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On Philip Larkin, America's beauty, and modern people.


Among several strong offerings in the Septuagesima issue, Matthew Walther’s closing piece stands out. I especially liked that he avoided the facile and commonplace move of blaming our society’s increasing barrenness on the pusillanimity of the young people today and instead recognized the validity of their fears and suggested, probably correctly, that overcoming them will require the destruction of much of our current way of life.

Mr. Walther makes nice use of Philip Larkin’s “High Windows,” which he seems to take as expressive of this way of life. Perhaps it is naïve, but I have always read the end of that poem as being about God, a sudden apprehension of divine plenitude expressed negatively. This may seem odd given that these lines are preceded by what appears to be a sense of envy and regret that Larkin has missed out on the newly reigning sexual promiscuity. Yet Larkin’s cynical, deflating gaze can fall on the raptures of the sexual revolution just as easily as on high traditions and fine feelings, as we see in the sing-song and repetitive irony of “Annus Mirabilis.” Likewise, and rather slyly, in “High Windows” Larkin gives us not a celebration of pleasure but a strange, literal fixation on the mechanisms of contraception. This leads him on to remember the oldsters of his youth, and ask whether they thought the open and settled atheism of his generation was the sort of liberation which he now imagines the ’60s generation to be enjoying. The promise of hedonistic liberation, of “Bonds and gestures pushed to one side / Like an outdated combine harvester”—instruments of sterility replacing those of harvest—is somehow always deferred.

Larkin’s apparent jealousy of the young people bouncing through life like so many libidinous free radicals seems out of keeping with the “sharp tender shock” of “An Arundel Tomb,” or even the more ambivalent reflections of “Church Going.” And the notion that youth has become something fundamentally different, or that we would want it to, seems gainsaid by the conclusion of one of his finest poems, “Sad Steps.”

Of course this ambiguity runs throughout Larkin’s work—does the “sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain” at the end of “The Whitsun Weddings” refer to the inevitable disappointment of married life, or is it an ancient symbol of spring, rebirth, and joy? Granting, however, that “going down the long slide” is not quite the earthly paradise it may at first seem, could the poem actually end with a recognition of God that leaves the poet in stunned, reverent silence? Philip Larkin? Certainly a work like “Aubade” does not give much evidence of religious consolation. But the fundamental question is not personal immortality but the existence of God (eternal life without God is literally hell). 

Larkin’s poem and Mr. Walther’s column both move from considerations of everyday life to the elevated realization of high windows and what lies beyond them. Larkin’s mundane world was full of hedonistic promises whose fulfillment is always just out of reach and which in fact look more like rejection than enjoyment. The contemporary landscape Mr. Walther surveys is shot through with anxiety about the future and ever diminishing expectations for the present. Larkin’s closing image may serve just as well as Mr. Walther’s to shock us out of both: “the deep blue air,” a beauty and reality that exceeds our ability to desire it even as it demands it.

Jeffrey Metzger, 
Lawton, Oklahoma

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The author replies:

At the risk of upending the metaphor I borrowed for the conclusion of my essay, I should say that I agree with Mr. Metzger that there is more than one way of interpreting the ending of Larkin’s poem. As Kingsley Amis put it in a review of the Collected Poems in 1988, “Nobody seems to know quite what those high windows are doing.” This ambiguity is, I suspect, the source of the poem’s power. (The same is true of “The Whitsun Weddings,” as Mr. Metzger observes.)

Still, my own view is that the poem’s speaker, while somewhat envious of the supposed freedoms enjoyed by British youth circa 1967, is horrified by the collapse of religion and the stark reality of hard materialism which I take to be represented in the final stanza. (This is the note sounded in “Aubade” and, more wistfully and with obvious regret, in “Church-Going.”) Could it be instead that the “thin blue air” is in some sense God? Perhaps. It would certainly be more pleasant that way. But I am not sure such an interpretation survives a careful reading of the text. It would, I think, be absurd to suggest that the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, who revealed Himself to all nations in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ, “shows nothing,” or that the Lord of the Universe is “nowhere,” even if, as an omnipotent spiritual being, He is “endless.”

