Wednesday 28 March 2018

Dockery and Son

On this day 55 years ago, Philip Larkin signed off on one of his relatively long poems, Dockery and Son. It is not, to put it mildly, one of his cheerier numbers, but a death-haunted affair  – Larkin, or rather his persona, even begins it 'death-suited' – and it relentlessly stresses his alienation from what most of us choose or have: family, home, companionable love. 'Visitant', 'ignored', he is even alienated from his own past. Doors are closed on him – 'the door of where I used to live', the tight-shut warped doors of 'what We think truest or most want to do'. He sees his life as the product of habit and choices made by 'something hidden from us', signifying nothing – 'Whether or not we use it, it goes', having brought with it 'age, and then the only end of age'. Sheesh, that's one potent miserabilist cocktail you've made there, Phil.
 And yet, somehow, Dockery and Son is a pleasure to read. It's beautifully made, with its simple rhyme scheme giving it shape and the mostly regular metre broken enough to make it entirely believable as interior monologue (enjambment galore helps the effect). There's nothing of the confessional splurge about this poem – there never is with Larkin; he is an artist, and he is always in control, working through a persona, however close that persona might be to the real-life Larkin in some respects (he was of course resolutely unmarried and family-free). Dockery and Son is a poised, well-wrought work of art, and that is what saves it, and makes it read as freshly today as when it was written.

‘Dockery was junior to you,
Wasn’t he?’ said the Dean. ‘His son’s here now.’   
Death-suited, visitant, I nod. ‘And do
You keep in touch with—’ Or remember how   
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight   
We used to stand before that desk, to give   
‘Our version’ of ‘these incidents last night’?   
I try the door of where I used to live:

Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.
A known bell chimes. I catch my train, ignored.   
Canal and clouds and colleges subside
Slowly from view. But Dockery, good Lord,   
Anyone up today must have been born
In ’43, when I was twenty-one.
If he was younger, did he get this son
At nineteen, twenty? Was he that withdrawn

High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms
With Cartwright who was killed? Well, it just shows   
How much ... How little ... Yawning, I suppose
I fell asleep, waking at the fumes
And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed,   
And ate an awful pie, and walked along   
The platform to its end to see the ranged   
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong

Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,   
No house or land still seemed quite natural.   
Only a numbness registered the shock   
Of finding out how much had gone of life,   
How widely from the others. Dockery, now:   
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of ... No, that’s not the difference: rather, how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution. Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what   
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style   
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got

And how we got it; looked back on, they rear   
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying   
For Dockery a son, for me nothing,
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.   
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,   
And age, and then the only end of age.

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