Friday’s Poem 4/17/09

Philip Larkin – “When First We Faced”

When first we faced, and touching showed
How well we knew the early moves,
Behind the moonlight and the frost,
The excitement and the gratitude,
There stood how much our meeting owed
To other meetings, other loves.

The decades of a different life
That opened past your inch-close eyes
Belonged to others, lavished, lost;
Nor could I hold you hard enough
To call my years of hunger-strife
Back for your mouth to colonise.

Admitted: and the pain is real.
But when did love not try to change
The world back to itself–no cost,
No past, no people else at all–
Only what meeting made us feel,
So new, and gentle-sharp, and strange?

Commentary
This is an intriguing little poem. It explores a complexity of emotions: the excitement of new love, the pain of past loves (and losses), the fear involved with love itself.

The first stanza is pretty straightforward: the recognition that each new relationship is born out of the experiences, good and bad, of the past.

The second stanza takes a more enigmatic turn for me. I had to read “inch-close eyes” several times before I understood it; at first, I thought of a woman’s eyes being closed an inch, but not fully closed, and I tried to imagine that. OK, moving on, he’s talking about memories, I guess, the fact that there’s a part of this woman that doesn’t belong to him. So, next, I’m a little confused about what he means by the years of “hunger-strife” and what it would mean for her mouth to “colonise” them. I’m guessing he means that he has had years of loneliness that she cannot erase?

And this third stanza – more odd wording. Is he basically saying (in the guise of asking) that love tries to erase the past, to reshape memories to conform to it? The phrase “The world back to itself” is ambiguous – I’m not sure if “itself” refers to love or the world, and that would definitely change the interpretation.

Regardless of the meanings of specific words or phrases, the ending to me is pretty clear: the experience of love is new, startling, going beyond what came before, even if it could not have sprung into being without the past. I think I like this poem because its slightly convoluted wording gets me thinking about the startling nature of new relationships.

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One Response to Friday’s Poem 4/17/09

  1. Angele says:

    Ah, Philip Larkin–the poet who said that deprivation was to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth, the defiantly solitary misanthrope who quipped about sex, “Isn’t it like getting someone else to blow your nose for you?”

    Of course there was a tormented romantic inside.

    “Behind the moonlight and the frost”–I love the juxtaposition of dreaming moonlight and chilling frost, eternal hope and blighting experience.

    “Inch-close eyes”–eyes that are an inch away from the speaker’s eyes (part of the “excitement” of a fresh intimacy), as well as partly closed–although not enough to conceal “the decades of a different life…[b]elonged to others, lavished, lost…” (beautiful, that “lavished, lost”).

    I suppose that to an Englishman, the image of colonisation–to use the British spelling–could connote an untouched land being explored and brought to fruition (something that the world-weary speaker and his beloved are no longer capable of), although the I think that the word choice would seem odd to any American with political views to the left of Ann Coulter.

    I think that the final stanza contradicts the first two stanzas. The lovers of this poem, despite everything they have known and suffered (“[a]dmitted: and the pain is real”), surrender to the moment, to the sensual realization of love–“love chang[ing]/ [t]he world back to itself,” to that irresistable connection. The “new” lovers stand (or swoon) alone and together:

    “no cost,
    No past, no people else at all–
    Only what meeting made us feel,
    So new, and gentle-sharp, and strange?”

    One of the things I admire about Larkin’s verse is his ability to combine contemporary colloquial language (“the early moves”) with a formal but natural-sounding rhyme scheme.

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