Monday, September 12, 2016
“Sad Steps” toward a Sedate Style
by Olivia Zhu
Grumbling and stumbling in the night: this is Philip Larkin’s self-introduction in “Sad Steps,” dissatisfied with his aging and driven awake by a compelling need to urinate. Over the course of the poem, however, his evident discomfort with growing old is replaced with first a burst of poetic dynamism before ending with a settled acceptance of his lot. These transformations take place under the poem’s moon, an ever-present and unemotional image that prompts the speaker to confront, correct, and ultimately console himself. His psychological shifts are paired and illustrated with corresponding changes in the poetic language, ranging from the types of phrasing to the use of punctuation to descriptions of distances. Larkin communicates his increased contentment with his varying portrayals of the moon and his environment, clarifying that he understands not merely the inevitability of growing old, but also the linguistic lessons that can only be learned with age.
The poet examines his assured aging first by casting himself as small in comparison to the world that surrounds him. The sky is “cavernous” and the moon is “high,” situating the speaker far below either. This very careful placement makes it impossible for Larkin—someone who has difficulty returning to bed at night—to have any effect on the heavens, let alone the passage of time. Critic Nicholas Marsh agrees, suggesting that the speaker’s realization of his physical size in proportion to that of the universe “reminds him of his own insignificance and mortality” (124). Moreover, the moon is incredibly powerful in “Sad Steps.” It is emotionally striking and compelling, certainly, but it is also described as a cannonball that “dashes through clouds that blow,” making it unlikely that the speaker would be able to resist its momentum and pull. Just as the moon wanes after it waxes, so must Larkin. He recognizes his youth “can’t come again,” so unlike youthful “others,” he is not “undiminished." The period in which he was able to be strong is over, and all young people are aware of the “pain” of the prospect of growing older. The speaker has cast aside the “thick curtains” of the very beginning of the poem, no longer living in some form of denial, to stare openly on the moon and remind himself of who he is now.
Old age may be inevitable, but “Sad Steps” suggests that it may not be inevitably painful. Marsh suggests that Larkin believes his status, compared to the youths of the world, is “senseless and unfair,” although the evidence in the poem seems—at the least—a bit more ambiguous compared to the critic’s conclusion (125). As a more mature poet, how could Larkin accept anything that was “high and preposterous” to his mind, including the language that he quickly attempts and discards in the middle portion of “Sad Steps”? To his mind, the exclamatory and overly descriptive is indicative of a younger styling, one that he cannot return to and may not even wish to use again.
It is important to first establish how Larkin’s “young” language might differ from his “old” language, and an important clue involves the placement of “Sad Steps” in High Windows. Solar was the first poem written for the book, according to critic Andrew Swarbrick, and it is young and vigorous in a way that “Sad Steps” is not (145). Of all the possible arrangements for the book’s twenty-four pieces, how curious that the final one involves Larkin’s sun and moon poems facing one another. Though both are viewed through the frame of a window, “Solar” is “extravagantly romantic” and “unembarrassedly devotional” in the way that youth might be—as such, writes Swarbrick, “it is hard to resist the conclusion that Larkin was making an ironic comment on the poem by printing next to it ‘Sad Steps.’” The comment Swarbrick suggests can only be that “Solar,” composed when the poet was relatively younger, captures a state of mind and poetic style that is diminished when Larkin writes “Sad Steps,” completed four years later; moreover, the poet explicitly mocks ornate language and concludes favorably for plainer phrasing.
This mocking threads throughout the poem, in subtle touches and in more obvious rejections. Twelve contiguous lines toward the middle of the piece encompass all of the “young” language of “Sad Steps” and also include nearly all of the poem’s adjectives, exclamations, similes, and imagery. These poetic tropes are discarded by Larkin, who disdains his description of the gardens as “wedge-shadowed” and the sky as “wind-picked.” He is even more bothered by his attempts to describe the moon, calling his choices “laughable,” then “high and preposterous and separate.” The third stanza appears to be an earnest attempt to describe the moon poetically—it could be perfectly reasonable to call the light of the moon “stone-coloured,” but the poet finds his phrasing so inane that he mocks it in the fourth stanza. Perhaps riffing off his choice of a rock-like hue for the moon, he adds on additional poetic layers, calling the moon a “Lozenge of love!” with lozenge referencing not just the bitter, realistic pill that Larkin has to swallow, but also the stone slabs of the word’s etymology. This excessiveness is something the poet cannot stand, rejecting all of his pretentious outburst with a simple “No,” prompting what Swarbrick notes is a moment for the speaker to “[collapse] gratefully into conversation and literalness” (Swarbrick 146). It is only after realizing the silliness of earnestness that Larkin can conclude his poem in a way that pleases him, ending it with honesty, simplicity, and a period.
