Philip Larkin didn’t much like John Donne. He found him far-fetched and bombastic, or as he put it in a letter to Monica Jones once, ‘silly’, perhaps the word that best captures Larkin’s own latent anxiety and reverse snobberies. He longed for a poetry that could reject adolescent silliness and walk around in the world recording the sadness and beauty it found there, stripped of its traditional modes of special pleading. This isn’t necessarily a silly desire, but Larkin’s distaste for pretension occasionally drove him into some silly postures. Here he is carping on Donne again, this time to Kingsley Amis:
How pleasant … to weigh the rough stone of Dryden against the ardent ore of Jack Donne! It makes an old ‘carl’ such as I wish for four eyes, that I could read two books at once.
Even in boorish impress-your-mates mode, Larkin can’t quite get away with being a complete philistine. His acuity betrays him with that interesting phrase ‘ardent ore’, which manages despite itself to say something true and revealing about Donne, and, taken out of this chortling context, might be laudatory or pejorative, neither or both.
This ambivalence to the high-flown ardour of the Metaphysicals plays out more dynamically in ‘Sad Steps’, a poem from Larkin’s final collection, High Windows. What could be sillier and more poetic than the moon? In the first stanza Larkin does his best to drag that faithful companion of the sonneteer and troubadour into the everyday gutter:
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.
But already there’s a tension in play between the earthbound slovenliness of the moment and the celestial beauty that the speaker can do nothing to gainsay. As he admits, ‘There’s something laughable about this,’ and he goes on to try to milk that laugh by burlesquing the language of traditional lunar poetry:
High and preposterous and separate –
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
one shivers slightly, looking up there.
That perfectly balanced ‘no’ takes us away from this travesty of the Romantic or Metaphysical imagination into a no less emotive symbolism, albeit one more suited to Larkin’s temperament. Looking up at the moon proves, in the final analysis, to be ‘a reminder of the strength and pain / Of being young; that it can’t come again, / But is for others undiminished somewhere.’
In ‘Your Eyes Tonight’, Michael Symmons Roberts seems to position his speaker at the crux of this dilemma between Larkin and Donne, and our old friend the moon is once more the vehicle of the argument. Among a generation of poets that has taken Larkin as its lodestar (think Simon Armitage and Paul Farley), Roberts has always offered something more teasing, argumentative, spiritual and – yes – Metaphysical, in the grand tradition of that term. He’s spoken widely about his passion for Donne, and the collection from which ‘Your Eyes Tonight’ comes, 2004’s Corpus, even contains a poem titled, dutifully enough, ‘To John Donne’. Here the Donne influence is tacit, though a few of his great poems come to mind as possible triggers. ‘A Valediction: of Weeping’, for one, furnishes us with this closing address to a lover:
O more than moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbear
To teach the sea what it may do too soon…
‘Your Eyes Tonight’ shares Donne’s suspicion of the moon as a manipulative force, and goes a step further in conflating it with a lover, or former lover – for who else could the ‘you’ in ‘Your’ refer to, when the stakes are as high and romantic as this? The whole poem might be read as an extended analogy for the experience implied in its title: looking into the unresponsive, disillusioned eyes of his addressee, the speaker embarks on a treatise about the moon as it appears to us in an age when it has been knocked down once and for all from its heavenly pedestal.
