Sharpened Light: On Larkin’s “Sad Steps”
It's before midnight and, for nearly ten minutes now, the dog has been sitting in the middle of the living room floor. He has been watching me, sometimes shifting from one front paw to the other. This can mean only one thing: time for a pee.
Outside, the grass is damp. From the dying tree on the front lawn, I hear the dry-leaf whisper of bats' wings. And over to the left, where the street curves into a proper hill and the neighbors' roofs carve a clear space in the sky, there hangs a moon. The evening news has called it “blue,” the second full moon of the month.
How big the moon is tonight, how seemingly ready for description. It's positioned in my view, as if to say, say something new about me.
That seems to be a reason for the moon, doesn't it? Its reflected light, its varied faces, the pull it exerts on bodies—all demand literary representation. I think of Dickinson's moon: “The moon is distant from the Sea— / And yet, with Amber Hands— / She leads Him—docile as a Boy— / Along appointed Sands—.” Or Shelley's, “Wandering companionless.” Or Shakespeare's: “That monthly changes in her circled orb” ( Romeo and Juliet). In Marvin Bell's “White Clover,” the moon is mirrored on suburban lawns as hundreds of “moons on long stems.” And in Dorianne Laux's “Facts About the Moon,” the moon is a mother who loves her bad son, no matter that he's “a leech, a fuckup, / a little shit.” The moon becomes whatever the poet needs it to be, reflecting—as is its way—emotions like some cosmic, Freudian projection.
Last summer, I spent all of July and August trying to memorize “Sad Steps,” Philip Larkin's poem about the moon. No, I should say that I spent two months trying to forget “Sad Steps” in order to have reason to memorize it. It's only eighteen lines long; I knew the poem after a few repetitions. But then, I would make myself forget the text so that I could study it again the next day.
Memorization seemed like an important thing to do at the time. I was thirty-five and felt very old all of a sudden, my six-year marriage cracked in a way that would take the next year to unbreak. Larkin: the only person unhappier than I was. And older. My recitations of “Sad Steps” were a dialogue. Nightly, I walked the dog around the perimeter of the yard and practiced my lines. If I learned the poem well enough, I might understand why I was as alone as the speaker in “Sad Steps,” a man who stumbles from the bathroom in the middle
Larkin rejects the conceit of fellowship between the human and the lunar while also critiquing the notion that the moon is divine. The poet neither personifies nor deifies the moon. Larkin's moon is modern, distant. It stands apart, not only from contact with human beings but also from direct interactions with other shapes in the night's sky.
If “Sad Steps” alludes to the Renaissance and to the Romantic Period—or, more generally put, to a classical, elevated treatment of its subject matter—then Larkin undoes any expectation of decorum with the low diction in the poem's opening line: “Groping back to bed after a piss.” This is a conversational literary conversation. The speaker doesn't fumble in the dark room but gropes, a verb that suggests blundering, inept sexual advances. He is middle-aged, awake at 4 a.m., apparently suffering from a prostate problem, the same urgency that no doubt woke him at midnight and earlier at 9 p.m., when perhaps he first nodded off while reading, an opened book tented in his lap.
But something stops the speaker on his way to bed. He “parts thick curtains” and is “startled by / The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.” Half-awake, the man observes textures more than he takes in the whole effect of the scene. Larkin describes the drapes as “thick,” resistant to movement. In contrast to the heavy curtains, the moon is clean, the clouds “rapid.” The places used by human bodies are low—sites in which to grope or to “piss”—while the spaces occupied by celestial bodies have been swept clean.
“Piss” and “cleanliness” are the first of several important slant rhymes in the poem. Another comes in the fourth stanza, when Larkin links “separate” with “art,” and in the last stanza when he pairs “pain” with “again.” Larkin also makes use of masculine rhyme, so that the poem swings between a slanted, contemporary music and something a little more expected, even traditional. And, although “Sad Steps” is broken visually into six tercets of iambic pentameter, the rhyme scheme couples the tercets—on an aural level—to form three sestets: ababba cdcddc efeffe. The effect is one of simultaneous division and connection. The window ensures that the speaker remains separate from the moon, that most detached of objects. But, through the transparency of glass, the moon continues to exert a force on the speaker.
We can track the narrative of “Sad Steps” by reading along the text's righthand margin. The end rhymes provide a gloss of the poem:
piss by cleanliness.
lie sky, this,
High and preposterous and separate— Lozenge of love! Medallion of art! O wolves of memory! Immensements! If the sentence were simplified and turned to prose, we would read it as, “There's something laughable about the way the moon stands apart, high and preposterous and separate.” Instead, Larkin gives us rapid shifts in diction, surprising metaphor and imagery, a large number of adjectives, and finally those four interjections. It's a mouthful.
The delayed syntax reveals the speaker's emotional state; although he wishes to speak clinically and critically about the moon, he is distracted by its lyricism. He wants to deride the moon for how it chooses “to stand apart . . . high and preposterous and separate.” Instead, he interrupts his own flat declaration with observations about the clouds, which suddenly look ominous and premonitory, scattered like “cannon-smoke” across the sky. The moonlight has become hard as a whetstone, its purpose to sharpen “the roofs below.”
The speaker has succumbed (temporarily) to the old, lunar poetries. His only recourse can be satire, a send-up of all the moonish poems that have come before. “Lozenge of love! Medallion of art! / O wolves of memory! Immensements!” In these four exclamations, Larkin more or less summarizes a whole history of the genre: the moon as love in its most concentrated form; the moon as art-object, as howling wildness, and as embodiment of all vast objects, big ideas (ideas so huge they seem to demand the invention of words like “immensements”). These lines are humorous yet compelling; a modern may wish to mock the moon but find himself seduced by its beauty and size nonetheless.
“Sad Steps”—as the title indicates—engages in movement. Larkin has walked us from the toilet to the bedroom window. He has asked us to see the moon first as metaphor and then as literary trope. Now, at the end of the fourth stanza, he travels back to the conversational voice that opened the poem. “No,” he says, rejecting the lozenge and the medallion and the wolves. The stanza stands very still, as we wait to learn where the speaker will lead us next.
“No, // One shivers slightly, looking up there.” Although the poem began in first person singular, Larkin now switches to the formality of the indefinite pronoun “one.” The moon stands apart, and so must the speaker if he intends to maintain his detachment. He shivers because the moon isn't human and doesn't share in his loneliness.
There comes a moment—maybe 4 a.m., maybe in the sixth year of a marriage—when one must regard the scene unblinkingly. For the speaker in “Sad Steps,” this is the moment when he eyes the moon, and it returns his look, hard and bright and all-seeing. Now we understand the mistake of Sidney's sonnet. The moon has a face that almost implies fellowship, its craters like eyes and a mouth. But “the plain / Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare” resembles the human gaze only enough to suggest the uncanny, which simultaneously attracts and repulses the speaker.
Through its exploration of the loneliness of aging, “Sad Steps” functions as