2003 Selected Papers & Photos

Vibrations in the Memory: Larkin's Favorite Books and Classical Music
Father Gabriel Myers OSB
For the Barbara Pym Society, 29 March 2003

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory--
. . . And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on. (Shelley)

Barbara Pym
"Unreachable inside a room"
a line of Larkin
rogue librarians
Coventry Carol, 15th c. Pageant of Shearmen & Tailors
That woe is me, poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day, for thy parting
Neither say nor sing By By, lully lullay!
How to Sleep; I Remember, I Remember

Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te... (40-Part Motet, c. 1570), Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-85)
My hope has never been in any other but thee, O God of Israel....
Lord God, creator of heaven & earth, look down in mercy on our lowliness.
Thomas Howard & famous father-in-law, 1570
An Arundel Tomb

Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major (III. Adagio), 1908, Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Going, Going; High Windows
"Praise the Lord" from Solomon, 1749, G.F. Handel (1685-1759)
Praise the Lord with harp and tongue; Praise him, all ye old and young:
He's in mercy ever strong.
Praise the Lord through every state; Praise him early, praise him late:
God alone is good and great.
Let the loud hosannas rise, Widely speaking through the skies:
God alone is just and wise.
Broadcast; For Sidney Bechet

Vibrations in the Memory

Two years ago at this meeting I presented a tape of Barbara's appearance on the radio program "Desert Island Discs." While being interviewed the guest celebrity is asked to name the eight records she would grab from a sinking ship, and snippets of these pieces are played. I then decided to try the same thing for her friend the poet Philip Larkin for a presentation I made in Hull, Yorkshire last summer. Having no tape or transcript I only had his choices to go on. I decided not to deal with four of his choices, because his passion for jazz (which sadly I do not share) is treated well enough in his own essays. The first half of the presentation will not treat the one book named on the radio program (the plays of Shaw), but the author mentioned on another occasion when asked about his favorite books. He named Excellent Women, though I believe his top favorite was A Glass of Blessings.

I am charmed and moved by the friendship between Larkin and my favorite novelist: how they wrote 14 years before meeting, how they supported each other as artists (Barbara doing her share by affirming him during the critical reaction against his old-fashioned choices in editing the Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse), how a faint odor of courtly romance permeated the informality of their friendship. You can read their letters and biographies for yourself; it is also worth searching out Larkin's beautiful entry for Pym in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB 1971-80). I would rather show what I think of as Larkin's tiny cameo appearances in Barbara's novels.

There are two obvious ones. In Barbara's masterpiece about old age, Quartet in Autumn, there is an unattributed Larkin line when Marcia (said to be "going round the bend") is discovered in a state of medical emergency. "Marcia had always appreciated the drama of an ambulance ride and even wanted to ride in one, but when the time came she was hardly in a position to realize that she was achieving this unusual ambition. 'Unreachable inside a room' she may have been, yet there was no sense of that little room becoming an everywhere, in the fantasy of an earlier poet" (172). I n this paragraph the author brings together John Donne, the favorite poet of her youth, with the author of "Ambulances" (full stanza at footnote 1). When the book was about to be published (after sixteen difficult wilderness years), she wrote to Larkin, "Did you notice the little tiny Larkin quote? I never asked the author's permission! I felt in some superstitious way that it might bring me luck, as indeed it did" (VPE, 14 April 77)!

The second obvious reference is mentioned in Andrew Motion's poem "This Is Your Subject Speaking." Larkin says,

I'm reading the new Barbara Pym,
and she says what a comfort
poetry is, when you're grieving
(but you were laughing):
"a poem by T.S. Eliot;
a passage by Hardy;
a line by Larkin"... a line...
And think what I did for her!

He may have said this, but I believe he used a tone of gentle irony about his own heroic role in promoting Barbara's l iterary fortunes. Those new to Larkin should understand that Andrew Motion's tell-all biography caused a huge reversal of Larkin's reputation: from being a deeply beloved national institution at his death in 1985, Larkin became a cultural pariah, more known for his obscene, unkind, and politically incorrect remarks than for his beautiful poetry. I think it's unfair to judge a person by his worst private side.

Here is the full quotation from the very last Pym novel. Beatrix, a professor, is visiting her anthropologist daughter. "She wondered if Emma was pitied in the village. By conventional standards she probably would be. 'Pity is sworn servant unto love,' she quoted. 'Do you know that? Samuel Daniel, a minor Elizabethan, but you probably know some of his sonnets.' Her voice faltered because Emma probably did not know. A few sad Hardy poems, a little Eliot, a line of Larkin seemed inadequate solace" (FGL 165).

