Thursday 31 August 2017

The Poet Pours Himself a Drink

The greatest description in all literature of the mixing of a G&T is surely the first six lines of Philip Larkin's Sympathy in White Major, written (or signed off) on this day 50 years ago...

When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
And let a ten-ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge,
I lift the lot in private pledge:
He devoted his life to others.

While other people wore like clothes
The human beings in their days
I set myself to bring to those
Who thought I could the lost displays;
It didn't work for them or me,
But all concerned were nearer thus
(Or so we thought) to all the fuss
Than if we' d missed it separately.

A decent chap, a real good sort,
Straight as a die, one of the best,
A brick, a trump, a proper sport,
Head and shoulders above the rest;
How many Iives would have been duller
Had he not been here below?
Here' s to the whitest man I know -

Though white is not my favourite colour.

It's a rather strange poem, the clarity and plain speaking of the two outer stanzas contrasting with the more elliptical and meditative second stanza. Like Self's The Man, the poem ponders one of Larkin's recurrent themes - selfishness and selflessness. Specifically, whether the life Larkin leads is especially selfish and whether others, who appear more selfless, truly are.
 For extraneous reasons - Larkin's posthumous reputation as a 'racist' - the last two lines read oddly now, but back in 1967, of course, 'white' could be used unblushingly as a synonym for decent, honest and upright. As for the synaesthetic title, this is adapted from Gautier's Symbolist poem Symphonie en Blanc Majeur - a poem with which Larkin's has nothing else in common.

1 comment:

  1. I had never heard of Gautier, but now that I have, just let me say he outdoes Lark in every way. His verse may be somewhat less profound, but at least it has a rhyming sound. And far as I can see the Brit was knocking out this stuff thinking a couple of verses would be enough. The Frog - not only is he more pensive, on a matter of more import than drink, but his line-age is more extensive, and as he muses he makes his reader think. I don't want to diss a British poet, but he's been upstaged - and I think we all know it. Still, I agree, nobody like Larkin to write about G and T.