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Philip Larkin and Happiness

On “Born Yesterday”

For those familiar with Philip Larkin’s work, the title of this short essay will seem to offer a juxtaposition so improbable as to be laugh-out-loud funny-rather like that old joke staple, the tiny book titled German Humor, or the admittedly unlikely prospect of a panel at a New Formalist conference on “The Achievement of the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E Poets.” Indeed, if we do associate the word with Larkin, we’re most likely to think of poems in which happiness is mentioned as an absence-as in the narrator’s rueful longing in “High Windows” for “everyone young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly.” I don’t want to suggest that Larkin’s poetry gives us glimpses of joy with anything resembling regularity. But I think that the topic of happiness-what it is, how to attain and cultivate it-is crucial to his work, and I’d like to try to show how. I’ll focus on one poem, “Born Yesterday,” with a few quick forays into other poems.

[private]“Born Yesterday,” written in 1954 and dedicated to Sally Amis, the third child of Larkin’s lifelong friend Kingsley, appeared in his 1955 collection The Less Deceived. In the first of the poem’s two stanzas, Larkin reveals that he’s already made a wish for the infant Sally, but rather than let us in on the wish right away-and thereby ruin our delicious suspense-he offers a list of what it does not consist of: “the usual stuff” of beauty, innocence, and love. These traits would of course be nice, but they are the by-products of luck; young Sally has no power to control their arrival.

The poem’s enumeration of clichéd notions of happiness also recalls Larkin’s scorching tally of dusty platitudes about poetic childhoods in the poem, “I Remember, I Remember,” written just several weeks earlier. In this poem, as we will doubtless remember, the narrator, visiting his Coventry birthplace with a friend, wryly lists all the things that didn’t occur in his decidedly un-Wordsworthian childhood: he “did not invent / Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits”; there was no “farm where I could be / ‘Really myself’”; at no point did he lie down with a young lady as “‘all became a burning mist’”; and so on. All that happened there, he tells his friend, is that “my childhood was unspent.” But in “Born Yesterday,” Larkin’s corrective to trite ideas about Childish Things works very differently, since, in the poem’s second stanza, rather than substituting real negatives for false positives, he replaces false positives with real (and surprising) positives: his hopes that Sally may be “ordinary,” “Have . . . an average of talents” and even “be dull.” These wishes certainly catch us off guard-is this happiness?-but by the time we arrive at the stanza’s end, we’re convinced, remarkably enough, that it is, “If” (Larkin’s charmingly modest disclaimer) “that is what a skilled, / Vigilant, flexible, / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness is called.”

This final list is wonderfully dense with insistence and implication. After wishing Sally “nothing uncustomary/ To pull you off your balance, / That, unworkable itself, / Stops all the rest from working,” Larkin adds a third word prefixed by “un”: he wants Sally’s happiness to be “Unemphasized,” strikingly suggesting that a lack can be a virtue. And the movement in the line from “unemphasized” to “enthralled” powerfully enacts the quickening, joy-bringing effects of this lack: a depleting “un-” causes an invigorating “en-.” As for the list’s first three adjectives-”skilled, / Vigilant, Flexible”-they are forcefully linked by their shared vowels and consonants, and the fact that “flexible” rhymes with “dull” invites us to consider the connection between these words: is what others may deem unexciting (dullness) really an openness to change and growth (flexibility)? Finally, “Catching of happiness” is a delightfully surprising phrase which-in another instance of the poem’s subversion of expectations-transforms infection, the “catching” of a flu, into something potentially good; you may need luck to “catch” happiness, but once you do it can take you-like a bus or a firefly you have just “caught”-on a magnificent adventure.

