Thursday 11 March 2021

Larkin on Success/Failure

 On this day in 1954, Philip Larkin wrote a curious poem about success, or rather failure –

Success Story

To fail (transitive and intransitive)
I find to mean be missing, disappoint,
Or not succeed in the attainment of
(As in this case, f. to do what I want);
They trace it from the Latin to deceive...

Yes. But it wasn't that I played unfair:
Under fourteen, I sent in six words
My Chief Ambition to the Editor
With the signed promise about afterwards –
I undertake rigidly to forswear

The diet of this world, all rich game
And fat forbidding fruit, go by the board
Until –
But that until has never come,
And I am starving where I always did.
Time to fall to, I fancy: long past time.

The explanation goes like this, in daylight:
To be ambitious is to fall in love
With a particular life you haven't got
And (since love picks your opposite) won't achieve.
That's clear as day. But come back late at night,

You'll hear a curious counter-whispering:
Success, it says, you've scored a great success.
Your wish has flowered, you've dodged the dirty feeding,
Clean past it now at hardly any price – 
Just some pretence about the other thing. 

Those quintains are cunningly structured – ababa, but all in half-rhymes. The theme of success/failure was to be a persistent one in Larkin's mature verse (though not as persistent as death, of course) and his relationship to it/them was never straightforward. It started early: here is a sonnet written five years before 'Success Story', and already failure is there at the young poet's elbow –

To Failure

You do not come dramatically, with dragons
That rear up with my life between their paws
And dash me butchered down beside the wagons,
The horses panicking; nor as a clause
Clearly set out to warn what can be lost,
What out-of-pocket charges must be borne,
Expenses met; nor as a draughty ghost
That's seen, some mornings, running down a lawn. 

It is these sunless afternoons, I find,
Instal you at my elbow like a bore.
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I'm
Aware these days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind,
They look like ruin. You have been here some time. 


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