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Philip Larkin

  • Absences
  • Next, please
  • The Trees
  • Aubade
  • Annus Mirabilis
  • High Windows
  • Days
  • Since the majority of me
  • Wires
  • Toads
  • Toads Revisited
  • This Be The Verse
  • Wild Oats
  • Talking in Bed
  • The Witsun Weddings
  • Love Songs in Age
  • Long Sight in Age
  • Autobiography at an Air-Station



            ABSENCES

    Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
    Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
    Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
    A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
    Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
    Where there are no ships and no shallows.
    Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
    Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
    They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.
    Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!

    1950

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            NEXT, PLEASE

    Always too eager for the future, we
    Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
    Something is always approaching; every day
    Till then we say,

    Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,
    Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
    How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
    Refusing to make haste!

    Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
    Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
    Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
    Each rope distinct,

    Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
    Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s
    No sooner present than it turns to past.
    Right to the last

    We think each one will heave to and unload
    All goods into our lives, all we are owed
    For waiting so devoutly and so long.
    But we are wrong:

    Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
    Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
    A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
    No waters breed or brake.

    1951

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            THE TREES

    The trees are coming into leaf
    Like something almost being said;
    The recent buds relax and spread,
    Their greenness is a kind of grief.

    Is it that they are born again
    And we grow old? No, they die too,
    Their yearly trick of looking new
    Is written down in rings of grain.

    Yet still the unresting castles thresh
    In fullgrown thickness every May.
    Last year is dead, they seem to say,
    Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

    1967

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                 AUBADE

    I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
    Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
    In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
    Till then I see what’s really always there:
    Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
    Making all thought impossible but how
    And where and when I shall myself die.
    Arid interrogation: yet the dread
    Of dying, and being dead,
    Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

    The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse —
    The good not done, the love not given, time
    Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
    An only life can take so long to climb
    Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
    But at the total emptiness for ever,
    The sure extinction that we travel to
    And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
    Not to be anywhere,
    And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die,
    And specious stuff that says No rational being
    Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
    That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
    The anaesthetic from which none come round.

    And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
    A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
    That slows each impulse down to indecision.
    Most things may never happen: this one will,
    And realisation of it rages out
    In furnace-fear when we are caught without
    People or drink. Courage is no good:
    It means not scaring others. Being brave
    Lets no one off the grave.
    Death is no different whined at than withstood.

    Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
    It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
    Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
    Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
    Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
    In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
    Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
    The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
    Work has to be done.
    Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

    1977

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    ANNUS MIRABILIS

    Sexual intercourse began
    In nineteen sixty-three
    (which was rather late for me) -
    Between the end of the Chatterley ban
    And the Beatles' first LP.

    Up to then there'd only been
    A sort of bargaining,
    A wrangle for the ring,
    A shame that started at sixteen
    And spread to everything.

    Then all at once the quarrel sank:
    Everyone felt the same,
    And every life became
    A brilliant breaking of the bank,
    A quite unlosable game.

    So life was never better than
    In nineteen sixty-three
    (Though just too late for me) -
    Between the end of the Chatterley ban
    And the Beatles' first LP.

    1967

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        HIGH WINDOWS

    When I see a couple of kids
    And guess he's fucking her and she's
    Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
    I know this is paradise

    Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives-
    Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
    Like an outdated combine harvester,
    And everyone young going down the long slide

    To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
    Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
    And thought, That'll be the life;
    No God any more, or sweating in the dark

    About hell and that, or having to hide
    What you think of the priest. He
    And his lot will all go down the long slide
    Like free bloody birds. And immediately

    Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
    The sun-comprehending glass,
    And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
    Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

    1967

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        DAYS

    What are days for?
    Days are where we live.
    They come, they wake us
    Time and time over.
    They are to be happy in:
    Where can we live but days?

    Ah, solving that question
    Brings the priest and the doctor
    In their long coats
    Running over the fields.

    1953

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    SINCE THE MAJORITY OF ME

    Since the majority of me
    Rejects the majority of you,
    Debating ends forwith, and we
    Divide. And sure of what to do

    We disinfect new blocks of days
    For our majorities to rent
    With unshared friends and unwalked ways,
    But silence too is eloquent:

    A silence of minorities
    That, unopposed at last, return
    Each night with cancelled promises
    They want renewed. They never learn.

    1950

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          WIRES

    The widest prairies have electric fences,
    For though old cattle know they must not stray
    Young steers are always scenting purer water
    Not here but anywhere. Beyond the wires

    Leads them to blunder up against the wires
    Whose muscle-shredding violence gives no quarter.
    Young steers become old cattle from that day,
    Electric limits to their widest senses.

    1950

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          TOADS

    Why should I let the toad work
        Squat on my life?
    Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
        And drive the brute off?

    Six days of the week it soils
        With its sickening poison -
    Just for paying a few bills!
        That's out of proportion.

    Lots of folk live on their wits:
        Lecturers, lispers,
    Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
        They don't end as paupers;

    Lots of folk live up lanes
        With fires in a bucket,
    Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
        They seem to like it.

    Their nippers have got bare feet,
        Their unspeakable wives
    Are skinny as whippets - and yet
        No one actually starves.

    Ah, were I courageous enough
        To shout Stuff your pension!
    But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
        That dreams are made on:

    For something sufficiently toad-like
        Squats in me, too;
    Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
        And cold as snow,

    And will never allow me to blarney
        My way of getting
    The fame and the girl and the money
        All at one sitting.