He starts with a question, a confrontation: ‘What does the moon have to say, for the role / it plays in this?’ The abrupt, unexplained interrogation puts me in mind of Raymond Carver’s famous ‘Late Fragment’:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Only here the mood of gentle rumination is turned into police procedural, less Raymond Carver than Raymond Chandler: ‘Come on, buddy, enough with the games. What have you got to say for yourself?’ The moon’s ‘role’ could be read in a number of ways, two of which strike me as relevant. First there’s its immediate bearing on the central relationship in the poem, the love affair or infatuation that seems to be guttering out. It’s a common enough ploy to credit the moon for its benign and amorous influence, but what happens if we turn the tables? Surely if the love’s gone sour, then it must have some part to play as well? The second interpretation is related but only holds up if we map it onto the whole poem, and it brings us into more urgent territory than disappointed love (urgent though that may be). Wending through this frustrated Valediction, with its stillborn conceits and empty tropes, I can’t help but wonder if the situation in question – the ‘this’ in which the moon plays some culpable role – might be poetry itself, circa 2004. How do we write about the enduring subjects of love, fidelity and desire, when all the enduring symbols feel used up or phoney? If the moon has become moribund, then surely it has to cop some of the blame. In their impotence and resentments, the embittered lover and the belated poet share certain aspects of a psychological profile. ‘Your Eyes Tonight’ keeps both of these personas suggestively and ambiguously in play.
Deepening the speaker’s consternation, it soon becomes apparent that the moon won’t answer him, however ardently he implores it. In this it assumes the gendered role of ice maiden or femme fatale – we still have one foot in the world of noir – and the speaker is the foundering, dishevelled PI, butting up against her ‘orb of silence’. Roberts is alive to the power dynamics of the traditional Metaphysical lyric, in which an overbearing male speaker foists his verbal ingenuity on a passive, unspeaking female object. ‘Your Eyes Tonight’ flips this expectation by rendering the speaker tongue-tied, and redistributing some of his power to the object, though without quite giving her a voice. Instead she becomes, intriguingly, a craftsperson, an artificer, a ‘vacuum’ that sucks in all the speaker’s redundant, ‘unsaid’ language – ‘lost words of peace, swallowed apologies’ – and ‘sets them into lead and tin // – not silver – to make a pewter zero, / voiceless O’. This inverse productivity, making hollow and worthless objects out of finer parts, recalls ‘The spider love, which transubstantiates all, / And can convert manna to gall’ from Donne’s ‘Twickenham Garden’, and the speaker in ‘Your Eyes Tonight’ shares a touch of the jilted self-despair in that poem. Isn’t this, after all, how the reasoning of the spurned lover works? Faced with the ‘silence’ of the love object – which could be perfectly polite or respectful, just not interested – he imputes malicious intent. The absence of interaction becomes an active attempt to slander and defile him; the lack of any spoken response ‘a pewter zero, / voiceless O’.
That accounts for one aspect of the moon’s silence, at least. Another possibility is that, rather than – or as well as – an unreachable lover, the moon is supposed to represent God in a secular modern age. ‘It is a corpse,’ declares the speaker, and quite right too, we might say, if we agree with Nietzsche and everyone after him that God is dead. The interesting paradox, on which the whole poem relies for its momentum, arrives with the second, apparently contradictory metaphor of a ‘seed’. This carries the itch of postmodern expression, whereby certain symbols – such as the moon – can be both moribund and generative. Religion has proved to be such a quarry for poets, regardless of formal creed. Don Paterson’s Rain (2009) attempts on a broader scale to construct a cosmology for atheist spirituality, making wide use of the elements and the heavens. In ‘The Error’, Paterson refers to the world of every single man – or Everyman – as little more than ‘the glare / of the world’s utility / returned by his eye-beam’, before concluding that ‘the skies are silent’. Something of this infertile reflexivity haunts ‘Your Eyes Tonight’, and the poem takes its place in a trajectory of noughties poetry that seeks to balance plainspoken philosophical nous and a more sensuous, Stevensian relationship with the world of things as we find them (Nick Laird is another skilled exponent).
The danger is that you end up replacing religious dogma with a new brand of spiritual certainty, and pressgang poetry into becoming the primary form of consolation in that non-religion. Roberts is too doubtful and undecided to allow new calcifications to form, and manages to keep the philosophy dialectic and erotically charged. A rearguard rejection of the atheist sublime comes in the break between the sixth and seventh stanzas, with an attempt at a classic Metaphysical conditional: ‘If we keep // no secrets from each other, leave no / thoughts unuttered, then it cannot grow.’ This is the ploy of someone who can apply the laws of logic to make the world biddable to his conceit – someone, in other words, who finds the world animate and tractable, precisely not ‘empty’ in that awestruck phrase of Paterson’s. Though he wouldn’t have had any time for atheism, Dr Johnson famously deplored this tendency of the Metaphysicals to bargain with the ‘natural’ world by way of unnatural wit:
But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.