Perhaps a word or two should be said about the poem’s title. Read literally, it can refer to the simple fact that Sally is herself a newborn baby. It may also be an allusion to the 1950 George Cukor movie, which describes the mayhem that ensues when the shady tycoon Broderick Crawford brings the showgirl Judy Holliday to Washington-where he intends to bribe a congressman-and hires a tutor to educate her, only to find that she’s smarter than he thought and can more than hold her own amid the D.C. shenanigans, both falling in love with her tutor and ratting on her former paramour. The title’s possible evocation of an ostensible “dumb blonde” who is actually the shrewdest person in the room may be intended to make us reappraise the naiveté associated with the term “born yesterday,” just as Larkin as made us reconsider the normally derogatory “dull.” I think it’s also likely that the title supplements the second stanza’s list of desired virtues with a hint about how Sally might achieve them (and, by extension, how we all might achieve them): by cherishing fresh starts as well as certain traits of character that enable us to feel we were “born yesterday,” open to anything, even if we are forty or sixty or eighty years old. (Tragically, it should be noted, Sally Amis died in 2000, at the age of 46.)

In its emphasis on fresh starts, “Born Yesterday” recalls, or rather prefigures, two later Larkin poems, “Water” and “The Trees,” and I’ll hazard a guess that the earlier poem allowed Larkin to test out the very ideas of unorthodox baptism, of being born into happiness every day, which made them possible. “Water” imagines a religion involving the eponymous substance in which “Going to church / Would entail a fording / To dry, different clothes”; the three quatrains of “The Trees” beautifully describe the way “recent buds relax and spread” (remember that Sally was described as a “Tightly-folded bud”), telling onlookers, “Last year is dead . . . Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

“Born Yesterday’s” peculiar but persuasive account of happiness also happens to come at a point in The Less Deceived when readers have already encountered two poems concerned with that subject. In “Coming,” Larkin’s narrator “starts to be happy” after hearing the singing of a thrush and remembering spring’s imminent arrival; in “Reasons for Attendance,” he stands outside the window of a theater where dancers are “Shifting intently . . . on the beat of happiness,” but decides that they are “not for me, nor I for them; and so / With happiness.” Coming in the wake of these two poems about how happiness is or isn’t possible only makes “Born Yesterday’s” treatment of it more moving and powerful.

These are, however, just a few of Larkin’s poems in which happiness seems to me a crucial theme, be it overt or muted; there are others. In “Solar,” Larkin praises the sun for its ability to, “unclosing like a hand . . . give forever.” In “Show Saturday,” he follows a lengthy, loving description of a yearly small-town festival with praise for this spectacle “That breaks ancestrally each year into / Regenerate union,” ending with the rapt demand, “Let it always be there.” Although, unlike the poems described so far, these two poems are not explicitly about happiness, they nonetheless describe conditions and situations in which happiness happens. And in the little known, extraordinary early poem “On Being Twenty-six,” Larkin, lamenting the withdrawal of “Talent, felicity,” wishes for the black-and-white experiential universe of the newborn for whom, both despair and ecstasy are readily accessible:

I kiss, I clutch

Like a daft mother, putrid

Infancy,

That can and will forbid

All grist to me

Except devaluing dichotomies:

Nothing, and paradise.

In these poems, happiness makes itself known in the form of a distant star; a yearly festival that, for all its charms, has little connection to the modern world; and one half of an infant’s primitive, polarized consciousness. Dazzling sunlight, recurring ritual, and “paradise” certainly sound desirable, but I will confess a hopeless preference for the happiness described in “Born Yesterday,” whose eloquent, hopeful zeal for fresh starts and luminous praise of the ordinary feel like Larkin’s attempt to formulate an even more rewarding and plausible version of happiness, and thereby to counter the problems-the passing of time, the difficulties of human relations-that so many of his poems bemoan. In “Born Yesterday,” Larkin finds a happy medium between “Nothing and paradise,” joy’s absence and its fragile or otherworldly abundance; and if we are skilled and vigilant and flexible enough readers to pay attention to this important, quietly profound poem, we will be enthralled.

Editor’s Note: I asked Rachel for this piece last year, and I am terribly sorry that it was not published before she passed away at the end of 2009. She did, however, approve this final copy. We hope you enjoy it.[/private]

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Rachel Wetzsteon (1967 - 2009) was an American poet and critic. A life-long resident of Manhattan, she taught at Barnard College. Her books of poetry include Sakura Park (2006) and Home and Away (1998). She also wrote a book of criticism called Influential Ghosts: A Study of Auden's Sources. She held degrees from the universities of Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Columbia.

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