Larkin’s own religious views are a curious subject. We know that he attended Mass occasionally with his girlfriend Maeve Brennan and followed the progress of the so-called liturgical reform at first with interest, then with horror. (He had hoped that the new English Missal would look something like the seventeenth-century Book of Common Prayer.) He owned a pulpit-sized copy of the Authorized Edition of the Bible from which he read most mornings while shaving. He was proud of his own baptism in Coventry Cathedral, and after the death of Maeve Brennan one million pounds from his estate was left to Saint Paul’s. His famous last words (“I go to the inevitable”) are ambiguous, but we know that a few months before he died he visited churches in what he considered a muddled attempt at prayer, just as he had done upon hearing of the death of Evelyn Waugh.

All of which is to say that while we cannot know the fate of Larkin’s soul or his disposition at the moment of his death, I think it is probably unreasonable to suggest that he wrote “High Windows” as anything other than a sympathetic unbeliever, well disposed toward the Christian faith but willfully separated from the visible body of the Church.

Sitting down to read an English assessment of the United States is a stressful affair. The pulse quickens, the mind races—will Her Majesty’s subject shake his head in wonder at the one that got away? Or will bitter recriminations darken the mostly sunny skies of Anglo-American relations?

John Milbank, in his essay “Separation of Powers” (Septuagesima 2021), opted for something else, settling on the most classic of backhanded compliments. America, it turns out, has a great personality. This revelation, distressingly late in the game, comes after we learn that, when it comes to looks, the sweet land of liberty is in the fair to middling range and already in decline.

I object to Professor Milbank’s appraisal and refuse to consider his larger point and occasional nuances. The outrage of those opening paragraphs must be answered.

The Apollonian dart of misleading description that compelled me to respond was the phrase, “spindly trees.” The original thirteen colonies may have recklessly depleted their lumber supply, but Milbank cannot be unaware that California boasts the largest trees in the world. Palpably missing from his essay, meanwhile, were the words “mountain” and “coastline.” I can forgive, grudgingly, the mountains, since England’s green and pleasant hills are certainly better known than her rough and rugged mountains. The lack of maritime acknowledgement is a curious omission from a subject of our planet’s erstwhile naval power; but in any case, it is simply not possible to understand or contemplate this country’s landscape without attending to all its natural features.

It is one thing to bemoan the lack of ordinary walking opportunities in the United States, and I absolutely agree that the openness and accessibility of the English countryside is a humane and attractive feature. But the significance and possibilities afforded by long-range driving have been too quickly dismissed, while the type of walking Americans take up in our wilderness areas and National Parks has not been understood at all.

The description of what he happened to see out the car window is all too familiar to an experienced American driver. Who among us has not made the Faustian bargain of interstate speed in place of natural beauty? Distances must be covered, and most of us are on the run from time and deadlines. Those who have taken I-80 through Wyoming or I-90 through South Dakota are hardened veterans of the road, eyes glazing at the memory of hours of nothingness collapsing into undifferentiated monotony. I myself have driven that route, have groaned at the recollection. But while that sacrifice to the direct approach illustrates the phenomenon Milbank has noticed (in a place so aggressively bland you must become something more than your fortunate European brethren ever need to be), it is itself a kind inverse glamour, a misdirection that obscures what those states truly are from those who only seek to escape their immensity.

Those with the time and the desire experience something else.

Take Highway 16 in Wyoming from Sheridan to Lander, and you embark on a six-hour meditation on beauty’s power. Plains sweep away into the ancient folds and edges of the Bighorns, mountain and valley violently streaked with color. Deep red dirt startles through the pale green grass and brush, occasionally cutting through so sharply it creates a laddered contrast all the way up the foothills. Riotous outcroppings of variegated rock now conceal, now reveal blue-grey-purple mountains that in the moment could dominate the world entire. If you are wise enough to sail through in the summer sunset, as clouds scud and drift and dapple the earth, you might feel the communication of a God who is relentless, nearly irresistible, in His desire to be known.

Not far off the interstate in South Dakota, the Black Hills mix tragic history with natural gift; so touched are they by the divine that native tribes of that area refused to relinquish them to the federal government, knowing their religious resonance to be existentially necessary. In a sadly predictable turn of events, that same government ignored all promises when gold was a likely prospect. People can now at least pay tribute by visiting and taking in the splendor of the National Forest.

