Thursday, December 22, 2011

Poem of the Week 12/22/2011: High Windows

High Windows

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if 
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life; 
No God any more, or sweating in the dark 

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He 
And his lot will all go down the long slide 
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

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.

Philip Larkin

Larkin always seems to leave a sort of ambiguity in his poetry, and in this one it has to do, perhaps, with the viewpoint. Whose thoughts are those at the end? Is it the speaker - the grumpy sort of a-religious, modern man? Or is it the person contemplating a Godless future, without any of the worries from Christianity who then remembers the subtlety and vastness of that experience? Indeed, Larkin presents two versions of paradise - the modern and materialist version, against, the quiet experience of vastness the final stanza suggests.

This stanza, after all, in a way suggests Adam and Eve in the garden, but instead of wearing fig leaves she wears a diaphragm, and sex is regarded not sinfully but practically - as something that can be done so long as nobody is pregnant. Also in counterpoint to Christianity seems to be the "long slide / to happiness;" it brings up images of Jacob's ladder to heaven, perhaps, or the great chain of being. Larkin offers us the endless slide of youthful... delight? debauchery?

And then this perspective gets amplified by the italics in the third and fourth stanzas - picking up on how this new world has dropped "bonds and gestures.../ like an outdated combine harvester." This perspective resents the priests, confession, the worrying about an afterlife about which one can do very little, captured in the lines that are nearly spit out, "free bloody birds."

Suddenly, however, the poem ends with something utterly a-cultural and perhaps truly holy. This is rather surprising considering the resentment about cultural bonds in the italics, but the blast of beauty, stillness, and openness offers a completely different theology, a paradise installed endlessly above the church windows. Indeed, even the height of this is probably symbolic, given that the rest of the poem has been earthy and grounded, from the images of the bed to the slide towards happiness to the "bloody birds" (priests) that are falling to the ground. The high windows show a level that is above all of these cultural concerns, debauchery, and worries - a God not tied to any of the cultural forms that show, tell, do, act, oppress, or "free." This God "shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless," an endlessness entirely different from the endless slide of pleasure posited in the early stanzas. A single moment and a few lines pierce the poem at its end!

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