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Larkin and Hopper

November 6, 2011

To the Sea and People in the Sun

Some years ago Alan Bennett reviewed a collection of essays, Larkin at Sixty for The London Review of Books.  He didn’t think Larkin would have liked it much, and wondered what present the poet would have appreciated more.  He mentioned this painting by Edward Hopper.

People in the Sun by Edward Hopper

I wonder if Bennett had this poem in mind.

To the Sea by Philip Larkin

To step over the low wall that divides
Road from concrete walk above the shore
Brings sharply back something known long before –
The miniature gaiety of seasides.
Everything crowds under the low horizon:
Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps,
The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse
Up the warm yellow sand, and further off
A white steamer stuck in the afternoon –

Still going on, all of it, still going on!
To lie, eat, sleep in hearing of the surf
(Ears to transistors, that sound tame enough
Under the sky), or gently up and down
Lead the uncertain children, frilled in white
And grasping at enormous air, or wheel
The rigid old along for them to feel
A final summer, plainly still occurs
As half an annual pleasure, half a rite,

As when, happy at being on my own,
I searched the sand for Famous Cricketers,
Or, farther back, my parents, listeners
To the same seaside quack, first became known.
Strange to it now, I watch the cloudless scene:
The same clear water over smoothed pebbles,
The distant bathers’ weak protesting trebles
Down at its edge, and then the cheap cigars,
The chocolate-papers, tea-leaves, and, between

The rocks, the rusting soup-tins, till the first
Few families start the trek back to the cars.
The white steamer has gone. Like breathed-on glass
The sunlight has turned milky. If the worst
Of flawless weather is our falling short,
It may be that through habit these do best,
Coming to the water clumsily undressed
Yearly; teaching their children by a sort
Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.

Hopper’s subjects, taking the sun in their stiff suits, gaze at an undulating moutain range instead of the sea.  But they also experience “half a pleasure half a rite”.

Is it a ridiculous conceit to imagine Larkin as the poet on the left reading his book?

Jim Thornton

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2011 5:40 am


    Nice poem. I Like This Very Much

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