This is nearly the heart of the matter. In his search for suitable walking terrain, Milbank dismisses the national parks (partly but still, incredibly) because of their lack of pubs. Now, if literature has shown me aright (with the possible exception of Forster), it appears that English engagement with nature is characterized by pleasantness and community. Woods and fields are for tramping through; walks should end with a warm pint and some mushed peas among friends and locals. The American pursuit of nature is by contrast not a pleasant one, nor can it be. It is sublime. It is solitary. Food and drink are inconvenient necessities. The only possible response to the Grand Canyon, to Glacier National Park, to Devil’s Tower, to the Redwoods, is tears. If you are standing beneath a sequoia that is hundreds of feet tall and thousands of years old, who has been honored with a name like Hyperion or Helios, you shouldn’t be asking about lunch—you should probably be falling to your knees.

The story of our national parks is this: that despite the Protestant framework of the country’s regime and culture, nature always erupted through and demanded acknowledgement, received pilgrimage, provided relics, and forced sacramental thought from an ambivalent populace. It is less boredom and curiosity that drives families to visit the national parks than it is a mixed sense of reverence and obligation. These are things that are meant to be seen, that derive their significance from the eyes that yearly drink in their glory. “You have to see. You have to go.” These are the refrains traded by American travelers who have witnessed and shared the news without ever fully understanding what it is they saw.

While the experience of nature’s sublimity here is divine and sacramental, it is not communal. In the mostly industrial post-reformation world that birthed America, this country has struggled, always, to generate common rituals and ceremonies that would allow us to communicate what we see and feel to each other while offering whatever worship is appropriate to the grandeur around us. And this is another reason for the publessness that plagues our communion with nature. It is difficult to share, except insofar as you can share a field of vision.

Isolated interaction with the natural world is a perilous thing. In my present home state of Michigan, human community thrives (as my hometown sign reads, “It’s the People”), but does so in the safety of a mild, moderated loveliness. The Upper Peninsula will probably raise a figurative eyebrow at this assessment; but we are dealing in comparisons here, and I come from the Pacific Northwest.

Nowhere is the danger of ecstatic, sublime beauty more evident than in the Northwest and certain areas of California. It is no coincidence that the godless Northwest leads the nation, always, in unchurched apathy. Imagine living between the coast of the Pacific ocean—icy surf on jagged rock, a place fit not for swimming but contemplation—and the Cascades, those enormous sentinels punctuated by miles-high snowbound volcanoes. While I do believe that these monuments are charged with the glory of God, shining through in potential divine communion, I am also sure that without a received tradition of doctrine and practice this is a glory that sunders, isolates, and terrifies.

My theory is conjectural, my evidence anecdotal. I have hiked the mountains and waterfalls of Washington and Oregon, have seen paths filled with people, each alone even in company. Strenuous movement makes conversation difficult, but even at the top of Multnomah Falls or Beacon Rock, you don’t hear much talk. All one can say is, “Look!” The churches are relatively few and comparatively empty, but these states have always boasted an unusual number of coffee shops and bookstores, places that inherently facilitate solitude in the crowd. On the darker side of the loneliness industry, Portland still has more strip clubs per capita than any other city in America, a bizarre distinction for a mid-sized, (formerly?) middle-class town. I think if Milbank went to the Northwest he would find a people quite different from the apparently ebullient, topographically challenged citizens of the East. My people are quiet, withdrawn, notoriously unfriendly; they live in a state of shock, yearning in ignorance for a Mary to intercept, interpret, mediate that “glory bare” which does indeed blind and “less win man’s mind,” as another Englishman put it. I’ve never read a novel that managed to capture the feel of the Northwest, but you can catch a glimpse in the ecstatic wrath of Kurt Cobain, the piercing sorrow of Elliot Smith, the lonely exit of suicide they shared.

Church-going man that I think he is, though, I invite Professor Milbank to travel there in relative safety. Drive down the Columbia River Gorge in late May. Turn up Blue Öyster Cult or Soundgarden. Pray for fog, with a light rain. Let the place “speak there / Of God’s love, O live air.”

Catherine Kuiper, 
Hillsdale College

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I relished N.M. Gwynne’s deconstruction of the mythology surrounding Pope Alexander VI in the most recent issue of The Lamp. My only lament is that the passage of time has made the question of why this good and holy man was vilified impossible to answer definitively. But perhaps the question is academic. Unlike our medieval forebears, we now reap the benefits of the Information Age. It is unimaginable today that critics of a reform-minded pope would resort to such obvious calumnies as a means of opposing him. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check in on Catholic Twitter.

Michael J. Gerardi

Alexandria, Virginia

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