Larkin still seeks to be “unembarrasedly devotional” to a celestial body, as he does in “Solar,” but now he is proud of his language, instead of his emotional outpouring (Swarbrick 146). The poem’s ending “plainness honours the moon’s plainness,” and the settled nature of how the work concludes, with both an emotional and poetic mellowing, might be the best kind of prayer for a moon that is, to paraphrase, hard and bright and plain, spoken by a man who has neither the “strength” or the “pain” to exhort himself further.
That kind of emotionally draining entreaty is the domain of youths who experience love and art in all their non-lozenged, non-medallioned, unironic fullness. Take, for example, the speaker of “Sad Steps’” titular reference: the young, male voice of Sir Philip Sidney’s thirty-first sonnet from Astrophil and Stella, in which an anthropomorphized moon takes “sad steps” as the speaker asks earnestly for love advice. Unlike “Sad Steps,” Sidney’s poem provides a vastly different resolution—or lack thereof—for the romantic speaker begins by seeking comfort, yet the sonnet ends with a series of unanswered questions. Larkin may be old and may not appreciate the same kind of sentimental poetry, but at least he understands that “the moon is just the moon” (Swarbrick 146). More importantly, his speaker achieves a type of answer, albeit a self-realized and remembered one (that Sidney’s Astrophil does not) and that answer is sufficient to bring the “Sad Steps” to a close.
The understanding of both points—that time cannot be turned back and that older poets have no need for overly poetic language—is critical to the emotional change from beginning to end of the poem. At the start of “Sad Steps,” Larkin’s insecurity is clear. The speaker only opens his curtains because he cannot find his way back to bed, becoming “startled” by the pristine sight above him after his rather earthly emission. The choice of “piss” and “cleanliness” to be the very first rhyme of the poem furthers the sense of instability, with the odd pairing of the first word’s hiss and the second word’s softer end drawing attention to not just Larkin’s emotional state, but what might have prompted it. The poet, unable to find his way back to bed, has opened his curtains and been struck by the unsullied moon. Later, the moon changes its quality in Larkin’s eyes—it is certainly not apt to describe it with words such as “lozenge” or “medallion,” for that would be too “high and preposterous and separate.” Yet neither is it quite so appropriate to describe the moon as clean, which in itself is an embellishment of the word the poet finally settles on in the penultimate stanza: “plain.” This description of the moon occurs at the same time as the speaker’s self-description of “[shivering] slightly”—a far cry from his startled first stanza. Physically, he is calmer, and poetically, he has reached a set of words that are accurate and suitable descriptions of the sight before him. These twin fulfillments are sufficient, for the time being, until the speaker needs to be reminded once again.
That Larkin is finally less uneasy about growing old is, it seems, clear. He can reconcile growing old because the sight of the moon reminds him that aging is an inevitable process—since it is inescapable, why rail against it? Yet the more compelling reason why Larkin might be accepting of aging is that he gets some sage benefit from his experience. Although this conclusion is not as obvious, Larkin’s argument is made by the sidelong references to “Solar” and Astrophil and Stella, along with clear rejections of romantic language at the emotional peak of “Sad Steps.” Faced with plain facts, Larkin responds in kind, and his poetry is made better for it.
Larkin, Philip. High Windows. 1974. London: Faber and Faber, 1986. Print.
Marsh, Nicholas. Philip Larkin: The Poems. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print. Analyzing Texts.
Swarbrick, Andrew. Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin. New York: St. Martin's, 1995. Print.
Posted by Olivia Zhu at 12:10 AM | Permalink