Friday 5 April 2019

Philip Larkin's Skin

On this day 65 years ago, Philip Larkin wrote (or signed off on) this short and far from cheering poem...


Obedient daily dress,
You cannot always keep
That unfakable young surface.
You must learn your lines –
Anger, amusement, sleep;
Those few forbidding signs

Of the continuous coarse
Sand-laden wind, time;
You must thicken, work loose
Into an old bag
Carrying a soiled name.
Parch then; be roughened; sag;

And pardon me, that I
Could find, when you were new,
No brash festivity
To wear you at, such as
Clothes are entitled to
Till the fashion changes.

It's a cleverly constructed piece of work (of course), wearing its abacbc rhyme scheme more lightly with each stanza, blurring into half-rhymes and enjambment in the last. The image of time as 'the continuous coarse sand-laden wind' is especially good.
It's a bit of a shock to realise that Larkin was only 31 when he wrote so feelingly about the dermal ravages of age and looked back so regretfully on the lost opportunities of youth. No doubt his skincare regime was minimal, but his hide can't have been very far advanced along the road he describes so unblinkingly. Andrew Motion reports that, on first shaking the poet's hand, he found his skin 'rather moist', but perhaps Larkin was stricken with nerves on meeting a literary titan of Motion's stature.
In the spring of 1954 Larkin was on something of a creative roll. A couple of weeks before Skin, he'd written the justly famous Toads – and the day after Skin he wrote the brilliant Water
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

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