Larkin especially admired Barbara's gallery of "rogue librarians," which began with her very first novel published in 1950. But does her treatment become even richer by the material gathered from the University Librarian of Hull? Gentle Ianthe considers her boss at the library, Mr Cantrell, "a tall thin irritable-looking man who always brought a packed lunch, having the idea he could not 'take' restaurant food.... Poor Mervyn, she ought to feel sorry for him, living with his disagreeable old mother, disappointed at not having a job in a University library, with a staff unable to appreciate the niceties of setting out a correct bibliographical entry, with few friends of either sex--really, the list seemed endless" (UA 26-8).

Barbara used Larkin's descriptions of student protests for her academic novel. Experimental and admittedly weaker than her other works, there are some delightful bits. Caro's husband, an academic on the rise, similar to a satirical Larkin character named Jake Balokowosky--"Posterity" was a Pym favorite, oddly enough. (Others receiving special mention in VPE are "Faith Healing," "The Building," and the last great Larkin poem, "Aubade" [287, 313-14].) He reproves Caro for insufficient socializing at a faculty party. "'You didn't say a word to Evan Cranton.' 'You know I'm frightened of him.' 'Frightened of the librarian--Caro, really!' 'I don't know what to say, and his cold sarcastic tones do not help at all'" (12). This is another good-humored reference to the crotchety and intimidating qualities of Barbara's poet-librarian friend.

But it is in Quartet in Autumn that traces of Larkin's character most brilliantly appear. "Norman shook himself like a tetchy little dog. His irritable mood was intensified by the cars rushing past, preventing him from crossing the road. Then he had to wait a long time for the bus. When he reached his neighborhood there were more cars. Some of them were so large that their hindquarters--rumps, buttocks, and bums--jutted over the kerb. 'Bugger,' he muttered, kicking one of them. 'Bugger, bugger, bugger.' Nobody heard him. The almond trees were in flower, but he was unconscious of their blossom shining in the lamplight" (14). This scene suggests t wo sides of Larkin's character: the Keatsian romantic who notices the almond blossom, and the miserable kicking old man. How much was Larkin reveling in the attention when he exclaimed, "I liked Norman!"

In Pym there is always a romantic angle. "When she had first worked here Marcia had experienced a faint stirring of interest in Norman, a feeling that was a good many degrees cooler than tenderness but had occupied her thoughts briefly. She had followed him one lunch-hour to the British Museum where he had visited alarming objects including mummified crocodiles. But she had not spoken to him. So as time went on Marcia's feeling for Norman waned" (23). The romantic element reappears later, and Norman becomes startlingly memorable, the brilliant result of the author's objectivity and sympathy for a prickly personality.

* * *

When I prepared Barbara's Desert Island Discs, I felt like Larkin, who found the music "slightly foreign for me." The choices were mostly works of the romantic period, with some opera. Larkin's classical choices are closer to my preferences as a church musician. There is some irony in the non-believer (not the churchgoer) naming three works which fit so easily into my high-school course in Sacred Music.

Larkin's first choice is surprising given his disgust for the holidays. I often think of his letter, "And now Christmas is coming again, as if we hadn't enough to put up with. It's nearly enough to extinguish the low solstitial flame of life--and will, one of these years" (VPE, 7 December 63). But the carol Larkin chose is closely related to his own favorite themes of grief and loss, lamenting the cruel massacre of the Bethlehem innocents. Its focus on the suffering of women is similar to Larkin's sensitivity toward the female protagonists of "Faith Healing" and "Love Songs in Age," both Pym favorites. As a lullaby it reminds me of the early unpublished poem "How to Sleep" (Collected Poems, 35), with its connection between ordinary sleep and the sleep of death.

Child in the womb,
Or saint on a tomb--
Which way shall I lie
To fall asleep?
[Larkin unsuccessfully tries the supine posture.]
But sleep stays as far,
Till I crouch on one side
Like a foetus again--
For sleeping, like death,
Must be won without pride,
With a lack of strain,
And a loss of stature.
The carol is from a medieval mystery play, a special moment in England's literary history (was this a factor in Larkin's choice?). Though chosen for its beauty, the place of origin has an obvious significance.
Coming up England by a different line
For once, in the cold new year,...
Why Coventry! I exclaimed. I was born here.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest...
'You look as if you wished the place in hell,'
My friend said...'Oh well,
I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said. ("I Remember, I Remember" 81)
(Poetry lovers would disagree that "nothing" happened there.)

