Each week, Rufus brings you a poem along with his thoughts on it. This week, he looks at The Winter Palace, by Phillip Larkin.
The Winter Palace, Philip Larkin
Most people know more as they get older:
I give all that the cold shoulder.
I spent my second quarter-century
Losing what I had learnt at university.
And refusing to take in what had happened since.
Now I know none of the names in the public prints,
And am starting to give offence by forgetting faces
And swearing I’ve never been in certain places.
It will be worth it, if in the end I manage
To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage.
Then there will be nothing I know.
My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.
I’m reminded of an angry note I found in the margin of my library’s The Whitsun Weddings, a Larkin collection. It said nine out of ten of his poems were dull but there’d be the one that would change everything. A line that’d floor you. While I contest the jab about dullness, they were spot-on about the power of Larkin’s lines. This week’s poem illustrates my point.
It feels like there’s less and less to look forward to about getting older, both as an individual and as one in a generation that’s spoilt for choice of imminent, world-ending catastrophes. Larkin, the master of the melancholy, reassures us we aren’t alone in our pessimism: previous generations have felt equally as miserable about aging. In fact, the ignorance, forgetfulness and isolation of old age should be welcomed, not shaken off! It might rob life of its joys but it takes the fears away with it too.
There’s comfort to be found in Larkin’s bleak but candid acceptance of aging. It’s cold comfort, sure, but there’s something nice about company, especially if it’s in the face of something scary. Though company can’t dissipate our fears, it can, as Larkin’s poem does, give us the courage to face them.