In this contest between Sir John Suckling’s 400 year old poem, “If You Refuse Me Once,” and Philip Larkin’s 60 year old poem, “Talking In Bed,” the interest lies not only in looking back at two eras of poetry (English Renaissance, English Modern) but two eras of love.
It is yet fashionable to think of old poetry and modern poetry as very different; the bomb of revolutionary modernism that went off in 1910 is still showering its debris.
We like to think that very soon this is going to change, and Letters and life will truly reflect and enhance each other once again.
Modern poetry has thought to reflect life by showing everything in the mirror (poem) but with the fading of poetry’s popularity, we are finding that mere reflection does not enhance. The moderns freed up poetry to reflect everything and anything, and nothing could be more simplistic and straightforward: the more things you can put in poetry, the better, right?
Careful. How you answer that question could destroy you as a poet. Because poetry is about to change.
Letters is enhanced by life, and life, by Letters, in a more unique and complex manner than previously thought.
Using Letters as a dumping ground does not make Letters reflect life better, and we should always be making Letters able to reflect life better, and not simply seeking to have it reflect as much of life as possible.
Modern poetry congratulated itself on this simple ability: poetry shall reflect as much of life as possible. But it’s not that simple.
This is the sole reason why rhyme and meter were chucked by modern poetry. This is modern poetry’s sole raison d’etre: reflect as much of life as possible. “More is better,” as the dry-humored man in the A.T.T. commercials, sitting at a little table with the grade school children, currently says on TV.
The most significant change in poetry in the last 500 years has been both in form and content, but formal concerns are insignificant compared to content, simply because poetry has become prose and is still classified as poetry, and this practical truth trumps all other objections, no matter how much the formalist poet may protest.
You want rhyme? Go to popular song.
But this is not an argument against formalism in poetry; we seek merely to look at the whole issue of old and new as truthfully as possible. We hope our larger net will feature a catch that will in the long run please the formalist, as well as everyone else. We argue for, not against.
The relationship between life and Letters is more complex than the ‘include everything’ modernist would have it.
Subject-wise, the most significant change in poetry is how love is no longer a leading feature of poetry.
Why did poetry and love coexist for hundreds of years?
Love helps Letters and life to enhance each other for several reasons that are so obvious, we may have lost sight of them for that very reason:
1. Love is a popular topic. Life and letters cannot enhance each other if Letters is the domain of the few, or merely a rote, academic pursuit.
2. Love is of universal interest precisely because it incorporates every significant aspect of human existence: behavior, desire, morals, children, judgment, pride, spirituality, beauty, manners, and rhetoric. It is from a practical standpoint not a ‘romantic’ one, that love is significant as a literary topic. To reject love as ‘romantic sentimentality’ is to reject it for ‘romantic sentimental’ reasons. No other topic comes close.
3. Since so much of past poetry involves love, to make it the prime topic of poetry again will reconnect old poetry and living poets, which will add to Letters and life mutually enhancing each other.
4. Finally, popular music was once all about love, and that’s no longer true; more & more popular music is about sex. Love needs an art form again. Who will step in?
When it comes to love and young people, the most sophisticated thing said is, “they’re going to have sex.” This may be true, but certainly there’s a world of nuance and interest that ought to go far beyond this.
From a purely social historical perspective, one can see differences in the two poems below, but this does not mean that Sir John’s poem is not valid either as a treatise on love or as a poem.
Nor does Larkin’s more cynical approach to love cancel out the fact that Larkin’s poem is a love poem.
Nor should the social historical approach to poetry, or any approach to poetry, which finds moral or other differences between love old and new, invalidate the love poem as poetry.
Why should modern, gizmo poetry be considered more significant?
IF YOU REFUSE ME ONCE–Sir John Suckling
If you refuse me once, and think again,
I will complain.
You are deceiv’d, love is no work of art,
It must be got and born,
Not made and worn,
By every one that hath a heart.
Or do you think they more than once can die,
Whom you deny?
Who tell you of a thousand deaths a day,
Like the old poets feign
And tell the pain
They met, but in the common way?
Or do you think it too soon to yield,
And quit the field?
Nor is that right, they yield that first entreat;
Once one may crave for love,
But more would prove
This heart too little, that too great.
Oh that I were all soul, that I might prove
For you as fit a love
As you are for an angel; for I know,
None but pure spirits are fit loves for you.
You are all ethereal; there’s in you no dross,
Nor any part that’s gross.
Your coarsest part is like a curious lawn,
The vestal relics for a covering drawn.
Your other parts, part of the purest fire
That ever Heaven did inspire,
Makes every thought that is refined by it
A quintessence of goodness and of wit.
Thus have your raptures reached to that degree
In love’s philosophy,
That you can figure to yourself a fire
Void of all heat, a love without desire.
Nor in divinity do you go less;
You think, and you profess,
That souls may have a plenitude of joy,
Although their bodies meet not to employ.
But I must needs confess, I do not find
The motions of my mind
So purified as yet, but at the best
My body claims in them an interest.
I hold that perfect joy makes all our parts
As joyful as our hearts.
Our senses tell us, if we please not them,
Our love is but a dotage or a dream.
How shall we then agree? you may descend,
But will not, to my end.
I fain would tune my fancy to your key,
But cannot reach to that obstructed way.
There rests but this, that whilst we sorrow here,
Our bodies may draw near;
And, when no more their joys they can extend,
Then let our souls begin where they did end.
TALKING IN BED—Philip Larkin
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
This contest is too close to call…!
But someone has to win.
Suckling 99 Larkin 98
Sir John Suckling is going to the Sweet 16!