Topical Verse: Philip Larkin, “Sad Steps”

Here is something to tide you over while I finish a gigantic Infinite Jest post that will go up within a few days. Surprise: it’s a poem! This lyric is “topical” in the sense that I love it, which is the main criterion behind whatever we crow about on the Reader. I can haul this one out from memory at parties. (Hey. Hey! Where’s everyone going?)

As a prose writer Larkin remains underrated. His essays about topics like early jazz, Sylvia Plath (a “horror poet” he admired), postwar British fiction, and Andrew Marvell are perceptive and witty, and his wonderful letters, which you should buy now, demonstrate that he was at once a bleeding-heart romantic, a cruel cynic, a self-hating hermit, a deeply kind man, a nasty political reactionary, a porn aficionado, a (sometimes downright evil) comic, and—what matters most—a poet with one of the sharpest critical sensibilities outside of Auden and Eliot.

Besides those two, Auden being his closest aesthetic relative, not many twentieth-century poets can match his music. Larkin rhymes. He scans. His poems are carefully rigged yet conversationally intimate. They often disguise and then slowly unveil their meditative depths. He published sparingly (like, Elizabeth Bishop sparingly), and while his poems are short, they are existentially enormous. So here you are. This is “Sad Steps,” written in 1968 and published in his final collection, High Windows (1973).

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

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3 thoughts on “Topical Verse: Philip Larkin, “Sad Steps”

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  2. Pingback: Friday Night Songs: Housman! Herrick! Springsteen! | The General Reader

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