Teacher Diaries: Ms. Lydia – The Poem I Love
Philip Larkin was a practical pessimist. He had a knack for finding the blue, black and grey in things and never really allowed himself to get swept away by the beauty of the world around us. This backdrop is what, I believe, makes ‘Love Songs in Age’ so captivating.
The poem talks about how an unnamed ‘she’ finds some old records that remind her of her former life; when her husband was still alive, her kids were still young and her memories were still fresh.
Stylistically, Larkin starts with short syncopated phrases to echo the small, stacked records. He uses this mimesis to show how sidelined the records, and therefore the memories which they represent, are. He then starts to list the wear and tear each one has faced and, as we reach the end of the first stanza, we think we’re in typical Larkin territory – a miserable description of a life lost.
And then everything changes.
The sentences start to open up as punctuation is dropped and short clauses give way to sweeping crescendos of prose. The poem itself becomes the music of the records. We see the same technique – mimesis – being used again, but this time to highlight the beauty and all-consuming power of music. We know from the highly-mimetic line ‘word after sprawling hyphenated word’ that this technique is intentional and this excitement, genuine. The use of the same poetic technique to show both weariness and wonder underlines Larkin’s very hidden theme of hope, no matter the circumstances.
Moving onto the final stanza it’s as if Larkin has realised he’s got carried away and tries to rein himself back in. Though try as he might, I believe the theme of hope still preserves. He cannot help but call even clichéd love ‘much-mentioned brilliance’ and the empathetic placement of ‘now’ leaves us in the present, with a view to the future, rather than sinking back into the past.
There is so much more I could say about these three short stanzas but, before I fall into Larkin’s trap of getting too carried away with a piece of art, I’ll stop here and urge you to look deeper yourself – the poem is immensely rich so there’s a lot to find.
Love Songs In Age
She kept her songs, they took so little space,
The covers pleased her:
One bleached from lying in a sunny place,
One marked in circles by a vase of water,
One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,
And coloured, by her daughter –
So they had waited, till in widowhood
She found them, looking for something else, and stood
Relearning how each frank submissive chord
Had ushered in
Word after sprawling hyphenated word,
And the unfailing sense of being young
Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein
That hidden freshness, sung,
That certainty of time laid up in store
As when she played them first. But, even more,
The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,
Broke out, to show
Its bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order. So
To pile them back, to cry,
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.