something almost being said

May 7, 2020 poetry appreciation

A few weeks back I mentioned that we’d get to Larkin’s trees in May. Well, it’s May, and here are ‘The Trees‘. You can hear Larkin reading the poem, and watch an accompanying animation (commissioned by the BBC on the 30th anniversary of Larkin’s death), here.

As anyone who’s attended a poetry event I’ve facilitated will know, I do bang on about Tennyson’s In Memoriam a lot. As an anatomy of grief I think it’s an extraordinary thing, never mind that it constitutes a sort of compendium of, and meditation on, so many C19th preoccupations, discoveries and fears. The whole thing is written in quatrains rhyming abba, with 4 iambs per line. The whole thing. That’s 133 poems, varying in length from 3 to 36 stanzas. And it never feels clunky. Isn’t that amazing?

So part of what I love about ‘The Trees’, which has grief about finiteness at its core, is Larkins’s allusive and deft use of the In Mem stanza. This form is so apt for writing about grief: the steady inevitability—sometimes relentlessness—of the metre; the way the rhyme scheme seems to offer a sort of comfort, with the neat predictability of the bb rhymed couplet in the middle, but then confounds your ear with the return of the a sound at the end of line four, where it seems both strange and echoingly familiar at the same time. The form mimics something of the inescapability of grief; something of its cyclical nature—sorrow as a process; something, too, of the way thoughts and feelings can ambush you just when you’d started to breathe out. CS Lewis points this out, in A Grief Observed: ‘There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all… Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace’. All this insight embedded in the (apparently-simple) stanza form itself. As I said, amazing.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, back to ‘The Trees’. It’s a poem of things ‘almost being said’. The grief and terror about mortality, foregrounded so explicitly elsewhere in Larkin, here exist as a haunting, haunted subtext—the words behind, or inside, the actual words of the poem. It’s only ‘a kind of grief’, this reminder that we do not, as the trees seem to, renew each year; and in the acknowledgement that ‘they die too’ what’s implied but not actually said is “yup, we die. Everything does”. Larkin notes that the ‘looking new’ is merely a ‘yearly trick’ and that the trees only ‘seem’ to speak of renewal; but he doesn’t spell out “the truth” that nothing can last forever. The fear of finiteness is communicated all the more clearly for not being actually spoken: it’s so powerful that it can’t be named.

And how about that final line? Gotta be one of the most effective uses of repetition ever. It does so much. Sound-wise, it evokes the susurration of wind in young leaves (beech leaves, in my version). It has the feel of a ballad’s refrain, a folky simplicity—the sense of an old story, simply told. And it also has a melancholy ‘dying fall’ so fitting to close the poem as a whole. It fades out. There can be no triumphant turn or definitive conclusion

And yet… in that glorious image of the ‘unresting castles thresh[ing]/ In fullgrown thickness every May’ the poem also captures something of the sheer lush lavishness of life, and the way its wonders and beauty tempt us into engagement even as—even though—we know it’s only ever going to end one way. This is the ‘trick’ life plays on us: we know it only ‘seem[s]’ to be “safe” (whatever that might mean), yet we are charmed, and capitulate, and fall in love with it anyway—especially in spring. And thus, though there isn’t a redemptive “turn”, the poem arrives at a fragile kind of equipoise where not ‘bear[ing] very much reality’ allows us to carry on. That may be as good as it gets, on Planet Larkin.

And next time you’re out in the wonder of spring woods, just listen out for that siren refrain: ‘Begin afresh, afresh, afresh’…

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