    I don't say, one bodies the other
        One's spiritual truth;
    But I do say it's hard to lose either,
        When you have both.

    1954

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    TOADS REVISITED

    Walking around in the park
    Should feel better than work:
    The lake, the sunshine,
    The grass to lie on,

    Blurred playground noises
    Beyond black-stockinged nurses -
    Not a bad place to be.
    Yet it doesn't suit me.

    Being one of the men
    You meet of an afternoon:
    Palsied old step-takers,
    Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,

    Waxed-fleshed out-patients
    Still vague from accidents,
    And characters in long coats
    Deep in the litter-baskets -

    All dodging the toad work
    By being stupid or weak.
    Think of being them!
    Hearing the hours chime,

    Watching the bread delivered,
    The sun by clouds covered,
    The children going home;
    Think of being them,

    Turning over their failures
    By some bed of lobelias,
    Nowhere to go but indoors,
    Nor friends but empty chairs -

    No, give me my in-tray,
    My loaf-haired secretary,
    My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
    What else can I answer,

    When the lights come on at four
    At the end of another year?
    Give me your arm, old toad;
    Help me down Cemetery Road.

    1962

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    THIS BE THE VERSE

    They fuck you up, your mom and dad
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another's throats.
    Man hands on misery to man
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can
    And don't have any kids yourself.

    1971

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    WILD OATS

    About twenty years ago
    Two girls came in where I worked -
    A bosomy English rose
    And her friend in specs I could talk to.
    Faces in those days sparked
    The whole shooting-match off, and I doubt
    If ever one had like hers:
    But it was the friend I took out,

    And in seven years after that
    Wrote over four hundred letters,
    Gave a ten-guinea ring
    I got back in the end, and met
    At numerous cathedral cities
    Unknown to the clergy. I believe
    I met beautiful twice. She was trying
    Both times (so I thought) not to laugh.

    Parting, after about five
    Rehearsals, was an agreement
    That I was too selfish, withdrawn
    And easily bored to love.
    Well, useful to get that learnt,
    In my wallet are still two snaps,
    Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.
    Unlucky charms, perhaps.

    1962

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    TALKING IN BED

    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.

    1960

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    THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS

    That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
    One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
    Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
    All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
    Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
    Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
    Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
    The river's level drifting breadth began,
    Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

    All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
    For miles inland,
    A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
    Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
    Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
    A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
    And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
    Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
    Until the next town, new and nondescript,
    Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

    At first, I didn't notice what a noise
    The weddings made
    Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
    The interest of what's happening in the shade,
    And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
    I took for porters larking with the mails,
    And went on reading. Once we started, though,
    We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
    In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
    All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

    As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
    To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
    More promptly out next time, more curiously,
    And saw it all again in different terms:
    The fathers with broad belts under their suits
    And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
    An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
    The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
    The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

    Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
    Yes, from cafés
    And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
    Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
    Were coming to an end. All down the line
    Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
    The last confetti and advice were thrown,
    And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
    Just what it saw departing: children frowned
    At something dull; fathers had never known

    Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
    The secret like a happy funeral;
    While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
    At a religious wounding. Free at last,
    And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
    We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
    Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
    Long shadows over major roads, and for
    Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

    Just long enough to settle hats and say
    I nearly died,
    A dozen marriages got under way.
    They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
    - An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
    And someone running up to bowl - and none
    Thought of the others they would never meet
    Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
    I thought of London spread out in the sun,
    Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

    There we were aimed. And as we raced across
    Bright knots of rail
    Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
    Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
    Travelling coincidence; and what it held
    stood ready to be loosed with all the power
    That being changed can give. We slowed again,
    And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
    A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
    Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

    1958

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    LOVE SONGS IN AGE

    She kept her songs, they took so little space,
    The covers pleased her:
    One bleached from lying in a sunny place,
    One marked in circles by a vase of water,
    One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,
    And coloured, by her daughter -
    So they had waited, till in widowhood
    She found them, looking for something else, and stood

    Relearning how each frank submissive chord
    Had ushered in
    Word after sprawling hyphenated word,
    And the unfailing sense of being young
    Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein
    That hidden freshness, sung,
    That certainty of time laid up in store
    As when she played them first. But, even more,

    The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,
    Broke out, to show
    Its bright incipience sailing above,
    Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
    And set unchangeably in order. So
    To pile them back, to cry,
    Was hard, without lamely admitting how
    It had not done so then, and could not now.

    1957

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    LONG SIGHT IN AGE

    They say eyes clear with age,
    As dew clarifies air
    To sharpen evenings,
    As if time put an edge
    Round the last shape of things
    To show them there;
    The many-levelled trees,
    The long soft tides of grass
    Wrinkling away the gold
    Wind-ridden waves- all these,
    They say, come back to focus
    As we grow old.

    1955

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    AUTOBIOGRAPHY AT AN AIR-STATION

    Delay, well, travellers must expect
    Delay. For how long? No one seems to know.
    With all the luggage weighed, the tickets checked,
    It can't be long… We amble to and fro,
    Sit in steel chairs, buy cigarettes and sweets
    And tea, unfold the papers. Ought we to smile,
    Perhaps make friends? No: in the race for seats
    You're best alone. Friendship is not worth while.

    Six hours pass: if I'd gone by boat last night
    I'd be there now. Well, it's too late for that.
    The kiosk girl is yawning. I fell stale,
    Stupified, by inaction - and, as light
    Begins to ebb outside, by fear, I set
    So much on this Assumption. Now it's failed.

    1953

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