Our Girl in Chicago, Laura Demanski, has roused me from my torpor by asking for an interpretation of Philip Larkin’s Spring. She might want to quote the whole sonnet instead of its last six lines. Fourteen consecutive lines of verse will probably not tax most readers unduly. Larkin was an accomplished and rigorous editor of his own poems, and if he had wanted the octet omitted he might have thought to do so himself.
Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings,
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.
Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth’s most multiple, excited daughter;
And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.
The last three words baffle Laura; we will come to them presently. She cites a “reading” of the poem (which also quotes it only in part) that sheds no light on them.
I’d read lots of odes to Spring in my time but none that contained his piquant blend of lyricism and discontent. How often had I not felt that nature was doing its beautiful best but that my mood or circumstances simply didn’t match it? All of us must, at some time, have felt out of harmony with nature. The line ‘And those she has least use for see her best’ acknowledges the paradox that if one’s life were on a par with all that Spring represents, Spring would not be noticeable except as an accompaniment to one’s own blossoming. We see it so clearly because the contrast with our own state is so marked.
This is less a reading than a view from 10,000 feet, and none too clear at that. The theme of Spring is the radical discontinuity between conscious and subconscious or unconscious life, to which a phrase like “if one’s life were on a par with all that Spring represents” scarcely does justice. The poem is not a description of an unspringlike “mood,” and the “contrast with [his] own state” is incidental. The poet sees spring clearly because he possesses intellect, which is “indigestible,” sterile, unnatural. It is the subject of the poem, although the word never appears. Thinking humans feel “out of harmony with nature” because they are out of harmony with nature.
The theme is not original with Larkin. One finds it in many of the tougher poets — in Emily Dickinson (What mystery pervades a well), in Tristan CorbiÃ¨re (La Rapsode Foraine et la Pardon de Sainte-Anne: “L’innocent est prÃ¨s du ciel”), and in Yvor Winters (A Summer Commentary), among others.
The details in the octet are carefully managed. Nothing is at eye level. Larkin starts on the ground, with people sitting, walking, fingering the grass. “Walk in rings” is literally what people do in parks; it also connotes aimlessness, subconsciousness, mere existence. In the third line the poet shifts his attention upward, to the “calmly” standing cloud and singing bird. The adverb is chosen advisedly: their calm is the calm of belonging, as he himself, in his “pursed-up way,” does not. The light of the sun in the fifth line directs one’s attention to the ground again, to the bouncing balls and barking dogs, and then suddenly we encounter the striking “branch-arrested mist of leaf,” as if the poet were looking upside-down at the tree, growing out of the sky, leaves first, instead of the ground. With all of this back-and-forth between earth and sky, “threading,” in line seven, becomes peculiarly apt.
Lines nine through eleven, with their “piquant” description of the season, have made the poem famous. Such piquancy as they have arises from their continuation of the theme. Spring is “gratuitous” in both the primary and secondary senses. It spawns life — excited, multiple — in a way no other season does, for nothing, gratuitously. (The container, spring, is “excited,” while the contained, the cloud and the bird, are calm.) At the same time, for the poet, spring is also gratuitous, unnecessary — just grist for the conscious mill. “Untaught flower” emphasizes, again, the unbridgeable barrier between thought and not-thought.
In his summary Larkin ironically chooses another nature metaphor, “mountain-clear,” to describe his apartness from nature. One never breaks away entirely. The poet walks in the park too. By now the “immodest needs” should be clear. Spring, for him, will not suffice: it is not enough to breathe and bark and sing and caper. His vocabulary is equally immodest: he treads — threads — “circuitous paths”; those whom the season “has use for” merely walk in rings. Larkin finds this conclusion too grandiose for the feeling of the poem, and he undercuts it with a rhythmic trick. The last line has eleven syllables and rhymes on its feminine ending, giving the impression of trailing off in a mumble. Immodesty, put as modestly as possible.
Update: Laura is not a dullard. She has written a vast deal of entertaining and informative prose, which is not what dullards do. One does not suddenly become a dullard by failing to quote the octet.