(from ‘The Life of Cowley’)
As in most things, Johnson slightly underestimates the complexities of what he doesn’t like. Donne is strenuously, passionately aware of the limits to his comparisons, and how sometimes they fray and fall apart. Roberts, however, seems to be doing a bad impression of Donne in these lines, one that conforms more neatly to Johnson’s critique. The literal paraphrase of this ‘If’ might run as follows: ‘Since the moon (or our love, as expressed in your eyes) is a seed, it must need room to grow. Our silences and secrets offer just that space.’ Desperate logic for desperate times – we can imagine the eyebrows of the addressee lifting in exasperation, as her suitor yokes ever more heterogeneous ideas together, with ever greater violence. His conditional is an attempt to reason with the nothingness that has come between them, and it doesn’t work anymore.
Fortunately, or perhaps more painfully, he understands this. With a heavy, italicised thud, ‘As if’ brings us down to earth, piercing the balloon of metaphor and fancy. It’s a phrase we read in a newly unforgiving light, stripped of its emollient layers of cliché. For what else does ‘as if’ set out to do, but skewer the pretensions and far-fetchedness of conceits? It exposes how nothing is ever really alike as the poets say it is, by parodying them with its own sterile gesture of similitude. ‘You think the moon can grow as if it were a seed? As if.’ Here it mimics the silver-tongued bard running out of puff, reaching for his trusty engine of comparison in the very moment that his faith evaporates, and in the stony silence that ensues the phrase descends into the taunt of his tormentors. It’s a phrase that could reductively sum up everything that Dr Johnson labours elegantly to formulate in his definition of Metaphysical wit – or, we might be tempted to say, a condensation of that argument in terms more amenable to that proud philistine Larkin, on his mission to disinfect the silliness in poetry.
From this moment until the end the poem enters into closer and closer orbit with ‘Sad Steps’, wallowing bleakly in the Larkin quotidian:
These days, it shows at noon
above the roofscapes, bloated,
saying nothing, which is not to say not saying things but mouthing
nothing clear and full of meaning,
as a mantra or a name.
Larkin’s imagery for the moon, while not without its beauty, emphasises its gauntness and purity: by turns he refers to it as clean, swift, separate, hard, bright, and finally ‘plain’ (the opposite, perhaps, of ‘silly’). Roberts’s moon, conversely, is ‘bloated’, like a Fat Elvis version of its former self gurning through the hits. All it has to say by this point is ‘nothing’, though the speaker is quick to distinguish between two implications of that word, one descriptive of muteness and the other a vocalised, negative assertion. This is the articulated nothing of Cordelia in King Lear given a nihilist twist. It’s the nothing summed up in another poem of Larkin’s, ‘Aubade’, in his vision of death and its ‘total emptiness forever’,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
By speaking its own version of this ‘nothing more true’, the moon in ‘Your Eyes Tonight’ dispels any last hope its author might have harboured in finding a way out of his predicament. His image-making has failed him, his ingenious argument run aground in the cold realities of a random world. If the moon really does stand in for his lover’s eyes – or the wider gaze of God or art – then we can assume that he’ll find nothing very encouraging or tender reflected in them again.
“What is a poem but a record of something the poet cannot get past? A memory, an impression, a phrase, some musical quirk of language? These are the questions behind most of my poems and certainly ghost the poem I have found most difficult to write...”
The osteria’s blasting jazz, the slick and fruity
/ after-hours sort, and down the street a Fiat stereo
/ fronts up with a folksy Anglophonic strum.
/ I’m down with it all; I’m a honey trap for wasps
/ snuffling the grains in my espresso cup,
/ but those bastards don’t bug me anymore. No,
/ th ...