A position of psychological discomfort comes across in the writing. There is clear clinical depression in many of his poems, particularly as the gift of poetry left him. He held contradictory and sometimes pointlessly offensive views, both suggestive of anxious depression. Equable poems such as Livings are spoken by personae; in other poems these personae fall away and he seems to speak with his own voice. Larkin, the anarchist who called the formal Whitehall Remembrance Service for the war dead wreath-rubbish [6] is the same as the conservative who said that, alone in a world of terrible change, she [usually taken as being the monarch, though this may not be the case] did not change [7]. The latter poem, unpublished in his lifetime, is steeped in anxiety; it is not so much the sentiment of a monarchist as the prayer of a man clutching at straws in a sea of change. It evokes the anguish of Lear's Fool, who scans every skyline for the least scrap of consolation in an inverted world, and who seems to know, even as he speaks, that he will simply vanish from the play, unconsoled.

In Faith Healing [8] Larkin speaks of the neglected and unloved child within the adult. When the healer—part evangelist and part showman—leans over each elderly woman in the line before him, and says dear child:

some stay stiff, twitching and loud
With deep hoarse tears, as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone, that hands have come
To lift and lighten

This poem, again very closely observed and descriptively very true, is not blinded by the intensity of its compassion. It is desolating when read in its entirety.

In everyone there sleeps
a sense of life lived according to love.
To some is means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures.

In this last verse, Larkin withdraws from the faith-healing service and seems to be speculating upon the generality of loneliness; he feels it in his own inner life.

Poems such as these raise doubts about the extent of our knowledge of ourselves. Is that part of physiology which continually construes personhood outside any possibility of our own (or any other person's) perception?

George Berkeley approaches the nature of the anxiety of thought in his work The Principles of Human knowledge [9]. This remarkable work was published in 1710. Use of the intellect, says Berkeley, should result in calmness of mind. Yet it does not:

Philosophy being nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth, it may with reason be expected that those who have spent most time and pains in it should enjoy a greater calm and serenity of mind, a greater clearness and evidence of knowledge, and be less disturbed with doubts and difficulties than other men. Yet so it is, we see the illiterate bulk of mankind that walk the high-road of plain common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed. To them nothing that is familiar appears unaccountable or difficult to comprehend.


no sooner do we depart from sense and instinct to follow the light of a superior principle, to reason, meditate, and reflect on the nature of things, but a thousand scruples spring up in our minds concerning those things which before we seemed fully to comprehend.

In the analysis of our thought, which can never be impartial, we see that

those difficulties which have hitherto amused philosophers, and blocked up the way to knowledge, are entirely owing to ourselves that we have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.

Berkeley goes on to explain this by saying that abstract ideas are no more than systems of mental convenience, having no reality. He demonstrates this by having his reader visualize a geometrical figure, namely, a triangle, which possesses all the mutual incompatibilities of every class of triangle except, perforce, reality. The fit-all 'mind triangle' is an abstraction, transmissible but unreal. [10]

Abstract ideas are useful, but are subjective attributes, unreal in isolation. They are also part of our physiology; the mechanisms which allow them are acquired without apparent conscious connection, save that of use, in childhood [11]:

Is it not a hard thing to imagine that a couple of children cannot prate together of their sugar-plums and rattles and the rest of their little trinkets, till they have first tacked together numberless inconsistencies, and so framed in their minds abstract general ideas, and annexed them to every common name they make use of?

Berkeley considers that enunciations of consciousness and its language (and, presumably, the components of that language) are innate, mental structures conveying mundanities (in the best as well as the worst senses) but which cannot be described objectively: to attempt this would be to enter tautologies of abstract ideas, and, indeed, increasingly unreal families of tautologies, each increasingly legalistic and ephemeral.

At the core of the work is the assertion that the world is immaterial. It exists only in that it is perceived: the cosmos is because it is witnessed. Berkeley does not speculate on the nature of the witnesser beyond calling it eternal and a spirit; perhaps he believes that this witnesser can be no more understood than the nature of consciousness. This is an idea which has many contemporary resonances [12]. He may also believe that the ascribing of properties is an embarkation upon the course of limitation.

This places my sense of my own being in a new perspective. Whatever it is that underlies and maintains my sense of I — heightening it in fear and dissolving it in concentration — it seems to be a quality of creation rather than a lone entity in a material world [13]. That obscure centrality, so troubling to the intellect, gains fluidity and, in the end, transparency.

Notes and cited works

[1]  Philip Larkin, Next, Please — The Less Deceived (1955)

[2]  James Fenton, Philip Larkin - Wounded by Unshrapnel — The New York Review of Books (April 12 2001)

[3]  Sigmund Freud, On Transience (1916)

[4]  The summer's walk was apparently taken just prior to the 1914 - 1918 war. The unnamed poet's anxiety may have been due to an unconscious apprehension of the coming war. C G Jung writes that his own apprehensions at that time were so strong that he feared that he was being 'menaced by a psychosis'.

[5]  Philip Larkin, Tops — Listen (Spring 1957)

[6]  Philip Larkin

[7]  Philip Larkin, 'In times when nothing stood' (written March 1978)

[8]  Philip Larkin, Faith-Healing — The Whitsun Weddings (1964)

[9]  George Berkeley, The Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) Many (including Ludwig Wittgenstein) have considered Berkeley to be a very profound thinker. Yet 'The Principles of Human Knowledge' is very accessible; because of the time of its writing it contains little jargon. The writing is refreshingly innocent and conversational. Berkeley wrote in colloquial English rather than the more usual and formal Latin. Apparently the central ideas came to Berkeley in flashes of insight when he was a schoolboy; he spent much of the rest of his life attempting to portray them as a logical construction of thought, first in 'The Principles of Human Knowledge', which was initially little read, and then as a series of Platonic dialogues, 'Hylas and Philonous', which established his reputation. The logic is by no means always water-tight, but considering that the work is a result of transcendental insights, it's impressive.

[10] This is not quite the case. Any drawn class of triangle can become any perceived class of triangle by the appropriate tilting of the plane on which it is drawn: reality need not be taken flat.

[11]  As a student I was fortunate enough to attend Werner Schutt's paediatric outpatient clinics. He had a keen understanding of the development of abstract ideation in children, and he was a fine teacher. I remember him saying that the idea of representation is a surprisingly late development. For example, a small child will think of any vessel which in practice serves the use of a cup as a cup, but the idea that a miniature doll's cup—too small to be used as a cup—represents a cup comes much later. The infant often seems wiser than its elders because its mind is not enmeshed in representative ideas. Ideas of representation form a huge and usually transparent part of adult thinking and are largely taken for granted as self-evident truths. At one end of the spectrum they may be termed mythic, and at the other end, literal. Between these poles lie countless arguments.

[12]  Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Dennett quotes others.

[13]  I use the term 'creation' here in a mythic rather than a literal way. Darwininian ideas fit unexpectedly well with the core of Berkeley's way of considering the world. There is much modern speculation that 'creation' is self-observing.

David Wheldon