Yesterday was my birthday. I am forty-nine—which is pronounced with the last syllable raised up, as if a G7 chord, just waiting to resolve into the inevitable, dominant C that is fifty. It was a fine day that involved a long walk, an early dinner with my family, a cake my wife made from scratch (including the frosting!), and ample well wishes via phone, text, and social media, including some rousing renditions of “Happy Birthday to You,” for which I am most grateful.
But a birthday is nothing if not a time to reflect on one’s life so far, and so I found myself yesterday morning reading through the poems of Philip Larkin (1922-85). I’ve had Larkin on the brain since Nia Molinari pointed out on Friday’s podcast that the title of one of Tucker Carlson’s books, The Long Slide, appears to be an allusion to Larkin’s poem “High Windows.” Published in 1974, in a collection of the same name, it begins thus:
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Like an outdated combine harvester,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.
He wrote that when he was 52—old enough to both recognize and appreciate that he could no longer even pretend to be young. There is a certain liberation, I think, in this concession. I don’t see the appeal in being 29 or 39 or 49 forever. That feels like prison, like Groundhog Day or Palm Springs. I’ve always felt older than I am, like I was meant to be the age I am now—even as an infant, I had the look of a middle-aged man. I always coveted the wisdom of age, a charming phrase that is really a euphemism for the battle scars of failure across multiple fronts. Larkin’s work contains all of this: he is older, he is in decline, he fears death, but he never loses his sense of humor or his élan vital. There is no self-pity, just cold, objective realism. In “Aubade,” in which he contemplates his mortality, he describes death as
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.
That’s about as no-bullshit as poetry gets.
But the Larkin poem I want to share for “Sunday Pages” is called “Money.” I’ve always loved this one, but I didn’t really figure out why until yesterday. It goes like this:
Money, by Philip Larkin
Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
“Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.”
So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life
—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.
I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
The first three verses require no explanation. They are humorous, but they also give us insight into the narrator. If not a hoarder, he is conservative with his resources, unwilling to spend foolishly on “goods and sex.” But contemplating his static assets, he wonders if he should re-think this position. After all, you can’t take it with you!
But O, the fourth and final verse! “I listen to money singing” is such a curious phrase. We don’t think of money having aural properties. Indeed, Neil Diamond, four years after Larkin’s poem was published, definitively states that “money . . . don’t sing and dance.” The poet himself cannot describe the sound of the singing except by offering a comparison to a visual scene from a provincial town. Here, someone affluent, wealthy—we know this because he is “looking down,” and also because of the elaborate doors—beholds the squalor of his surroundings. Yes, there is a lovely manse on a hill, replete with “french”—note the lowercase “f”—doors, but beyond is muck and mire and madness. Money means inequity. It means a few have while many lack. I am all you never had. And then the last words come in like a sledgehammer: “It is intensely sad.”
But I can’t end a piece about Larkin without citing his most famous line, the last one from “An Arundel Tomb,” in which he contemplates the final resting-place of a long-dead earl and countess. Philip may be grouchy, but he knows what’s what:
What will survive of us is love.