Virgin Hope

Virgin Hope
by Richard Martin Oxman

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all –”

– Emily Dickinson

“Biographies add yet another dimension of horror to Death.” – Oscar Wilde

I met the sexually tweaked, (”casual”) racist, (”easy”) misogynist, anti-union reactionary Philip Larkin soon after he first got laid, around the time he was telling people that he lost his virginity at 41

“Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.”
(from Annus Mirabilis)

Even though he truly was “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket,” with deprivation being to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth (his own take), he was delightful on that summer day.

And I must say that — political correctness and consciousness considerations aside — I love a select portion of his poetry. I actually LOVE a couple at the moment, and have for some time. Would LOVE one… even if Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Obama had collaborated to create it. That gem was first published as “At First” in the Times Educational Supplement, July 13, 1956. For me, it seemed. Seven years before Larkin — as they say – lost his cherry. Which just happened to be around my time.

Do I detect a little serendipity midst all this crude language? [Pause.] Seriously, I think — with all this whatever — I am preparing the reader for the amazing divergence between Philip’s private HELL and the incomparable BEAUTY of “First Sight.” To, in part, underscore how art rises above that which we live. So that we can live with worthwhile heartbeats. [Pause.] Barely. [Pause.] As he knew. [Really knew 'cause he lived long enough.]

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasureable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow

Why isn’t that considered one of the great poems in English literature? The Larkin Society doesn’t even rate it very high among his life’s work. [Pause.] Once again, I am baffled.

Why isn’t that kind of HOPE what people are embracing?

Contact Richard at tosca.2010[at]


I just received the following from a member of The Larkin Society, responding to my question about why “First Sight” wasn’t valued more.

“It is very fine, but it is as close to being sentimental as Larkin gets, and it doesn’t have quite the complexity of form and emotion of longer poems like ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘Here’, nor even of shorter ones such as ‘Talking in Bed’ or ‘The Trees’. I suppose that is why it isn’t singled out more often.”

I think I’m going to reply with the following:

Thanks. But… my impression was that Larkin didn’t have a sentimental bone in his body. And I should think that Larkin lovers would jump all over a work which has such a positive — I wouldn’t use the word sentimental — outlook on life… what with his clear reputation for having married Deprivation. He certainly wasn’t putting on some kind of commercial cloak with First Sight, was he? I mean, it’s terribly penetrating to witness him (of all people) embracing the Mystery of Life in the way in which he delineates… hope being justified. It is a beautifully crafted (inspired!) paean to eternal Spring, is it not? My understanding is that Larkin did not value complexity above relative simplicity in principle. I think that many of those who have kept his legacy alive are — perhaps — too tied to complexity for complexity’s sake, luxuriating in spotlighting his most inaccesible work. That said, I find certain phrases incredibly intricate. I greatly appreciate your responding, and I trust that you won’t take offense at… my take. I do like the poems you cite. In fact, at (”Unresting Castles”), I make a whole big deal out of The Trees. On the emotion packed into the poem… well, I guess all I can say is that having taught comparative literature for over four decades… having dwelled with poetry repeatedly at three o’clock in the morning… the whole shebang resonated with me more than most works I’ve spent extensive heartbeats on. It moved me to want to build something beautiful like what the father does at the very end of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.

Something like that.

Note: tm offers a different take on Larkin than what I opened with above.