Friday 26 October 2018

Whatever Happened?

On this day in 1953, Philip Larkin wrote (or signed off on) one of his more mysterious poems, 'Whatever Happened?'
At once whatever happened starts receding.
Panting, and back on board, we line the rail
With trousers ripped, light wallets, and lips bleeding.

Yes, gone, thank God! Remembering each detail
We toss for half the night, but find next day
All's kodak-distant. Easily, then (though pale),

'Perspective brings significance,' we say,
Unhooding our photometers, and, snap!
What can't be printed can be thrown away.

Later, it's just a latitude: the map
Points out how unavoidable it was:
'Such coastal bedding always means mishap.'

Curses? The dark? Struggling? Where's the source
Of these yarns now (except in nightmares, of course)?

The question mark in the tile is apt. Whatever could have happened to leave its victims (apparently all male) with ripped trousers, lightened wallets and bleeding lips? The references to photography suggest perhaps a shore visit on a pleasure cruise, gone horribly wrong, but 'coastal bedding' and 'mishap' suggest something closer to shipwreck (or is there a double meaning in 'bedding'?). 'What can't be printed can be thrown away' (placed at the turn of the sonnet) links photography and the writer's craft. It's a poem that won't be pinned down to any particular significations but hovers just beyond them – perhaps, as the closing line suggests, in the world of nightmares?
The tone is darkly comic, playing on the comedy of embarrassment (an English speciality). The form of the poem is interesting too – an English sonnet unusually divided into four aba triplets rather than three quatrains before the closing couplet. It's a fascinating oddity.


  1. The OED lists strata of rock as one of the meanings of "bedding". However, you should really search with Google for "coastal bedding" and see how many lines of bedclothes you find. The poem is cryptic: bleeding lips could as easily come from chapping--sun and salt--and torn trousers from stumbles over rocks as from falling during a brawl, but light wallets does suggest shore leave.

  2. Ha ha – yes I've done that Google search, with similar enlightening results. 'Coastal bedding' chimes distantly with famous lines in This Be the Verse –
    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf...