Sharp­ened Light: On Larkin’s “Sad Steps”

New England Review - - Reader's Notebook - Je­hanne Dubrow

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,

blow

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

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