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Jun 18, 2011

Church Going

Some Questions with Answers
  1. Answering bigger and smaller questions—for example, why is the air “blent”?
  2. Who is recognizing “our compulsions”?
  3. And why are they “robed as destinies”?
  4. And by whom are they robed? And to what is “that” referring in the line “that much can never be obsolete”?
  5. The final two lines baffle as well.
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

1) The air is blended in the sense that it holds, in solution, a mixture of smells and associations (see stanza five). But why “blent”? Why such an archaic, literary word? At the very beginning of the poem, when the speaker walks into the church, he finds a “tense, musty, unignorable silence / Brewed God knows how long.” (Get it, God knows?) By the end of the poem, that defensive, jokey tone is gone. The speaker is trying to make his language live up to the dignity he sees in the church. That’s how it strikes me, anyway.

(Here and throughout, Larkin makes a big deal of the church as container. He starts off by wondering about the roof, how old it is and whether it’s in good repair. He associates the end of “superstition” with the caving-in of the roof, when all that’s left is “Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky.” He calls the church a “special shell,” and so on.)

2) Who is recognizing our compulsions? Yes. Exactly. I think this question goes straight to the heart of the poem. If there is no one in the church (no God, no clergy, no belief, no superstition), then there is no one to recognize our compulsions. There is no one to call them sins and forgive them. No one to take them seriously. No promise that we will be rewarded or punished for what we do or given a “destiny” that is special to ourselves.

3) Why “robed”? We tend to think of robes as royal or ceremonial garments and as symbols of redemption: “Lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9-10). To take our compulsions (a quasimedical term borrowed from psychiatry) and robe them as destinies is to ... well, you can decide what that might mean, no?

4) By “that much,” I think Larkin means the feeling that the church is “a serious house on serious earth.” In the last lines of the poem he tries to explain this feeling—or at least say where it comes from.

Again, these are just places you might start. My next question would probably have to do with the tone of that last stanza. Is there something not quite serious about that line “A serious house on serious earth it is”? Is there something wishful, and ironic, about “blent”? And so on. Another reader might ask how much the last lines had to do with churches and how much with poems about churches. Both readers would be asking questions, not just about what’s on the page, but about their own biases and interests and ... compulsions.

So, as for your most general question—how to read poetry well—I have no idea, except to pay attention to the specific words on the page, and the implied tone of voice, and to think about what you read. Just what you’re doing. It sounds childish to say, but one thing I like about poems is that you are allowed to stare at them, and think about them, for as long as you like. In this sense, they resemble slow movies, or portraits, or nudes, or most of what we think of as art: poems give you permission to pay attention to a degree that would be rude or embarrassing face to face with, for example, a person.

Jun 7, 2011

The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea was an enormous success for Ernest Hemingway when it was published in 1952. At first glance, the story appears to be an extremely simple story of an old Cuban fisherman (Santiago), who catches an enormously large fish then loses it again. But, there's much more to the story than that...The Old Man and the Sea helped to revive Hemingway's reputation as a writer of great acclaim. This slim volume also contributed enormously to Hemingway's recognition as a world-renowned writer--with the award of the Nobel Prize for literature. The popular reception of the novel comes from its part-parable, part-eulogy style--recollecting a by-gone age in this spiritual quest for discovery. Touching and powerful in turns, the story is told in Hemingway's simple, brittle style. The book reaches out to a very human need--for stability and certainty.

Jun 1, 2011

The Bhagavad-Gita

Perhaps the most profound text in the canon of Hindu literature is "The Bhagavad-Gita," a sacred text, which most translators call "Song of the Lord." It's a philosophical discourse between a warrior named Arjuna and the god Krishna.

The Bhagavad-Gita
"The Bhagavad-Gita" belongs to the sixth book of a martial epic, known as "Mahabharata," and "The Bhagavad-Gita" stands out as the most popular narrative of the entire collection. Divided into 18 teachings, the text begins on a battlefield, where Arjuna expresses pity at the prospect of battling his kinsmen and friends. He pleads with his charioteer Krishna for insight on proper conduct; and this is where the philosophical rapport begins and the divine mentor patiently relates the secrets of equanimity.
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