Philip Larkin has variously been described, a quick look at Google tells us (let’s not spend too long on it), as the “unofficial laureate of post-1945 England”, “a laureate of the studiously nondescript”, “the laureate of a post-Christian, secular England” and “the dreary laureate of our provincialism”. Well he was a laureate anyway: they all agree on that. But was he dreary? Well he certainly looked – and sounded – dreary. But while his poems are often distillations of pessimism – and yes, that post-Christian thing – curiously their unflinching realism about age, death and failure often makes me smile, perhaps wryly. His letters too (I’m thinking of the ones to Monica Jones rather than those to Kingsley Amis) make me smile, even titter, though of course they are not always nice.
Having returned to my desk after a spell gazing absently out the window across the city to the Dublin/Wicklow mountains in the south and their dusting of powdery snow (perhaps more than a dusting in some remote valleys) the blog Interesting Literature happened to guide me to a list of poems about winter among which is “First Sight” by Philip Larkin, a verse that is certainly neither lugubrious nor pessimistic; and yet, in spite of its subject, still, I think, manages not to be cutesy or sentimental.
Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.
As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasureable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.
The other poems selected are Louis MacNeice’s “Snow”, Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”, Emily Dickinson’s “It Sifts from Leaden Sieves”, Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”, TS Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97, Robert Frost’s “Desert Places”, Sylvia Plath’s “Waking in Winter” and the anonymous “Wynter wakeneth al my care”.
And here, from John Berryman, is another poem about sheep