Larkin's second choice is a prayer for mercy by the great Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, who accommodated his sacred music to both Catholic and Protestant sovereigns: a tightrope act with no aesthetic compromise. His technical virtuosity is most brilliant in "Spem in Alium," a Latin motet written in forty different vocal parts. John Rutter says that "this is true polyphony: each voice has a distinct role and is not subordinate to another part. Great outbursts of sound alternate with moments of expressive, even mystical, individuality." It reminds me of flickering candles.

One tradition claims the piece was commissioned by Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. A visiting Italian composer had won admiration for his 40-part motet in 1567, so Howard challenged Tallis for a better one. The Latin text is a prayer from the biblical story of Judith, a gallant female who saves Israel by beheading the Babylonian general Holofernes. (While this is extreme material for gentle Pym readers, one remembers Jessie conquering Fabian Driver -- "what Miss Morrow had we shall never know," says Mrs Glaze, "or what ways she may have stooped to.") A rather gruesome footnote to the biblical plot is that the noble Thomas Howard was later beheaded by Elizabeth I on false charges of treason. More happily, at the premiere of the Motet Howard was so moved by its excellence that he removed the gold chain he was wearing and put it on the neck of the 68-year-old composer.

This took place at the London home of Henry Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, whose ancestor's effigy clasps his wife's hand in the poem Barbara chose as one of her Desert Island Discs. (Her reason was that on the island she wanted to have "the voice of someone I know.") This beautiful affirmation of the power of love to transcend death is a favorite for many of us. Like the Tallis it is a work of virtuosity. (When Larkin heard the recording of his voice he asked, "who is that gobbling pansy?") I don't think we'll agree, and perhaps the perfect response to his sublime poem is the heavenly sound of the Tallis motet.

Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
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. ("An Arundel Tomb," 110-11)

No one should be surprised at Larkin's choice of Elgar, whose "high romanticism and deep emotional sensitivity are blended with an unmistakably English quality of inspiration and a direct popular appeal" (Oxford Companion to English Lit.). There are some personal similarities between Larkin and Sir Edward. "Elgar was acutely sensitive to criticism. He misinterpreted and by extreme reaction provoked quarrels and rejection. Ill at ease on formal occasions he could appear curt, rude, bad-tempered. But with close friends he was an amusing conversationalist, high-spirited, fond of japes and of women's company" (elgar.org).

The poignance of Elgar's music, written at the high point of British Empire, calls to mind Larkin's "Going, Going," which seems an uneven poem. But peeking through the satirical reference to crooks and tarts is the wistful voice of authentic grief.

                And when
You try to get near to the sea
In summer...
                It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn't going to last....
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs. (189-90)

Elgar said there was no program, no explicit content, for his first symphony other than "a wide experience of human life with great charity and massive hope in the future." This does not sound like the pessimistic Larkin who said, "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth." But the act of artistic creation, even by a nihilist, is always somehow an act of faith. Barbara saw past the belligerence of the four-letter words in Larkin's late poems (in Quartet she finds several herself, on the subway platform). She praises the richness in the volume of which "High Windows" is the title poem. The shocking first lines give way to a meditation on emptiness, which is a sort of heaven in Larkin's universe, where

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. (165)
The opening theme of Elgar's first symphony is broad and noble, but it is the third movement, Adagio, that is considered his most perfectly lyrical.

Despite German origins, George Frederick Handel needs no introduction for an English-speaking audience. We all know the Hallelujah Chorus and parts of the Messiah. He has a prominent place in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, and wrote a thrilling anthem sung at English coronations, "Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet..." You can enjoy this even if you are a diehard republican socialist, as neither Larkin nor Barbara was.

Less familiar is the oratorio "Solomon," which Handel intended as a compliment to his adopted country in its Augustan Age, the century of both Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen. Solomon's wisdom, justice, and wealth are like those of the stable society benevolently presided over by George II. Religion, politics, commerce, and the arts flourish; the Queen of Sheba's visit represents international admiration.

The optimism of this music reminds me of Larkin's poetic tribute to the immortal jazz trumpeter Sidney Bechet: "On me your voice falls like they say love should,/ Like an enormous yes" (83). That three-letter word deserves more attention in Larkin studies, which emphasize his personal failings at the expense of the humane greatness of his poetry. I treasure the statement he made in an interview about why he writes: poetry arises from "a complex pressure of needs, [including the desire] to praise" (Required Writing, 76).

I need not labor to convince this audience of the enormous yes we find in the poetry of Barbara's novels. This closing piece by Handel might suitably express the joy we experience in the pages of her books. We might also remember that this year (2003) marks the 90th anniversary of Barbara's birth, the 40th of the beginning of her wilderness period, and the 26th of her rediscovery--for which all who love her must thank Philip Larkin.

2003 Selected Papers & Photos